Why the Best Bourbons Start with Wheat, Not Rye

Mj 618_348_why the best bourbons start with wheat not rye

The secret to a good bourbon depends on the distiller, the drinker, and a dozen little factors between grain and bottle. But the common thread that connects the most iconic and most revered brands on the market is one key element of the recipe: wheat instead of rye.

The majority of bourbon recipes on the market involve three ingredients: corn (required to be at least 51 percent of the recipe), barley, and rye. While the first two ingredients supply whiskey with its alcohol content during the fermentation and distillation processes, rye is generally regarded as the most flavorful element of the recipe.

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But more flavor isn't always better. A good way to think about whiskey is to compare it to bread. On one side you have rye: a savory, spicy grain with a lot of history. On the other you have wheat: a cleaner, more subtle note — and one more people enjoy.

Take two examples: Pappy van Winkle and Maker's Mark.

You'd be hard-pressed to find someone whose first introduction to bourbon was not poured from the iconic bottle capped in red wax. Worldwide, Maker's Mark is the second largest bourbon in sales behind the significantly larger Jim Beam brand (and there's an argument to be made that they're only second because they can't keep up with demand).

Then there's Pappy van Winkle, with its gargantuan 23-year-old age statement. The brand's master distiller, Harlen Wheatley, attributes some of Pappy's elegance (and that of W. L. Weller, which uses the same recipe) to the grain. "I do feel like wheated whiskey will age more gracefully," he says. Maker's Mark master distiller Greg Davis loves their wheated recipe for exactly the opposite reason: "Rye definitely ages better than wheat," he argues. 

How can two of the most influential people in the category agree about the best elements and still disagree about why? For starters, Maker's is bottled young — around 5–7 years. Davis isn't a huge fan of tannins in whiskey, which come from more years in the barrel. "When a bourbon starts to approach that 8–10 year mark, really the barrel becomes the star," he explains, "and you're just starting to taste more and more of that wood."

But wood character is essentially everything you get from something like Pappy's 23-year-old whiskey, the impossible-to-find brand that's become a comical bourbon MacGuffin in recent years. So what does Wheatly like about using wheat? That its flavor doesn't disappear even at extreme ages. "It's kind of a dominant grain when it comes to holding onto its flavor, so you can put a wheat into a barrel and at the end of 20 years, it's not just nothing but barrel."

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Two polar opposites. While Pappy has gone old and rare, Maker's has made a brand entirely from bright and tasty younger whiskeys. In fact, the folks at Maker's refuse to release older expressions of the iconic product, and occasionally allow distillery visitors to taste a bit of "overaged" spirit just to prove their point: their recipe is past its prime at ten years.

But the sentiment is the same between both distillers: whether you're aging in single or double digits, success is about making sure you keep the wheat character prominent. "If you put a rye into a bourbon barrel and age it for 20 years it becomes really woody," Davis says. "And there are customers who like that, but it depends on the customer on that end."

The sweet spot may be between five and 10 years. While Maker's is the youngest at between five and seven years, Pappy's cousin W. L. Weller is released somewhere around 5-12 years old. They're both around 90 proof.

And in between is the new wheated whiskey from Barton 1792 Distillery. 1792 Sweet Wheat is a 91.2 proof wheated whiskey — the first from a brand that has to date produced rye blends. Master distiller Ken Pierce describes the flavor as softer and more delicate (which echoes something said by Greg Davis of Maker's Mark).

That said, similar mash bills do not mean these whiskeys are terribly alike, especially given the difference in ages. Sweet Wheat has an upfront character of ripe fruit, with a cereal character that finishes with earthy, tobacco notes.

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The extra years give it a bit more oak character than Maker's Mark, which loads the palate with vanilla and caramel flavors, and finishes very bright and clean. Maker's also tends to have a hint of nutty flavor — like fresh-roasted almonds or peanuts.

This doesn't mean you have to give up your precious rye recipe bourbons — in fact we don't want you to. You should drink what you most enjoy. And the less wheated bourbon you buy, the more there is for the rest of us.

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