I had lunch today with my former boss at United Distillers who now works for Brown-Forman. Chris is very knowledgable about bourbon history and the industry as a whole. We were discussing the wheat recipe in bourbon and where it came from. While at U.D. we worked hard to find an answer to this question and never really found a satisfying answer. I looked hard. I traced Weller family distilling back as early as 1800 with Daniel Weller, W.L. Weller's grandfather. He owned two stills in Nelson County. These stills then went to Samuel Weller, W.L.'s father. In all of this I found no reference to wheated bourbon. This upset the marketing people at U.D. who wanted Rebel Yell to be created by Weller (it wasn't, it was created by Charlie Farnsley in the 1940's). The fact is we never found the evidence to support this claim. Actually I found evidence that it did not come from Weller. This is a 1913 contract made between W.L. Weller and Sons and A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery asking Stitzel to make 500 barrels of bourbon for Weller using a mash bill that was rye and not wheat. Weller was not a large company at that time and 500 barrels represents a large portion of their yearly sales so I found it hard to believe that Weller was making a wheated bourbon at the time. That left Stitzel as a possible source of the recipe. Sally Campbell seems to think that this is the source, but Chris and I decided we are not sure of this. We think that it may have been the Old Fitzgerald brand and this is our reasoning. During Prohibition W.L. Weller and Sons was selling a lot of brands for other people. These brands included George Dickel's Cascade (which was made at the Stitzel Distillery after 1910), Old Charter, Waterfill and Frasier, Henry McKenna, and of course Old Fitzgerald. Many of these brands were sold to other interest either during or shortly after prohibition and Pappy Van Winkle could have acquired them but the only one he did acquire was Old Fitzgerld. It is possible he acquired it for the recipe. The real test would be to find a bottle of pre 1920 Old Fitzgerald and taste it to see if it is a wheated bourbon.
Of course it is also possible that the wheated recipe is a creation of Pappy, Stitzel and Farnsley. If this was the case I think the Van Winkles would have said so before now, but maybe that is something Pappy never really talked about. After all he always had his grain bins labeled "RYE" when it was really wheat in order to keep the recipe from being common knowledge.