Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Large Scale Tasting Of Dusty Old Weller Antiques 1998-2008 Tasted Blind & Compared With The Current Stuff.

11 Years of Old Weller Antique from 1998 (left) to 2008 (right).
The invitation came a couple of months ago.  Mike Jasinski - master dusty hunter and a great lover of old bourbons - had assembled a flight of Old Weller Antique paper labels bottles from 1998 to 2008: a full 11 years that chart the brands movement from Stitzel-Weller to Buffalo Trace.  These dusty bottles have become extremely popular these days and hard to find.  In the past few years the 7 year old age statement was dropped and the bottle design was changed from a stock cylinder with an antique looking paper label to a rounded ball shaped bottle with the ink printed right on the bottle (pictures of the current bottle are at the bottom).   Mike wanted a group of whiskey people to come out and taste them all blind - reporting our findings with numerical scores on the 100 point scale.  
We, however, tasted them blind - self poured from these flasks marked only by a number.

1940 BIB
(photo from Bonham's)
The brand, "Old Weller" harkens back to Pappy Van Winkle's original employer, William LaRue Weller who started his famous whiskey company in Louisville, KY in 1849.  The legendary inventor of the wheated whiskey mash bill (where wheat is used instead of rye as the flavoring grain, above a corn base and bit of malt to add enzymes).  Stitzel-Weller sold the wheated mash bill in a number of expressions, notably Rebel Yell, Cabin Still, and Old Fitzgerald.  Sam Cecil (in The Evolution of Kentucky Whiskey) reports that "Old W.L. Weller" (along with Mammoth Cave and Cabin Still) were brands that Pappy Van Winkle bottled after W. L. Weller's death in 1899 and before partnering with A. Ph. Stitzel during Prohibition using whiskey sourced from the Stitzel Bros.distillery in Louisville and the Old Joe distillery in Anderson.  Looking over old auction records I see the Old W. L Weller Special Reserve expression at 100 proof (as a Bottled In Bond expression) in the Repeal era (see photo at left taken from the October 2013 Bonham's NY Whiskey sale).  The "Old Weller" brand name doesn't seem to appear until the gold veined paper label incarnation apparently born in the early 1970s.  The earliest ad I could find showing it is from 1979 (below):
Ad from 1979 talks about the gold veining.
The word "Antique", however, is absent.
Chuck Cowdery lauds Old Weller Antique as a great value at $16 for a 7 year old in the back of his essential book Straight Bourbon (highly recommended) without reference to the brand's history. Sally Van Winkle Campbell doesn't mention the "Old W.L. Weller" or "Old Weller Antique" brands by name in "But Always Fine Bourbon".  Although she relates a story that "the reason that the distillery came out with 107 proof was because Pap's doctor said he could only have two drinks a day!"  If that's true then the Old Weller Antique expression dates to the mid-1960s (Pappy died in 1966), which jibes pretty well with the fact that I can't find a bottle or mention until 1970 or so.
(Update.  John Lipman (of http://www.ellenjaye.com/) has a much better explanation.  I posted it here:)
http://www.cooperedtot.com/2014/07/john-lipman-explains-why-there-is-107.html

That said, the expression existed through some very solid glory years of Stitzel-Weller (S-W) and then through a transition to production at Ancient Age / Buffalo Trace.  Experience tasting the Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve bottlings from 2009-2013 have shown me that Buffalo Trace has a good handle on the Stitzel-Weller wheated mash bill flavor component.  The first in the series we'd be tasting at Mike's house would be a 1998 Stitzel-Weller Old Weller Antique (abbreviated "OWA" henceforth) - labeled "Louisville".  The rest would be labelled "Frankfort" but, presumably there would be a transition period where Stitzel-Weller stocks would still be used until Buffalo Trace's Frankfort stocks took over.  The Old Weller brand was sold by United Distillers to Sazerac in 1999 (which renamed the Frankfort, KY Ancient Age distillery  Buffalo Trace (BT)  in that same year, 1999).

Update: I'm wrong here.  I left out the period of time the Old Weller wheater recipe was made at New Bernheim where United Distillers (later to become Diageo) had consolidated Bourbon production - leading to the closing of Stitzel-Weller.  Thanks, Mike Jasinski, for setting it straight, in the comments on this post.  Also, in the comments below, Mike adds tasting notes: "The noses are dead giveaways as to which bottle is which. 98-01 had the typical green apple SW nose it is very muted but it is there. The 02-05 have they typical cherried sweet nose that Bernheim distilled wheated bourbons have. The 06-08 bottlings are very typical of the BT wet cardboard nose."

Mike (right center) and Claire Doorden,
(left center), welcome guests
Could we pick out the S-W 1998 stuff blind?  Could we taste a clear demarcation to BT?  Because Mike asked everyone to use a 100 point numerical scale I will be using that grading system for these.  Mike could swear he could identify BT by an aroma that I was classifying as "linseed oil" but which Mike called "cardboard".  Once he used that word I couldn't help but use it myself.  Cardboard - like sniffing the inside of a brown cardboard box is a good description of the aroma.  You'll see it mentioned in my nosing notes quite a bit below.  It's not as bad as it sounds. It's earthy and woody and sits among the floral and deep sugar notes.  As you can see by the scores below, all this stuff ranges from very good to excellent.

Josh Camerote pours himself a blind.
Jo

Old Weller Antique 7 yo. 53.5% abv. 1998 Stitzel-Weller.  Blind #4

Color:  medium amber
Nose:  Honeyed, fruity, oily, mossy, flinty.  Hint of tobacco.
Palate:  Sweet, fruity honeyed.  Maple, treacle shoo fly pie.  Cherry, citrus.
My score:  87  Mike's composite score:  87.

Old Weller Antique 7 yo. 53.5% abv. 1999 Buffalo Trace.  Blind #9

Color: dark medium amber
Nose:  honey toffee, cherry, cola, juicyfruit, oil, sandalwood.
Palate:  Intense sweet sandalwood and rancio.  Chewy mouth feel and long sweet oaky finish
My score: 91  Mike's composite Score: 92

Old Weller Antique 7 yo. 53.5% abv. 2000 Buffalo Trace.  Blind #1

Color: Dark amber
Nose: maple syrup juicyfruit.  Brown sugar toffee
Palate:  honey, malty toffee.  Cornflower, apricot bark.  Cherry, root beer
My score:  92  Mike's composite score: 92

Old Weller Antique 7 yo. 53.5% abv. 2001 Buffalo Trace.  Blind #8

Color:  dark amber (darkest yet)
Nose: Beautiful nose, floral cardboard
Palate: Honey, ripe cantaloupe, Turkish delight. Candy oak perfume
My score: 89  Mike's composite score: 88

Old Weller Antique 7 yo. 53.5% abv. 2002 Buffalo Trace.  Blind #2

Color:  dark amber (a shade darker than blind #1).
Nose light dusty musty oaky malt cherry cocoa.  Trace of iodine.
Palate, sweet cherry cola, char, tannin bitterness.
My score: 87  Mike's composite score:  87


Old Weller Antique 7 yo. 53.5% abv. 2003 Buffalo Trace.  Blind #11

Color:  dark medium amber
Nose:  Cardboard, malt toffee rancio brown sugar
Palate: Candied, toffeed, sandalwood perfumed glory.
My score: 91  Mike's composite score: 91

Old Weller Antique 7 yo. 53.5% abv. 2004 Buffalo Trace.  Blind #6

Color:  dark amber like 3
Nose: floral sandalwood, cherry, cardboard
Palate: Sweet, cherry, toffee, char and oak tannin.  Longer oaky maple finish with a bitter edge.
 My score 86 (bitter finish knocked it down)  Mike's composite score:  87

Old Weller Antique 7 yo. 53.5% abv. 2005 Buffalo Trace.  Blind #3

Color: dark amber, shade darker than 2 and 1
Nose: Oily, char. A little meaty
Palate: Fruity.  Tiny bit sour
My score: 88  Mike's Composite score: 88

Old Weller Antique 7 yo. 53.5% abv. 2006 Buffalo Trace.  Blind #7

Color: dark medium amber
Nose: Cardboard cherry juicyfruit
Palate:  honey, cherry toffee juicyfruit.  Oak tannin
My score: 88  Mike's composite score: 87

Old Weller Antique 7 yo. 53.5% abv. 2007 Buffalo Trace.  Blind #10

Color: almost as dark as 8/3
Nose: Cardboard, dark, sweet toffee, char, a hint of mildew
Palate: Sweet, cherry, cocoa, dark malt, cocoa, root beer.  Fruity, dark brown and delicious.  Char & edge of bitter char on finish.
My score: 90  Mike's composite score: 89

Old Weller Antique 7 yo. 53.5% abv. 2008 Buffalo Trace.  Blind #5

Color: light medium amber
Nose: Linseed nose, honey, yellow flowers
Palate:  honey, treacle, mint notes, honeysuckle,
My score: 88  Mike's composite score 87


Conclusion:  The Stitzel-Weller in the group wasn't the highest rated and it wasn't apparent to me at the time that it was the Stitzel-Weller one.  I like to think I can see some of the tell tale signs in my tasting notes and that if I were really paying attention I might have caught it.  Coulda Woulda Shoulda.  The bottom line is that it's all delicious Bourbon - with some significant variation between a dark and malty rich variety and a lighter amber more floral and fruity variety.  These varieties don't seem to correlate with year at all.  I suspect it's about barrel variation and rickhouse location.  While my 3 top rated ones were all dark and rich, the lighter ones were excellent drinking in their own right.  And notice that the Stitzel-Weller one was one of the lightest ones.

It makes a lot of sense to compare these experiences of tasting an extensive group of dusty Old Weller Antiques against the stuff you can buy today.  It's extremely popular and lauded.  So popular, however, that it has gone on allocation (i.e. a rationed limited supply to distributes).  It can still be readily found - particularly earlier in each month.  It's the same Buffalo Trace stuff, just now without an age statement.  Does that matter?  I tasted the bottle of Old Weller Antique that I have open at the moment (purchased late 2013) the following day at home - in the open (i.e. not blind).  This was a completely different tasting.  But just one day later the flavors of the paper label OWAs were fresh in my mind.



New Old Weller Antique 107 - no age statement.  53.5% abv. Bottle purchased 2013


Color: Medium light amber
Nose:  Vanilla, floral, hints of mint and lilac.  Light linseed oil/cardboard note.
Palate:  Opening is hotter and less malty than any of the examples tasted at Mike's.  It is grassy sweet with corn and apricot-citrus and cherry fruity notes along with some acetone notes.  The mid palate turns to oak and char, but with a more bitter presentation.
My score: 82

Conclusion.  It's still a wonderful Bourbon for the money, but it has lost a measure of depth of flavor, malty richness, and candied intensity.  With youth it has gained floral, herbal, and fruity notes - but the overall balance is thinner and less lush.

Phil Simon checks Mike's treasures
Phil Simon brought treasures
of his own too. 


The after party to this event was epic.  Major events included Phil Simon bringing a bottle of the legendary Hirsch Rye 13.  This epic bottle will be the topic of it's own post soon, but for the moment here are quick tasting notes taken at the event (when my palate was, admittedly, a bit toasted):

Hirsch 13 rye 47.8 % Medley bottled for Priess by Julian Van Winkle

Color: Dark coppery amber
Nose: caramel toffee, soft lanolin, cut daisy, cilantro flower
Palate;  Gentle, effervescent, malty, caramel, brown sugar, rum rancio, herbal, cinnamon.  Complex, rich, and superb.

Mike then opened a Louisville bottling of W. L Weller Centennial
Then people started getting goofy.
Other highlights included Mike's Louisville bottling of W. L. Weller Centennial, the last of his open bottle of 1916-1922 Old Bridgeport Mongahela PA rye (the topic of an upcoming post), the excellent Diageo bottling of Rosebank 21, and an amazing 1940s Old Taylor (that also needs its own post).  What a wonderful evening!  Thanks Mike and Claire!  Looking forward to our next 2am drive to Waffle House!

7 comments:

  1. Great article as always, Josh. Amazing how much a brand can wax and wane over a short 12 year period. Correct me if I'm wrong, but shouldn't a lot of those early paper labels contain Bernheim's wheated distillate? Possibly even a combo of SW and Bernheim depending on what got dumped in the era before SW reached absolute cult status? After party looks like a blast, great to see those rare whiskies opened and enjoyed like they were intended to be,

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  2. Hi Dave! I don't think there's any Bernheim's in Old Weller. Old Weller was Stitzel-Weller - and labelled Lawrenceburg - until the sale of the brand to Buffalo Trace, upon which time it was labelled Frankfort with production shifting there. Perhaps you are thinking of Old Fitzgerald, which was sold to Heaven Hill which makes the wheated mash bill for it at New Bernheim distillery (and for other brands such as Larceny)? The interesting question in the transition is whether old Stitzel-Weller stocks were used for a time in the early Frankfort labelled bottles and I wager so. But given how close BT's replica is, I wouldn't claim to even be able to guess where and when.

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  3. I'd like to apply for the position of your Bourbon wingman, Josh. Please let me know where to send references.!

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  4. Dave, there were 3 distinctive distillates used for Old Weller SW, Bernheim and BT. The noses are dead giveaways as to which bottle is which. 98-01 had the typical green apple SW nose it is very muted but it is there. The 02-05 have they typical cherried sweet nose that Bernheim distilled wheated bourbons have. The 06-08 bottlings are very typical of the BT wet cardboard nose.

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    Replies
    1. Wow! Learn something new every day. Thank, Mike!

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  5. Dave Nichols, sorry for misinforming you. Thanks, Mike for the correction. Here's a 2005 post from Mike Veach in a BE thread that corroborates and gives detail. I'll be amending this blog post later:

    "Stitzel-Weller quit distilling in 1992. The bourbon for the Weller brands at 7 years old would in theory end in 1999, but there was such a glut of wheat whiskey made in the early 90's that they could continue to use older whiskey in the 7 year old product.

    To complicate matters Bernheim made some wheat bourbon under U.D. but there was also some wheat bourbon made at Buffalo Trace in the early 90's for U.D. United Distillers had decided that they would take Rebel Yell world wide in the early 1990's and they made the whiskey with a goal to have it a million case product by the end of the decade. That did not happen so there was a sea of wheat recipe bourbon made at Stitzel-Weller, Bernheim and Buffalo Trace at the end of the decade. Buffalo Trace bought the brand in the late 90's (I think it was 1998) and I am sure part of the sale would be whiskey to support the brand for a few years until their own whiskey was ready. By 2001 the brand could have bourbon made from Stitzel-Weller or Bernheim or Buffalo Trace in the bottle.

    The present bourbon is probably Bernheim whiskey but maybe some Buffalo Trace starting to enter the bottle. The 12 year old is probably the last of the Stitzel-Weller or the Buffalo Trace made for U.D. Bernheim really did not distill much until mid 1994 as U D tried to work out the kinks in the process.

    Mike Veach"

    http://www.bourbonenthusiast.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=1010

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  6. Mike's right. In fact, the reason Buffalo Trace had so much old wheated bourbon on hand and ready for Julian Van Winkle when he shifted operations to Frankfort is that they had been supplying much (if not most) of the wheated whiskey being used by United Distillers for their Old Fitz, Old Weller, and Rebel Yell. I'm pretty sure that Mike told me, back in 1998 or so, that even though United Distillers had shut Stitzel Weller's distillery down and had built this snazzy new distillery where Bernheim had once stood, they weren't distilling wheated whiskey there yet.

    One BIG advantage that us old folks who remember bourbon in the late nineties had, and one which fuels brand reputations to this very day and beyond, is that a lot of those 8- and 10-year-old -- and even some of the better 4's and 6's -- actually had much older whiskey in the bottle. Remember, the "age" of a bottle of whiskey is that of the YOUNGEST whiskey in the bottle. A bottle of 98% 10 or 12-year-old bourbon with 2% 8-year-old is 8-year-old bourbon; maybe the best 8-year-old bourbon you ever tasted! Today that same brand is all 8 years old (if they haven't renamed it "Old No. 8 Brand") and doesn't taste much at all like what everyone once raved about a couple decades ago.

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