Even if you’re only tangentially aware of the bourbon world, you’ve likely heard someone whisper about “Weller” before. The bourbon brand skyrocketed to prominence — and astronomical prices — by being the “Poor man’s Pappy” about a decade ago. Today, all Weller expressions are fully allocated (only certain bars and stores get them) and the price is inflated well beyond its MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price).
But… is it actually any good? Seriously. Does Weller deserve the hype — and price hike — it recieves?
To answer that question, I’m conducting a blind taste test with bottles that are in the same league as Weller Special Reserve. Yes, I’m starting at the “bottom” of the Weller brand with their entry-level bottle and we’ll move up the ladder from there. For a little context, Weller Special Reserve is a blend of wheated bourbon barrels (from the same stocks as Pappy Van Winkle) from the famed Buffalo Trace Distillery. It’s fairly low proof, and it should cost $30 per bottle. In fact, if you’re lucky enough to visit the Buffalo Trace Distillery on the right day, you can still get it at that price there.
High-end bottle shops are going to charge two to three times more. Easily.
To that end, I picked standard bourbons in the $20 to $60 range. Each bottle has a 40 to 48 percent ABV (Weller is 45 percent ABV) to keep things in the same flavor wheelhouse — blindly tasting high proof or single barrel expressions alongside an entry-level bottle isn’t the point of this tasting. This is about bottles of equal integrity and generally similar prices.
Our lineup today is:
- Five Brothers Bourbon (KY)
- Uncle Nearest 1884 (TN)
- Bib & Tucker 6 (TN)
- Maker’s Mark (KY)
- Four Roses Bourbon (KY)
- Weller Special Reserve (KY)
- Evan Williams 1783 Small Batch (KY)
- Brothers Bond (IN)
- Ransom Bourbon (OR & IN)
- Redemption Wheated Bourbon (IN)
At the end of the day, Weller Special Reserve is a $30 bottle of bourbon. The question becomes: among $30 bourbons is it average, above average, or below average? Let’s dive in and see if anything in this bracket can beat it.
Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Bourbon Posts Of The Last Six Months
- The 50 Best Bourbon Whiskeys Of 2021, Ranked
- Every Winning Bourbon From Our 2021 Taste Tests, Blind Tasted And Re-Ranked
- The 100 Best Whiskeys Our Head Drinks Writer Tasted In 2021
- The Best Ten-Year-Old Bourbon Whiskeys, Tasted Blind And Ranked
- We Tasted Bourbon Whiskeys ‘Double-Blind’ And Tried To Guess Each Bottle
Part 1: The Tasting
This is pretty sweet on the nose with plenty of maple syrup next to pine tobacco leaves and a light sense of unpopped popcorn. The palate leans into pecan waffles with more maple syrup and butter with plenty of vanilla extract. The maple marries the tobacco near the end with a dry/sweet finish.
Butterscotch and sweet cornmeal dominate the nose with hints of pecans, butter, and dry cinnamon sticks. The taste holds into that sweet butterscotch with a vanilla creaminess counterpointed by tart green apple baked in a crumble with walnuts. Dried cherry pops near the end and drives home a finish that’s full of powdery dark chocolate and soft leather.
Leather and cedar play second fiddle to woody vanilla, apple pie filling, and a buttery caramel on the nose. The palate is a cedar box full of apple tobacco next to ginger snaps and spicy fruit compote. The finish has a note of cherry syrup and sweet oak with a hint of brown spice warmth.
Caramel apples, vanilla sauce, and sweetgrass open this up on the nose. Orchard florals and apple pie with a buttery crust drive the palate toward a slight minerality with an apple tobacco spiciness. The mid-palate minerality ebbs toward more of that apple tobacco with hints of dry sweetgrass, old leather, and cherry-infused caramel candies on the end.
Apple chips, spiced honey, mild leather, and a whisper of fennel draw you in on the nose. The palate leans into the apple alongside honeyed oats, vanilla pudding cups, cold red mulled wine, and a slight metallic vibe. The mid-palate sweetens with some brown sugar as the finish slowly fades through firewood and honey tobacco spiciness.
Cherrywood, vanilla husks, apple blossoms, and wet leather mingle on the nose. The palate has this rich cream soda vibe that leads to stewed apples with plenty of winter spices, walnuts, and dried fruits. The mid-palate hits a sweet high with a dark cherry syrup that leads into a mix of vanilla pipe tobacco and more of that cherrywood with touches of old leather and dry wicker.
Vanilla and leather dance on the nose with allspice and clove as a soft cornbread with browned butter rounds things out. The palate holds onto that butteriness with a dollop of creamy honey, more vanilla, and pancakes. The mid-palate has a soft and sweet oakiness next to nutmeg and creamy vanilla as the end ushers in dry reeds and a spicy vanilla paste.
Apple. More apple. APPLE. Seriously though, there’s a lot of apple on the nose with a candy bent with hints of vanilla, oak, and caramel supporting. The taste is the more of the same with apple candy dominating amongst hints of marzipan, caramel, and wood. The finish keeps on that apple theme with a watery edge and a small finish.
Green savory herbs and dark chocolate open the nose next to vanilla pods and citrus oils. The palate is buttery and full of vanilla with light spice. The finish has a hint of dry reeds and spice but sort of peters out.
Fresh grass, nougat, soft cedar, and vanilla beans dominate the nose. The taste has a light pepperiness countered by lime leaves, drip coffee, and a whiff of pepper-encrusted, fatty brisket from a smoker. There’s a warm southern biscuit vibe on the mid-palate that leads to more butteriness, Nutella, and very creamy vanilla on the finish.
Part 2: The Ranking
10. Brothers Bond Bourbon — Taste 8
Average Price: $38
This celebrity whiskey comes from Vampire Diaries actors Paul Wesley and Ian Somerhalder. The juice is from an “undisclosed” source but from Indiana (gotta be MGP, obviously). The mash bill is a four-grain recipe of corn, rye, wheat, and malted barley that’s aged for an undisclosed amount of time before watering it all down to 80 proof and bottling.
This was all apple. That’s fine but a little one-note. It’s also a little watery on the end, which kind of killed it for me.
9. Ransom Bourbon — Taste 9
Average Price: $38
This bourbon is a mix of Oregon craft and Indiana mastery. The juice is a four grain (66 percent corn, 23 percent rye, six percent wheat, and four percent malted barley) bourbon made from two and three-year-old barrels blended with 12-year-old barrels. That whiskey is then proofed with local Oregon water to 88 proof for bottling.
This started off so strong. Then it hit that mid-point and just kind of disappeared on the palate. I went back for another sip and found the same thing. That’s too bad as there’s a lot to like on this sip’s first half.
8. Four Roses Bourbon — Taste 5
Average Price: $19
This introductory juice from Four Roses is a blend of all ten of their whiskeys. The barrels are a minimum of five years old when they’re plucked from the warehouses, blended, brought down to proof, and bottled.
This isn’t even the cheapest bourbon on this list but it felt like a shooter or mixer. It was fine but pretty basic.
7. Bib & Tucker 6 — Taste 3
Average Price: $60
Bib & Tucker pulls barrels of Tennessee whiskey from an old and quiet valley in the state. They then blend those barrels to meet their brand’s flavor notes. While they are laying down their own whiskey now, this is still all about the blending of those barrels in small batches.
This felt like a really good cocktail bourbon but not much else.
6. Uncle Nearest 1884 Small Batch — Taste 2
Average Price: $49
This whiskey is created from a batch of barrels that are a minimum of seven years old. Nearest’s Master Blender, Victoria Eady-Butler, builds the blend according to classic flavor notes first put into Tennessee whiskey by her ancestor, Nearest Green, back in the 1800s.
This really is built as a mixing bourbon and that’s what shined through the most on the sip today. That’s fine, by the way! This makes a good cocktail.
5. Five Brothers Small Batch Bourbon — Taste 1
Average Price: $55
This brand new bourbon from Heaven Hill celebrates the five brothers who started the distillery back in 1935. The bottle was released to celebrate the brand-new visitor’s center at Heaven Hill and is largely only available there. The juice in this bottle is a blend of five bourbons of varying ages between five and nine years old made with Heaven Hill’s mash bill of 78 percent corn, 12 percent malted barley, and ten percent rye.
This was perfectly fine today. In fact, I really liked it. It just didn’t hit as “wow” compared to the ones below it on this list.
4. Redemption Wheated Bourbon — Taste 10
Average Price: $50
This release from Redemption is their take on MGP’s 45 percent winter wheat bourbon. Redemption’s team brings four-year-old barrels in-house and then masterfully blends them in small batches until they get just the right notes.
This was really nice and unique. “Well made” came to mind as I sipped this one. The only reason this is a little lower is that it felt more like a mixer than a sipper. But I could see pouring this over some ice in a pinch.
3. Maker’s Mark — Taste 4
Average Price: $32
This is Maker’s signature expression. You know the drill: Red winter wheat, seasoned Ozark oak, six to seven years in the barrel. This expression’s juice is then sourced from only 150 barrels (making this a small batch, if you want to call it that). Those barrels are then blended, proofed, bottled, and dipped in red wax.
This was the first bourbon on the list that was really good. Everything above this was fine, but this was a stand-out. That said, it wasn’t as complex and alluring as the next two.
2. Evan Williams 1783 Small Batch — Taste 7
Average Price: $16
This is Evan William’s small-batch bourbon reissue. The expression is a marriage of 200 barrels of Heaven Hill’s classic bourbon (78 percent corn, 12 percent malted barley, and ten percent rye). That juice is vatted, then proofed down to 90 proof (instead of the old 86 proof), and bottled as is.
I struggled with this one. I ranked this first and then second and then back and forth again about ten times. This was really good but, in the end, was a little bit lighter even though it had a pretty deep flavor profile. Still, this is quality juice that punches way above its price/weight class.
1. Weller Special Reserve — Taste 6
Average Price: $79 ($25 MSRP)
Buffalo Trace doesn’t publish any of their mash bills. Educated guesses put the wheat percentage of these mash bills at around 16 to 18 percent, which is average. The age of the barrels on this blend is also unknown. We do know that they cut down those ABVs with that soft Kentucky limestone water.
Well, there you go. This was complex and really worked as a sipper in a Glencairn. I felt like there was more to mine on the nose and taste and kept going back for further whiffs. To be crystal clear — yes, this felt like the highest-quality bourbon on the list. Not by a mile, but enough.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
Full disclosure, I pretty much knew taste six was Weller from the nose. That raw/wet leather note is 100 percent Buffalo Trace. The palate only confirmed it for me because, well, it was just a better-made whiskey with more depth.
So was this weighted in Weller’s favor since I know the distillery so well? Maybe. I can say this, the top three were very close. And given that you can get both Evan Williams and Maker’s Mark on pretty much every shelf, I’d go with them for my own bar cart.
That said, it’s definitely worth seeking out a Weller Special Reserve if you can get it at MSRP. So maybe just wait until your next trip to Kentucky to snag one because, yeah, it lives up to the hype and is definitely above average.