It’s finally here, the review you’ve all been waiting for… Well, not really. Why would you be waiting on a bottle that you’ll never own and one that few of us (myself included) can afford? Maybe because the mysticism around why Buffalo Trace went all out for a release like this still confuses many of us. Before I can review a bottle like this, I should probably give the backstory to put it all into context.
What makes Daniel Weller different from the other Weller labels?
Daniel Weller never started out as a product that Buffalo Trace distilled with the intention of making it into its own stand-alone label. Instead, it began as an experiment that was destined to (hopefully) make it into a bottle of Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection (BTEC, not BTAC). For over a decade now, Buffalo Trace has done some interesting experiments that included: Barrel Entry Proof variations, cask finishes and exotic grain mash bills. The mash bill for Daniel Weller falls into the latter category. At any moment in time, there are at least 3500 barrels of various experimental whiskies aging somewhere on the Frankfort campus.
The fact that this was designed to be a rather small, experimental release is also shown by the still that was used to make the whiskey in the first place. It was not created on Buffalo Trace’s massive column still(s), but rather a smaller hybrid still (pot/column) that was the pet project of Harlen Wheatley more than 12 years ago. This allows Buffalo Trace to make experimental runs of distillate without the commitment of stopping the operation of their primary moneymaker. This will also guarantee a slightly different tasting spirit in the end, but not enough to be concerned about for the purpose of this review.
The main difference that separates Daniel Weller from the other Weller labels is the type of wheat that is used. While Buffalo Trace doesn’t throw around the kind of wheat they use like – say – Maker’s Mark does, there is plenty of sources out there that say they use Soft Red Winter Wheat. Maker’s does too and primarily gets theirs from a nearby farm in Kentucky whereas Buffalo Trace sources theirs from various farms in North Dakota. But Emmer Wheat – a variety that has origins in ancient Egypt – is relatively new to the distilling community. It isn’t grown in nearly the quantity that traditional red and white wheats are, which made the choice to experiment with it much easier than full-scale production.
We can assume that Buffalo Trace used all of the same specs to distill this particular wheated bourbon that it does with their Weller line. That would mean somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-15% of the mash bill contains wheat while the barrel entry proof remains steady at 114 proof. And since Daniel Weller has hit 12 years of age in a barrel, it probably didn’t see time aging in the upper half of the rickhouse. In fact, when you take the basic tour of Buffalo Trace, you pass by many of those experimental barrels aging in the bottom ricks of the warehouse leading me to wonder if that’s not where most of them are positioned.
Daniel Weller: Cash Grab or nah?
The most important question on everyone’s mind when it comes to Daniel Weller is “is the $500 price tag worth it?” My immediate answer is no, but there is a certain amount of nuance that needs to be considered. Remember when I said that Daniel Weller was initially distilled with the intention of being a part of the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection? If it had stayed that way, it would have been put into a 375ml bottle for around $45 to $50. That is the standard retail price that Buffalo Trace has always sold those releases for. That would make the liquid inside of a 750ml bottle of Daniel Weller only worth around $100.
Other reviewers have tried explaining away the high price of Daniel Weller by blaming it on the grain they used or the inefficiencies of distilling smaller batches. But my take is that Buffalo Trace has gone to these lengths before for their other experimental whiskies and it’s never made a difference in the end price. Besides, Emmer Wheat was already a grain that was established and being actively grown for artisanal bakeries and home brewers. Want to talk about sourcing an expensive grain? Read up on Rosen Rye and how two distillers in Pennsylvania are bringing it back from a packet of seeds from a seed vault. Now that is an expensive grain that should add a lot of the cost to the final product!
Buffalo Trace has simply slapped a $500 pricetag on this bourbon because they could. They have taken a lot of crap for years about undervaluing their whiskey – which in turn creates legions of people seeking it out for the sole purpose of flipping it. So now they are finally pricing a limited edition bourbon with the intent of valuing the whiskey for what it would likely be flipped at all while advancing the likelihood for future premium priced releases. And who could really blame them? Just look at Wild Turkey and what they’re doing with their LE pricing these days. It’s becoming more commonplace. What is arguable is if this is a strategy that is sustainable or not. I’ll talk more on that later.
So now let’s get down to tasting it. That is what you tuned in for after all, right? I sampled this neat in a glencairn.
Nose: The beginning is a sweet melody of honey and creme brulee. The vanilla part makes itself known quite a bit more than the caramel topping. Aside from that, the nose is somewhat simple with a light oak scent and some brown baking spices. A light lemon curd note also wafts around. It’s enjoyable and seems like it would be much better with a little more proof.
Palate: There is a flavor that I’m picking up that I’m unfamiliar with – it seems like a flaw because it comes off as metallic or flinty and just sticks to the back of my tongue. There is definitely an underlying floral note that stretches across the entire flavor spectrum. I also find some lime zest. The spice is mild, but is more like powdered cinnamon with a hint of nutmeg. I personally think this tastes younger than it is – maybe closer to 6 or 7 years old. The sweetness is more like a thin honey. There are notes of berries instead of cherries like I would typically find with standard Weller. Some orchard fruit (pear in particular) give some extra complexity. I am looking for cherry or chocolate notes – which I usually find in wheated bourbons, but I swear there are none here.
Finish: That metallic or flinty taste (I can’t tell, it occasionally switches) follows through on the finish. It has a sort of drying effect and while it’s not powerful, it keeps interrupting my train of thought as I concentrate on finding other flavors. A sweeter form of caramel and oak do come through on the finish which are really nice to find. The cinnamon and orchard fruit are also quite nice too.
Before I get into my final thoughts on this bourbon, I wanted to take a minute to include some other thoughts on Daniel Weller from members of the New Jersey Bourbon and Yacht Club. One of the members obtained a 100ml bottle of Daniel Weller at the launch party in New York that I reported on back in May. He passed out glasses – blind – to a handful of the members to get their take. Here were some of the descriptions they had to say before the reveal:
- It was not immediately recognizable as a whiskey to them
- The liquid came off as very thin
- A few members wondered if it was a sort of Calvados because of the young fruit and apple
- Many found the finish to be “alkaline.” It wasn’t bitter, but it wasn’t something they expected in a whiskey
- Many found the low proof to yield little discernible flavors making it inoffensive, but lacking in character
Looking at my notes, I see a lot of similarities. There is a decent amount of orchard fruit that follows each sip. The metallic/flinty note I picked up on was probably what the group was describing as “alkaline.” I assume this is a result of the Emmer Wheat.
I won’t be overly dramatic and call this bourbon “undrinkable” or anything like that. I will call it an obvious letdown when I consider the price and rarity and seeing how hard some people are trying to get a bottle. I have to assume they’re doing it more for “the ‘Gram” than actually opening and drinking it. It’s too bad that most will see that kind of desirability as a representation of how it tastes.
After all is said and done, a review like this is unlikely to deter those who want a bottle to not go and buy one. I sincerely believe that all of the hubbub around it is less about opening and drinking and more about the never-ending quest for one-upmanship in the bourbon community. And if anyone out there truly wants a bottle to experience something new (which is totally understandable), then I implore you to begin checking out some craft whiskey. You’d be able to buy 15 bottles of craft for the secondary price of just one Daniel Weller.
The other option for those who are curious is to go to your local Total Wine and look for one of their brands called “Old Emmer Kentucky Bourbon.” It might not even surprise you to find out that Old Emmer is made for Total Wine by Barton Distillery. Sazerac has really cornered the market on Emmer Wheat, right? It even comes in a cask strength option, but is realistically nowhere near 12 years old. And as much as I dislike Total Wine, I feel better about giving you all an honest alternative rather than encouraging you to chase a bottle of Daniel Weller. Now we just have to wait until next May to find out if Daniel Weller will repeat itself or be replaced by something else so we can all start this whole process over again. Yay.
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