The Best Pappy AlternativesBy Jake Emen
Whether you love the craze or loathe it – or love to loathe it – there’s no denying that at its core, the Pappy Van Winkle lineup delivers excellent bourbon. More specifically, it offers excellent wheated bourbon — now distilled by Buffalo Trace after several historical iterations in the preceding decades. Though, due to the issue of price and availability, many bourbon drinkers are left searching for replacements. What then are your best Pappy alternatives?
Beyond merely defaulting to any wheated whiskey you can find, there are certain characteristics that will help to narrow things down a bit. While the exact Pappy mash bill isn’t disclosed, it’s generally thought to include around 15% wheat. Therefore, wheat whiskeys with a minimum of 51% wheat, and bourbons that deploy sky-high wheat percentages in the 30-40s, aren’t of interest.
Moreover, the Pappy lineup is also noted for its extensive aging. And while there aren’t many other 15 or 20-year-old bourbons on the market, what you do want is something that goes beyond the typical craft, or bottom shelf, realm of only a few years of aging. Ideally, look for bourbon that aged in full-size 53-gallon barrels, and hopefully for a minimum of around six years. For that matter, avoid anything that sits at the bare minimum of 40% ABV.
With those parameters set, here’s how to start putting together a shopping and sampling list.
Whiskey to Try When You Can’t Buy Pappy
The W.L. Weller Line
The long-standing backup for the Pappy bourbon collection is the W.L. Weller line, as these wheated bourbons are also distilled by Buffalo Trace. In fact, not only are Weller and Pappy now made in the same place, but they also share the same mash bill, the same barrel entry proof, and the same barrel specifications.
But of course, in the all-things-Pappy-adjacent craze of the past decade, even shelf staples such as the standard tier of Weller Special Reserve are often either impossible to find or price gouged. While I would be doing a disservice without mentioning Weller, certainly I’d be doing you a worse disservice if all I did was offer a list of five different Wellers you won’t be able to find, either. Therefore, we’ll move onto some bottles you hopefully can locate more easily.
Barton 1792 Sweet Wheat
Barton 1792 has now been under the Sazerac umbrella for more than a decade. But what some fail to realize is that the distillery has absolutely mammoth capacity, with a quirky, ancient, six-foot wide, 50-foot tall column still capable of churning out some 750 barrels per day. While Barton is distinctive on its own, consider it as a long-lost sister distillery of sorts to Buffalo Trace.
Barton predominantly uses a high-rye for most of its line, but as the name implies, Sweet Wheat is the exception. Yes, once again this is a limited, hard to find release. But there’s good news, here. The distillery has been ramping up its wheated bourbon production, so expect to see more here in the near future.
The Heaven Hill Wheaters
Pappy Van Winkle, the man himself, was a key cog in the history of what is now Heaven Hill Distillery. Here, traditional brands such as Old Fitzgerald have long been made with a wheated bourbon mash bill consisting of 68% corn, 20% wheat, and 12% malted barley. That recipe is used for all of the Old Fitz expressions, as well as for Larceny Bourbon.
The most recent Spring 2022 Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond, at 17 years of age, is a gem to seek out. But unfortunately, it’s though another sparsely available one. Therefore, for everyday drinkability, and findability, Larceny is right in the wheelhouse of what you should be seeking out. The Barrel Proof version offers you a proof upgrade as well as a non-chill filtered flavor profile.
Maker’s Mark is famously a wheated bourbon. Its signature flavor profile, softer and sweeter than its chief competitors, is one of the factors which helped fuel its initial rise. Across its growing product range, the distillery uses a 70% corn, 16% wheat and 14% mash bill. But what they’re now doing more of is experimenting with maturation, as well as different bottling proofs.
Maker’s Mark 46 has a wonderful extra layer of complexity and is widely available. Therefore, it would do well to satisfy your wheated yearnings. Meanwhile, both Maker’s Mark 101 and Cask Strength each clock in at the higher proof you may be seeking.
Craft Wheated Bourbons to Try
There’s a growing contingent of craft producers making quality wheated bourbons these days. And there are a few in particular that hit the mark in terms of mash bill and maturation level.
Wyoming Whiskey, which was originally under the stewardship of one-time Maker’s Mark master distiller Steve Nally, uses a 68% corn, 20% wheat, 12% malted barley mash bill. Its Small Batch is a good place to start. Meanwhile, its Double Cask — aged for five years before a finishing process in PX sherry barrels — goes in a different direction than Pappy but stands out for its quality. The sherry also doesn’t overwhelm the wheated whiskey at its core.
Wilderness Trail makes both wheated and rye bourbons. For our pursuits, try the Wilderness Trail Wheated Silver Label. It’s made from a 64% corn, 24% wheat and 12% barley mash bill, and is aged for a full six years. Additionally, there’s the brand’s Single Barrel Bottled in Bond. It’s aged for at least five years and is bottled at 100 proof.
Garrison Brothers uses a 74% corn, 15% wheat, 11% malted barley mash bill. The combination of its intense maturation conditions in Texas, as well as the use of a mix of smaller barrel sizes, creates a spicier and more wood-influenced flavor profile than one which makes for a straight comparison. Its limited editions, such as the annual Cowboy Bourbon, also pack a hefty punch in terms of proof. But its Small Batch delivers a range of robust, rich flavors and clocks in at 94 proof, making it worthy of adding to the discussion here.
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