View Full Version : First wheated bourbon?
It has been noted that on the label of a bottle of Old Weller 12yo the statement, "The Original Wheated Bourbon" is trademarked. I think that is an inference to the fact that they are using the Pappy Vanwinkle recipe. My question is this: What was the first commercially available "brand" of wheated bourbon? Was it a "Weller" product?
I don't have a clue to the answer http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/confused.gif I have heard different opinions on this subject but I don't know which one is right.
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What you ask is a difficult question to answer. Henry McKenna started distilling because he had extra grain from his flour mill. Was it "wheated Bourbon" or "Wheat Whiskey"? I don't know and I have never seen any records to indicate what he was distilling. He could have been trading the wheat for corn and rye for all we know.
Glenmore before prohibition was making wheat whiskey and some wheat instead of rye bourbon. The U.D. Archive has some mash bills from Glenmore from the years 1905 to about 1918.
Even at Stitzel-Weller the "wheated" bourbon's origin is unknown. The U.D. archive has a contract from W.L. Weller and Sons with A.Ph. Stitzel distillery dated about 1912 or so. That contract called for a corn/rye bourbon to be made. There are some indications that the distillery started experimenting with mash bills after 1928 to create a bourbon that would taste better at an early age. I think the wheat recipe used by Stitzel-Weller came from these experiments. It is possible that they received the wheat recipe when they bought the Old Fitzgerald brand from Herbst. Julian has a bottle of pre-prohibition Old Fitzgerald and has toyed with the idea of opening it to taste for a wheat recipe, but he is reluctant to open such a rare bottle. Even if he did it may not prove anything if the whiskey has any cork taint (very deteriated cork) or oxidation or both.
Even at Stitzel-Weller the wheat recipe was sort of a trade secret until the 1970's. The hopper for the grain was even labeled "rye" so the visitor did not know that they were using wheat instead of rye.
Bufallo Trace is probably stretching the truth a bit with their claim about the "original" wheated bourbon. That claim can probably be claimed just as well by Old Fitzgerald. That is if you only consider brands that are still on the market today.
Speaking as a lawyer, I would point out that a statement doesn't have to be true to be trademarked.
Speaking as a bourbon historian, Mike laid out well what is known with any certainty. If Herbst's distillery--Old Judge in Frankfort--made wheated bourbon there is no specific record of it. The Bixlers were his distillers, though, and they also practiced that trade for McKenna, so maybe they were working with wheat, either in wheat whiskey recipes, wheated bourbons, or both.
As for Stitzel keeping it a secret, Pappy did talk about "a whisper of wheat" in some of his ads, so he was promoting the wheat recipe before the 70s. Sally Van Winkle Campbell says the Stitzel-Weller wheat recipe came from the Stitzel family, but she doesn't say how she knows that. Maybe Mike will ask Sam Thomas for us. Thomas was Sally's history consultant.
I talked with Sam and Sally before the book was published. I think they were as unsure of where the wheat recipe as I was when I talked with them. I gave Sally and Sam the same information that I posted here and we agreed that it looked most like Stitzel as the source of the wheat recipe. I don't know if Sam and Sally found additional information later, but they could have.
You are right - a trademark does not make it historical fact. If that was required I think every distillery would lose about half their marketing.
Ads in the 1800's and up to around World War I for "wheat whisky" and "white wheat whiskey" were very common. Many such brands were made in Kentucky, Tennessee, no doubt Maryland and certainly Canada (I saw the bottles displayed at the now sadly defunct Seagram's Whisky Museum in Waterloo, Ontario). Clearly, some of that whiskey was low-proof, real whiskey sold young, just made from wheat and some barley malt. And some surely was cheaper, high proof spirit, a type of vodka. I cannot imagine that some bourbon makers (and we must remember a lot of bourbon was made beyond Kentucky's borders in those days) would not have substituted wheat for rye in a mash intended for bourbon whiskey. For one thing, vagaries of supply would have dictated that. So would, I believe, local taste. That Stitzel-Weller famously became associated with wheated bourbon is undoubted but it does not make sense to me that there was no precedent for a wheated bourbon going right back to the early days of whiskey making.
That's exactly right. And the further back you go, the more subject mash bills would have been to whatever was available. It's not hard to imagine that wheat would have been more generally available than rye, simply because it has more uses.
Don't forget though that rye simply grew better in some area's of the country due to climate and soil conditions. This would have made it the grain of choice in those areas.
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