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  1. #11
    Bourbonian of the Year 2002 and Guru
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    Re: Rye v. Wheat

    In addition to the former Stitzel-Weller brands (Old Fitzgerald, Old Weller) and the VanWinkle bottlings, the other wheated bourbon is Maker's Mark. Wheat v. Rye really is a matter of personal taste, not an indicia of quality per se. As famously advertised by Maker's Mark, wheat supposedly is gentler than rye, so a wheated bourbon has less bite. Some people like that bite. Wheat is one way to diminish it. High distillation proof, high corn content and charcoal leaching (i.e., the Lincoln County Process) are ways to produce a mild flavor with a rye formula. Otherwise, it takes time to tame a rye whiskey. I'm thinking about Wild Turkey Rare Breed or Kentucky Spirit, Labrot and Graham Woodford Reserve, Evan Williams Single Barrel and 12-year-old Old Charter. All are traditional formula bourbons, well tempered by age, and very fine.

    Back when there were hundreds of distilleries in the Ohio River watershed, there undoubtedly were many that used wheat instead of rye, even wheat and rye in combination.

    One explanation for why rye formulas have become dominent could be the Beam family. In addition to the Jim Beam company and Heaven Hill, Beams have been employed at dozens of different distilleries and the traditional Beam family formula is rye-based. On the other hand, members of the Beam family worked at both Stitzel-Weller and Maker's Mark, but that only shows them capable of making a wheat formula. They may still prefer a rye formula.

    --Chuck Cowdery

  2. #12
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    Re: Rye v. Wheat

    I too have often wondered about the uniqueness of wheat formula bourbons. Even Maker's Mark is really just Bill Samuel (senior)'s take on the Old Fitzgerald recipe (including the yeast, according to Sally Campbell). That is, the Stitzel-Weller Old Fitz recipe -- no one ever said that was the way it was made before they bought the label. In fact, I don't think I've ever actually read anything that indicates any particular commercial distillery ever used anything but corn, malt, and rye in making bourbon. I can't remember ever seeing a 19th century ad or label that indicated wheat being used. Are you really sure that it wasn't a relatively recent (~1900) invention by the Stitzel brothers? After all, we take the standard warehouse rick system for granted, but that also came from the Stitzels (Fredrick), in the late 1800's.


    ...Otherwise, it takes time to tame a rye whiskey. I'm thinking about Wild Turkey Rare Breed or Kentucky Spirit, Labrot and Graham Woodford Reserve, Evan Williams Single Barrel and 12-year-old Old Charter. All are traditional formula bourbons, well tempered by age, and very fine.

    Yes, and all are considerably younger than Julian's fine product and the best of the Stitzel-Weller wheaters. In fact, although I do enjoy five-year-olds like Old Fitz and Maker's Mark, it does seem to take more time to make really good wheat-formula bourbon than it does for rye. Evan Williams Single Barrel is ten years old and excellent. Old Rip Van Winkle's <u>youngest</u> offering is also 10, and all the rest are older and noticeabley smoother, richer, and more finished-tasting. The Old Charter and the 12-year-old Wild Turkey (which is also the oldest of the whiskeys used for Rare Breed) are as mature as you would ever want. I really don't think they could get any better (through aging). Woodford Reserve and Kentucky Spirit are half that age and they've become all they can be (which is plenty). Meanwhile, Julian's wheaties are just beginning to become acceptable within their own range of maturity... which then goes on to extend up to 15 and now 20 years. It's kinda funny in a way -- the original choice of wheat may have been based on the fact that it's cheaper than rye, but it seems to take twice as long to get a good bourbon out it. Then again, it's a really good bourbon.

    Anyway, do either you or Mike (or anyone else) know of an actual document that indicates the use of wheat by a successful commercial distillery that wasn't related in some way to the Stitzels?

    =John=
    http://w3.one.net/~jeffelle/whiskey

  3. #13
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    Re: Rye v. Wheat

    John,
    There are many reference to using wheat in distilling including all wheat whiskey. Glenmore had wheat whiskey and wheat and rye whiskey mash bills but no wheat and corn. Henry McKenna got his start by distilling the left over grain from the mill he ran and this included wheat whiskey but there is no indication that he made a wheat bourbon. There were probably others that did use wheat instead of rye but they may have been like Pappy Van Winkle and kept it a trade secret. The hopper for the wheat and barley was labeled "Rye and Barley" until after the death of Pappy Van Winkle. He did not want other to know his secret recipe. Other distillers may have felt the same way.
    Mike Veach


  4. #14
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    Re: Rye v. Wheat

    Oh my!!
    Thanks for the info, and especially for the juicy tidbit about the hopper labels. So I guess Pappy would be having conniptions if he knew we were all discussing his secret on an open, world-wide forum. I'm sure glad Julian isn't that secretive. But look at all the respect Pappy's (and Julian's) bourbon gets (not to mention word-of-mouth advertising and sales). 'Cause it's still pretty unique, even when all the other distillers know about it.

    Are there any examples of these other distillers' wheat products? Perhaps in the museum? Now THAT's what I'd like to see in addition to the University of Bourbonia general ciricula... a sort of 'post-graduate' course featuring some of these impossible to find bourbons.

    By the way... This weekend we visited with Marvin & Evelyn Franz at their home. We had an opportunity to try (a thoroughly enjoy) the dreaded Distillers' Masterpiece. More on that later (in the appropriate topic area). We've been spending some of this evening finding appropriate mixture substitutes, having decided that Knob Creek and Cognac just doesn't even come close (ain't different opinions wonderful?). Pictures at eleven...

    =John=
    http://w3.one.net/~jeffelle/whiskey

  5. #15
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    Re: Rye v. Wheat

    John,
    Send Marvin and Evelyn my greetings the next time you see them.

    I don't think Pappy would be too upset. Remember those were different times and I think Pappy would have led the way with these super premium brands in the same way Julian is today. In fact when you consider that Pappy was bottling 8, 10 and 15 year old bourbon when everybody else was selling 4 to 6 year products, you could say that he did lead the way to the new premium market.
    Mike Veach


  6. #16
    Bourbonian of the Year 2002 and Guru
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    Re: Rye v. Wheat

    Recipes for bourbon weren't too formalized until late in the game, primarily after the law got involved, first with the Bottled in Bond Act in the late 1800s, and the other laws and regulations that followed. It was only post-prohibition that bourbon was defined as being at least 51 percent corn, etc. In the old days, certainly for most of the 19th century and before, people used whatever they had. If all you had was corn (which was often the case), you made a 100 percent corn whiskey, even malting some of it. If you had some small grains handy, you threw them in for flavor. If you had some barley, you malted that because it malted more easily and converted the starch more effectively than other malts.

    The earliest distilleries were associated with mills and operated on a barter system. The farmer brought his grain to the mill and the miller kept a portion of it (e.g., 10 percent) as his fee for providing the milling services. The miller would then distill his share. In the nature of that system, the miller didn't control what he got. He got a percentage of whatever came in the door. This probably varied throughout the year as the harvest times for different grains occurred. One week he might have a lot of corn, the next week a lot of wheat, and the week after that a lot of barley. Whiskey can be made from any grain and probably was, based primarily on what farmers decided to grow, not on the distiller's preference for a certain formula.

    Corn was always the most plentiful and productive grain, in terms of yield, so it generally formed the base for all distilling in Kentucky. But corn whiskey doesn't have much flavor. You need some small grains for that. Of these, rye and wheat were the most common and most often used, sometimes in combination, based, as I said, more on availability than preference. As wheat production moved west, rye in the necessary quantities may have been more readily available, or perhaps since the dominant American made whiskey was rye, bourbon makers decided drinkers preferred that taste. In other words, when they had a choice, they made bourbons that resembled ryes.

    Subsequntly, the impetus to make a wheat whiskey probably came from the desire to make a whiskey that would taste good with less aging--an economic concern--and I think wheat meets that need (though apparently John Lipman disagrees). Or it may have been the marketing instinct to create a point of difference. Remember, at that time there were hundreds of distilleries, mostly selling to wholesalers. If you, as a distiller, had corn whiskey and wheat whiskey and rye whiskey to sell, you had more to offer than someone who only made corn.

    Some of this is speculation, of course, but it is consistent with the historical realities as I know them.

    --Chuck Cowdery

  7. #17
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    Re: Rye v. Wheat

    To my taste, the best wheat and the best rye bourbons are of a similarly phenominal taste. But I prefer the average wheat to the average rye, by a pretty strong margin. It seems like it's easier to get very good whiskey from a wheat mashbill than rye, but it takes a lot of effort from either to attain the truely sublime.

    John A. Dube

  8. #18
    Enthusiast
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    Nov 2000
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    Frankfort, KY
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    499

    Re: Wheated bourbons

    Now I know who you are! I have had people e-mailing me with questions and I had no idea who was sending them my way. They refered to "Mr. Harris", but I just drew a blank on the name. Looking through the forum section, I found that you mention my name a few times. I will have to make sure I quit lying and making up things that I can't back-up! I am happy to see that I have not said anything too incriminating in your note.
    I have been reading the wheated discussion with much interest. I have also been interested in the rye comments (pun intended!). As the brand manager for Weller (and Sazerac Rye), I am very interested in the histories of these whiskies. It seems that Sally's account of Marker's Mark being based on Weller took many people by surprise. From what I have learned, Pappy gave Bill Samuel's father the recipe, yeast strain, and some financial assistance in setting up his operation. Whether the recipe or yeast have been altered over the years, only the Samuels' know.
    I wish I seen you at WhiskeyFest in New York. Several people commented on the differences in taste of some of the wheated bourbons and rye whiskies. Like any product out there, different strokes for different folks.


  9. #19
    Advanced Taster
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    Oct 2000
    Location
    Kansas, USA
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    Re: Wheated bourbons

    Ken,
    Pappy may have helped Bill Sr. start up Maker's but they must have changed the formula somewhere along the line. I think the Weller and Old Fitz products are far superior to Maker's. Of course that's just my opinion.

    Bill



  10. #20
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    Re: Wheated bourbons

    MashBill said, "Pappy may have helped Bill Sr. start up Maker's but they must have changed the formula somewhere along the line. I think the Weller and Old Fitz products are far superior to Maker's. Of course that's just my opinion."

    Hi Bill,

    My opinion, too, but that's just because I prefer that style of bourbon. I imagine the Samuels' haven't altered a thing (in fact, I'm sure they're proud to be able to say that). What I think is that Maker's was never really intended to be competitive with the Stitzel-Weller bourbons. Its style, as well as its marketing and placement puts it up against Jim Beam and (perhaps less successfully) Wild Turkey. It does this very well, and in doing so reduces the market share of these two formidable competitors of Old Fitzgerald.

    Pappy Van Winkle's mom sure didn't raise no fools!


    =John=
    http://w3.one.net/~jeffelle/whiskey

 

 

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