Wonders of Wheat
January 19, 2023 –––––– Kimberly Carmichael
WHERE’S THE WHEAT?
Wheat may be a major staple in American agriculture, but it has maintained a low profile in the national whiskey space. While widely used as a secondary grain in wheated bourbons and rye whiskeys, wheat is not often showcased by domestic whiskey makers. But some distillers are taking the plunge, exploring wheat’s many varieties and signature flavors.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFF HARRIS
A wheat whiskey must include at least 51% wheat in the mashbill, with maturation in charred new American oak barrels. A wheated whiskey, on the other hand, is one where wheat is the major secondary grain—behind corn in the case of wheated bourbons, for example. Well-known “wheaters” include popular names like Van Winkle, W.L. Weller, Maker’s Mark, and Larceny.
But actual wheat whiskeys are rare birds indeed. Historically, it was never a popular grain for whiskey making, primarily because it was more expensive than corn or rye. The situation wasn’t helped by some early attempts that resulted in overly oaked, fiery whiskeys—partly because the commitment to quality was not always there, with some distillers using wheat malt extract instead of actual grain. When Al Laws founded Laws Whiskey House in Denver, Colorado nearly a decade ago, he set out to craft heritage-grain whiskeys with a sense of terroir. He released his first batch of wheat whiskey in 2016, aged 3 ½ years. Today Laws’s wheat whiskeys are closer to 6 years in age, with a mashbill made from soft white Centennial spring wheat sourced from a family farm in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley.
Laws whiskey lineup includes Four Grain wheated bourbons and ryes, plus a limited-release malt expression. But each summer, the distillery rolls out its Centennial bonded wheat whiskey. “We took our Four Grain and wanted to make sure people could taste all four American mother grains in every sip,” says Laws. “We wanted to pull it apart—deconstruct it, if you will.” The team at Laws has since learned how to tame the fiery notes often found in young Centennial wheat whiskey, to achieve balanced flavors of baking spice and doughiness. “It was grain-forward at first, but as it got older, we realized that it was great whiskey, and it just happened to be made from wheat,” says Laws. Bernheim Original is probably the most recognizable wheat whiskey today, named for Heaven Hill’s Bernheim Distillery in Louisville. Heaven Hill introduced the expression in 2006 after master distiller Parker Beam created it from some leftover red winter wheat. At the time, it was Heaven Hill’s first new whiskey since Prohibition. As the distillery began to see how well this wheat whiskey aged, in 2014 it placed a 7 year age statement on Bernheim, in total opposition to the industry practice of eliminating age statements on other brands. With its lighter, softer taste profile, Bernheim wheat whiskey is very sippable—but alas, still largely underappreciated.
Room for Innovation
Heaven Hill produces six primary mashbills across its extensive whiskey portfolio, with Bernheim Original’s mashbill—51% wheat, 37% corn, and 12% malted barley—also found among the Parker’s Heritage Collection special releases. In 2014, Heaven Hill released an Original Batch barrel-proof wheat whiskey, and followed that in 2021 with a heavy-char barrel-proof wheat whiskey. But each of the Parker’s Heritage Collection wheat whiskeys showcases the various ways wheat can bring whiskey to life, and in a somewhat more complex way than Bernheim Original. A barrel-proof Bernheim wheat whiskey is also available for tasting at the Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience in Bardstown.
Columbus, Ohio-based Middle West Spirits, founded in 2008, is also blazing a path in wheat whiskey with its grain-to-glass focus. “Soft red winter wheat is produced a lot here in Ohio, so wheat whiskey was the first thing we focused on,” says Middle West co-founder and CEO Ryan Lang. Working with the Agricultural Technical Institute at Ohio State University, the distillery has delved deep into Ohio wheat—and in particular that soft red winter variety, which is used in all Middle West spirits, including its vodka and gin.
Looking to experiment with barrel aging, Middle West used oloroso barrels from Meier’s Wine Cellars in Cincinnati and released its Double Cask Collection Oloroso wheat whiskey. Middle West now works with Speyside Bourbon Cooperage, located in Jackson, Ohio. That partnership allows it to experiment with wine and sherry barrels for wheat whiskeys, which will be released in a few years. “Ohio wheat is our backbone,” says Lang. “Pennsylvania has rye, and Kentucky has corn. Wheat, too, has its place.”
Many see wheat whiskey as a sleeper style whose day will come. “There are just not a lot of well-aged, 100% wheat whiskeys on the market, but wheat is a natural transition to the flavor profile of traditional American whiskey,” says Laws. With its soft mouthfeel and approachable flavor, wheat whiskey may gain attention as more new expressions emerge.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFF HARRIS
10 WHEAT WHISKEYS TO TRY
92 Dry Fly Cask Strength
60% • $50 • 100% wheat
Vanilla, pomegranate, cherry pie, chocolate
90 Bainbridge Battle Point Two Islands Islay Cask Finished
43% • $90 • 100% wheat
Smoke, sea, grilled sausage, leather, caramel, walnut, chocolate
90 Bernheim Original 7 year old
45% • $30 • 51% wheat
Graham cracker, citrus fruit, pecans, cake batter, caramel corn, drying cocoa powder
90 Parker’s Heritage Collection
11 year old • 61% • $140 • 51% wheat
Cinnamon, brown sugar, bitter coffee, dark chocolate, orchard fruit, melted caramel
89 Lone Elm Single Barrel (No. 521)
61.4% • $70 • 90% wheat
Brown sugar, chocolate peanut butter cup, peppery spice, pine needles, cooked berries
89 Middle West Spirits
46% • $40 • 95% wheat
Raspberry, red apple skins, caramel, barrel char, coffee cake
88 Huling Station Very Small Batch
45% • $50 • 83% wheat
Bitter chocolate, pistachio, coconut, cafe latte
88 Laws Centennial Bottled in Bond
50% • $80 • 100% wheat
Ripe mango, lemon peel, black cherry, peppery spice, bitter chocolate, roasted walnuts
88 Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select
(Batch 0037) • 45.2% • $35 • 52% wheat
Orange oil, toasted Popsicle stick, roasted nuts, oak spices, chocolate, cinnamon
86 Old Elk • 50% • $74 • 95% wheat
Dried flowers, oak, nuts, dark chocolate, pepper
PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFF HARRIS
10 WHEATED BOURBONS
Not to be confused with wheat whiskey, wheated bourbons maintain a majority corn mashbill complemented by a heavy dose of wheat as a secondary ingredient. Wheat can be added to create a four-grain mashbill, or it can replace rye as the second ingredient after corn, creating a softer, slightly sweeter flavor profile.
While everyone knows the iconic Van Winkles and W.L. Weller, there are many other wheated bourbons to try in endless styles. As distillers become more familiar with what wheat has to offer in a bourbon, innovations in barrel finishes and charring provide whiskey fans plenty of opportunities to explore.
95 Larceny Barrel Proof
(Batch B520)• 61% • $50
Crème brûlée, chocolate, caramel, honey-roasted peanuts, cinnamon
94 Old Fitzgerald
15 year old Bottled in Bond 50% • $150
Brown sugar, spice, fine leather, fruit, earth
93 Maker’s Mark Cask
Strength • 54-57% • $45
Caramel, honey, marzipan, cotton candy, cinnamon, clove, leather
90 New Riff Maltster
50% • $50
Dark chocolate, oak, coffee bean, cola spices, and nuts
48% • $45
Cornbread, pecan pie, roasted walnuts, cinnamon roll, pumpkin spice
88 1792 Sweet Wheat
45.6% • $36
Vanilla wafer, cotton candy, caramel custard, blackberry, ripe peach
88 Treaty Oak Ghost Hill
Texas • 47.5% • $50
Pancake syrup, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, oak, roasted peanuts, coffee
87 Garrison Brothers
Small Batch • 47% • $91
Spicy gingersnap, cinnamon, toasted pecan, caramel, vanilla
87 Wyoming Whiskey
Small Batch • 44% • $50
Grass, plum tart, and creamy sweetness
86 Buffalo Trace Kosher
47% • $40
Semi-sweet chocolate, peanuts, orange oil, apple peels, white pepper, cinnamon