You asked, we listened. Many readers wanted a head-to-head matchup between two of the most popular and readily available wheated bourbons on the market. We would have included Weller Special Reserve in this review but decided against it because it’s still too allocated for most people to find.
And if they do find it on a shelf, it’s almost certainly marked up (I’ve seen pictures of liquor stores putting $100 price tags on them!). So for this review, let’s stick with these two bottles that – thankfully – keep the price point under $30.
A quick explanation of wheated bourbon
So what’s the big deal with wheated bourbon? The short story is that it is a bourbon uses wheat in place of rye as the “small secondary grain” in the mash bill. I really enjoy traditional rye bourbons and think that grain adds a particular spice and rounder character to bourbon that goes together like peas and carrots.
But too much rye is an acquired taste that will probably turn off those who are new to American whiskey long before they can understand and appreciate it.
Wheat is an alternative option that doesn’t provide much in the way of complex flavors. Instead, as it ages, the esters it creates are known to change differently in the barrel than a rye whiskey would. Wheated bourbons are known to release more sweetness over time and also have the opportunity to develop a chocolate-like flavor profile.
One of the early pioneers of wheated bourbon was the Pappy Van Winkle line. That’s a name many of you probably recognize even if you’re not fully educated on bourbon yet. He famously distilled bourbon at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery starting in 1935. The recipe he used contained wheat as the secondary grain. Other famous brands – including Old Fitzgerald – were made at Stitzel-Weller. Remember that name because it will come up again later.
It’s rumored that Pappy gave his recipe (and yeast) to his friend Bill Samuels along with the advice “make this and charge an arm and a leg for it. You won’t bother me because that’s not my business.” Bill Samuels took that advice and recipe and created the brand Maker’s Mark.
Larceny mash bill vs Makers mash bill
The Old Fitzgerald brand was eventually purchased by Heaven Hill along with their acquisition of the Bernheim Distillery (where Heaven Hill distillate is made) in the late 1990s. Heaven Hill would continue to produce a wheated bourbon for the Old Fitzgerald tradition as well as a new brand they called Larceny. The same style and mash bill is used for both – 68 percent corn, 20 percent wheat and 12% malted barley. Maker’s Mark has published that theirs uses 70% corn, 16% soft red winter wheat and 14% malted barley.
What is the main difference between each type of bourbon?
As you can see, the mash bills are somewhat similar to each other. But the differences increase when you take a look at the production methods each distiller uses. Maker’s Mark takes an old time approach to distillation by having their distillate come off the still at 130 proof. It enters the barrel at 110 proof. Heaven Hill’s wheated bourbon comes off the still at 140 proof and enters the barrel at 125 proof – considerably higher than Maker’s Mark.
But what do those numbers mean? In a nutshell, the higher you are distilling your spirit, the lighter and cleaner the distillate becomes. If you think “cleaner” would be a good trait to have, the trade-off of higher distillation proofs is the loss of more congeners (the chemical compounds that most flavor comes from). When it comes to Heaven Hill products though, they seem to care – probably because of increased profit margins as they can stretch the liquid across more barrels.
Lower Proof Bourbon
Heaven Hill also bucks conventional wisdom that says that wheated bourbons need to be put into a barrel at a lower proof. Other brands adhere to that principle like Buffalo Trace who uses a barrel entry proof of 114, Wilderness Trail who uses 100-103 and MGP who uses a barrel entry proof of 120.
Part of the reason behind a lower barrel-proof version stems from the knowledge that wood sugars are more readily dissolved in whiskey with a higher water content.
What this all boils down to is that Heaven Hill’s wheated bourbon is designed to make maximum profit whereas Maker’s Mark keeps their approach more old-school at the risk of inefficiency. But can consumers tell the difference? That’s where I’m going to come in and try to determine who has the superior product.
Both of these bourbons are within 2 proof points from each other while remaining more-or-less on par with each other as far as the age statement goes (no more than 7 years old for each). So how do they taste? Let’s find out.
Maker’s Mark Tasting Notes
Nose: A pleasant nose of caramel and brown sugar coupled with light cinnamon spice and a bit of oak. Vanilla has a lot more presence than I thought it would while cherry has a lot less presence than I thought it would. Strangely, I feel like there is a slight “butter pecan” nuttiness that I can’t quite put my finger on.
Palate: The presence of corn is interesting to find here. It’s not grainy, rather, it tastes more like a Karo syrup or sweet cornbread. Each sip combines a little bit of spice (black pepper) which gives it some heat followed by sweeter notes like buttery caramel and Rolo’s candies.
There’s even some cherries and a tiny hint of floral flavors (bordering on grassy) underneath it all. Maker’s has never been one to have a lot of wood flavors (except in its Wood Finished Series bottles), but a particular wood note sticks out here – and it’s somewhat green and underdeveloped.
Finish: The finish turns thin, astringent and loses its sweetness fast. Some spice and vanilla notes remain the longest. There’s barrel char too. It isn’t like there is a lot to ponder about and finding these finish notes requires many sips to capture them all before they vanish. The finish is my most unfavorite part of the whole experience.
Larceny Bourbon Tasting Notes
Nose: The nose is light and sweet with scents of toffee and candy corn. Vanilla extract and cinnamon stick provide the ying and yang of mellow and spice. As for fruits, there aren’t many to smell which is kind of a bummer for a wheated bourbon to not have. The typical nutty scent that most Heaven Hill distillery products have is present, but hides mostly in the background.
Palate: Nutty caramel flavors combine with the flavors of fudge as I roll this around in my mouth. Spice comes by way of cinnamon stick. I think I’m tasting a little bit of cherry, but it’s not overpowering. The mouthfeel feels more thin than the Maker’s did. But what Larceny lacks is the floral/grassy note that I found from the Maker’s. That’s a plus in my book.
Finish: The cinnamon lingers for a while as the caramel disappears. In its place is a sweetness that resembles more of a simple syrup. The vanilla and nutty flavors are more muted. A tiny bit of oak spice comes out at the end too. I was hoping for more tannins, but this is somewhat young after all.
So we have a tie! I didn’t want it to come out this way, but these two seem to provide the same level of enjoyment per sip. That doesn’t make them equals exactly, but for every flaw one of them has, they also seem to have a positive. The Maker’s would be my choice if my palate wanted a fruitier flavor per sip. The Larceny would be my choice for a sweeter palate and candy bar notes were more up my alley.
Unfortunately, lack of age and proof make these pours somewhat lackluster. I would consider them each to be bottles more fit for cocktail duty rather than sipping. However, I’m not saying they could never be sipped – just that there are other choices within the world of whiskey at this price for a more discerning palate that are better suited and provide good value.
I have a rather blunt opinion about young wheated whiskey and it’s this: if you are looking for a budget sipper – stick with a ryed bourbon instead. I would much rather prefer Benchmark Top Floor or Small Batch or even Very Old Barton over these two.
All of those bottles are rather fruity too – something that a wheated bourbon was supposed to be. The unfortunate truth is that something was missing with these two whether or not it was age or proof or both. I think it’s probably proof because I really enjoy the barrel proof versions of each of these. Proofing them down loses the magic.
As I am known to do, I recommend that you buy the best bourbon whiskey you can for the money you have. If you don’t have to buy these sub-$30 bottles, then don’t. Move up another tier to get something that can handle the responsibilities of being a good sipper and a good mixer. Otherwise, you’re just throwing your money down the drain.
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