2021 will hopefully bring a lot of great bottles to whiskey lovers, but will a new Weller product be among them? We spoke with Buffalo Trace master distiller Harlen Wheatley about that very question.
Weller releases are like Star Wars movies: we have about seven good ones, and a lot of stuff has been released in the last few year. And most good people want more as long as they’re as good as the originals. But is there really a need? The answer (both for Star Wars films and Weller releases) is yes.
With seven current incarnations of Weller on the market (including William Larue Weller from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection), it might appear to many bourbon die-hards that the collection is pretty much built out to capacity. There are high and low proof points, single barrels, high ages, and a high-floor blend. Squeezing another one in would seem to be a difficult task.
But difficult whiskey tasks are Buffalo Trace master distiller Harlen Wheatley’s job—and in this case, he has the opposite problem.
“The problem that I see,” Wheatley explains, is that the list of potential new Weller products, “is literally endless. Sometimes you’ve got to draw the line.”
“There are so many ways of making a good wheated bourbon that it’s not funny,” explains Wheatley, who pointed out that changes in mash bill, proof, finish, aging—all of these things could lead to a new bottle. “Maybe you don’t call it Weller,” he explains, “but there are literally endless variations that you can make, and it’s just a matter of being purposeful in your selections.”
“Purposeful” is a key word for Wheatley and the Buffalo Trace team, who have to find a balance between innovation for the future, and supply for the future. Put simply, their task is to strike a balance with finite resources (storage and distilling capacity) between finding new things that will taste good, and meeting demand a decade from now.
Buffalo Trace has built a successful portfolio of products. The largest—perhaps the only group of complaints about their whiskeys—is that there isn’t enough to go around. Part of the reason for this is the bourbon boom itself, but the other element that is often forgotten is the diversity of products they put out.
“If you look back 25 years ago,” says Wheatley, “we had three main recipes, and now we’re up to something like a dozen. The expressions are fifty plus. When do you stop? How much can you make? We’ve kind of answered that question—we need to make more.”
Wheatley is characteristically coy about whether there are new products on the way. A new Weller has been announced more or less annually for the last few years, typically in the spring. Wheatley wouldn’t say if there’s another imminent release in the pipeline. “You’ll just have to wait and see,” is how he left it.
But what would another Weller release look like? For our assessment, the answer lies in three possible categories:
Weller bottles range from 90 proof up to 114—or the 120s, when you include William Larue. That wouldn’t seem to leave a lot of room, but there’s one number conspicuously absent from the spread: 100. A 100 proof, bottled-in-bond Weller would be a huge gamechanger in the portfolio, which currently lacks that middle-of-the-field cocktail-worthy proof point.
That’s not to say it would be young—bottled-in-bond Weller might take the form of a 10-year to compete with other premium BIB bourbons in the space. But supply would influence speculation, and we don’t have access to that.
Port and sherry don’t seem likely uses of Buffalo Trace’s beloved wheat mash bill for now, but cask finishes don’t need to be wine-specific. Given recent trends, a double barrel or toasted barrel Weller might make the most sense. It would be something to ground those soft wheat flavors and textures with a little more depth, and best of all, it wouldn’t take much in the way of time for production.
If you consider something like Old Forester 1910, that product gets less than a year on top of normal aging, and yet it’s profoundly different than anything else in the portfolio. And because of Weller’s wheated mash bill, Buffalo Trace wouldn’t have to burn their barrels into oblivion to get that kind of impact.
Mess With the Aging Process
CYPB was the result of crowd-sourced polling data on what the whiskey drinking community would like to see added to the Weller portfolio, and the resulting high floor blend is different and delicious in a way that has made it a standout in its own right. But does Buffalo Trace have more data than that? Was there a second place winner? Were there warehouse locations yet untapped that will lead to better flavors?
Given Wheatley’s Warehouse X experiments, are there bigger questions to ask? Does the distillery’s proximity to a river make for some river aging opportunities? Does Harlen have an affinity for Beyoncé that might lead to a sonic aging release?
If you’ve got a better idea of what might come next, or just something you’d love to see Buffalo Trace release, get in touch with me—I’d love to hear what everyone else wants to see on shelv—err—on secondary.