Corn is the soul of every bourbon recipe, but distillers also use rye, barley and wheat — and every mash bill is different.
“Wheaters,” as bourbon fans call them, use wheat as a secondary grain rather than your typical rye. People who drink them say they’re sweeter, softer, fruitier and smoother. Science backs this up: the distillation of wheat is important to the production of 1-pentanol, an alcohol that imparts flavors of bread, cereal and yeast.
So why don’t more bourbons put the wheat ahead of rye? Traditionally, wheat was too expensive for industrial bourbon production. In the early 20th century, the Stitzl brothers and one Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr. believed the use of wheat rather than rye made their bourbons softer; then Maker’s Mark and its red wax brought a wheater to the general drinking public.
Today, history repeats itself: for everyday drinkers, famous wheaters like Pappy and William Larue Weller are too damn expensive — assuming you can even find them. But all hope isn’t lost. Head down to your local liquor store and you’ll come across a handful of solid wheaters collecting more dust than they deserve. The best part: they won’t cost you your next paycheck.
Looking for an affordable wheated bourbon made at Heaven Hill, the distillery once owned by Pappy himself? Most drinkers choose Rebel Yell but you should spring for Larceny, which is part of Heaven Hill’s Old Fitzgerald line. It has a higher proof than Rebel Yell and carries an age statement — six years.
Distilled By: Heaven Hill
Tasting Notes: Loads of bready sweetness, butterscotch and toffee.
Price: $20 – $25
1792 Sweet Wheat
Sazerac owns the Barton 1792 distillery and this is its only wheated option. It won a gold medal at the 2018 LA Spirits Competition. Jim Murray liked it, too; in his 2019 Whiskey Bible, he called it “a wheated, honeyed stunner.” That’s good enough for us.
Distilled By: Barton 1792
Tasting Notes: Dried fruits and soft, honeyed caramel, with a touch of oak tannin.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength
Jim Beam’s red-capped mid-range flagship has been bottled at cask strength since 2014. The high proof gives it the shot at the same bold flavors you’ll find in the Pappys and William Larue Wellers of the wheated world. Expect loads of dark fruits and cinnamons.
Proof: 111.3 (varies)
Distilled By: Suntory Beam
Tasting Notes: Cherries, cinnamon, vanilla, dark fruits, molasses
Price: $50 – $60
Wyoming Whiskey Single Barrel
Wyoming Whiskey got off to a rocky start when it launched in 2015 — early batches just weren’t quite there. Since then, the distillery has figured things out, and its wheated bourbon has caught the eyes of aficionados and judges alike. The Single Barrel uses the same wheated liquid as the standard stuff, aged in the same dynamic western weather, but brings a unique complexity you don’t always get with a blend.
Distilled By: Wyoming Distillery
Tasting Notes: Nuts, creamy caramel, and honey, with some minerality and vanilla.
Bainbridge Battle Point Organic Wheat Whiskey
This won a World Whiskies award in 2018 as the best wheated whiskey out there. Bainbridge has been distilling small-batch, organic spirits since 2009 in Washington state. Since it uses only wheat, and no corn, it’s not a bourbon. But it is a great study in the best flavors wheat can impart.
Distilled By: Bainbridge Distilling
Tasting Notes: Vanilla, caramel, and molasses, with a silky mouthfeel.
Price: $49 – $65
Garrison Brothers Cowboy Bourbon
The Garrison Brothers are leading the charge when it comes to Texas bourbon, which is a lot different than the stuff you’ll find from Kentucky. Texas’s immense temperature changes lend to a liquid that gets quick flavorful from its barrels. Thus far, Cowboy Bourbon is its most famous, with a price to match — but it’s a unique approach to wheat (it’s got 15 percent in its mash bill) with a helluva proof.
Distilled By: Garrison Brothers
Tasting Notes: Oily and rich, with a high-proof heat; cinnamon, graham crackers, baking spices, and chocolate.