WELLER SPECIAL RESERVE
Single Barrel 119, picked by Bourbon County & Fred’s Liquor (2019)
MASH BILL – Undisclosed mash of corn, wheat, and barley
PROOF – 90
AGE – NAS (~6 to 7 years)
DISTILLERY – Buffalo Trace Distillery
PRICE – $27
BUY AGAIN? – Already did!
This post—the first of three on Weller store picks—focuses on the entry-level Weller product, Weller Special Reserve. It is arguably the most famous bottom-shelf bourbon gone top-shelf. Yet Bourbon County and Fred’s Liquor of San Francisco remain unconventionally committed to fair pricing. They put their pick out on the shelf for less than the average Bay Area store now charges for the standard blended release! I see the standard release going for around $40 on average, and as high as $100. And another local shop with a Special Reserve store-pick is selling theirs for $75. All of that makes this $27 Bourbon County / Fred’s Liquor pick a no-brainer buy.
For some of us, all the yo-yo pricing and irregular availability only fans the fire of our desire to hunt Weller Special Reserve. For some of us, given Weller Special Reserve still only tastes like a good, solid bottom-shelf bourbon, all the fuss is rather off-putting. I lean more toward the latter than the former. But although I’ve cut way back lately on bunkering backups of my favorite bottles, given the price of this Weller Special Reserve store pick I’d already bought a back-up before I’d even tasted it.
Here are some notes in brief, taken about two weeks after the uncorking (or, unscrewing) and still just a few shots into the bottle:
COLOR – a lovely, vibrant toasted honey-orange
NOSE – brightly tart baked apples, sunlit oak, sweet baked cherry pie, caramel drizzled on pie crust
TASTE – bright tangy caramels, some oak and apple pie crust
FINISH – a tingly and lightly-rough pepperiness around the caramels, with light and gently tannic oak
OVERALL – Out of the gate it’s great, then with air it starts to lose the complexity of that first impression
This is solid. It’s no more a mind-blower here in this single barrel #119 than the standard blended Weller Special Reserve ever was. But up front, I’m won over to it instantly. The caramels and apples and pie crust flavors are just so bright and pungent and energizing. Then, with air, it all starts shifting away from the caramels and into simpler table sugars. The pie crust flavors dissipate and leave the oak and its mild tannins to dominate. The nose holds out its complexity the longest. But the taste and finish are fairly quick to move on from their initial impressions.
I refreshed my glass and the same pattern repeated—more vibrant, juicier flavors up front, soon airing out to flatter, drier flavors. There is no [good] reason for this brand to have become such a sought-after unicorn. However, if you can find a single barrel store-pick for this price, it’s still what it is: a very worthwhile and affordable daily sipper, perfectly fine neat and also good for mixing.
I simply had to try it against some standard Weller Special Reserve. I didn’t have a bottle of the standard release open. A gracious friend provided me with a couple of ounces. On another day than the above tasting, I tasted both this store pick and the standard-bottle sample, blind, not knowing which was which. I refer to them as “Left” and “Right” in these brief comparison notes:
L – vibrant toasted orange
R – vibrant toasted orange
L – tangy caramel, bright berry fruit, bright apple juice
R – same but less forthcoming and with a slightly stronger caramel note
L – surprising florals I don’t associate with Weller, almost soap-like, taking a more forward position than the more familiar bright fruity caramels.
R – more familiar, the watery bright fruity caramels, with some mild oakiness in the mix
L – floral here too, hovering mist-like around the Weller profile enough to blur it, a bit of oak making it through and the warmth lingering with a soft tingling at the back of the mouth
R – pepperier, and, as with the Left sample, this pepperiness is the more prominent aspect at this stage, with the fruity caramels lingering warmly but faintly behind it
L – That odd floral soapy note is a new experience for me with Weller, and not a good one. I wouldn’t want a bottle of this.
R – Tastes like good solid Weller Special Reserve.
Despite this photo I snapped beforehand, turns out the left glass was actually the standard release, and the right glass was the store pick. The surprising floral soapy note in the standard release was so outside my past experiences of the Weller profile, I couldn’t help but suspect the jar my friend gave me had dishwashing soap residue in it. I mentioned this to him. He and his wife both then tasted the standard release again, from its original bottle, and agreed there was a floral note they couldn’t taste in the Bourbon County / Fred’s Liquor store pick, which they also had on hand. Though the floral soap wasn’t as strong to them as it seemed to be to me, we wondered if perhaps their bottle had oxidized.
So the playing field might not be totally level here. Still, as with the Weller Antique 107 line, this experience has sold me on store picks over the standard release. I don’t even bother with the standard release of Weller Antique 107 anymore, waiting instead for the local store picks that come out nearly every autumn and spring. And these days their prices don’t differ by terribly much from the standard release.
Weller Special Reserve is far less frequently offered as a store pick. This is actually my first experience with single barrel Special Reserve. But I don’t doubt I’ve had my last experience with the standard release. Like the Antique 107, why pay only a bit less for something far less enjoyable when you could pay just a bit more for something distinctly better?
This Bourbon County / Fred’s Liquor store pick may be gone from their shelves. But some other shop near you may get its own Weller Special Reserve pick and when they do, if they price it anywhere south of $40, I recommend giving it a go.
In part 2, we’ll be tasting a Weller Antique 107 picked by Maison Corbeaux’s Single Barrel Project. Stay tuned…!
January 30, 2020
A little over a month after posting this, my friend who had provided the sample of standard Weller Special Reserve, in a jar we suspected might have either been tainted by dishwashing soap or oxidized, provided a second sample from the same bottle. This time he poured it into a hand-washed jar to guarantee a clean slate. I transferred it into an even smaller bottle to further protect it from possible oxidization. Here now are some notes comparing this sample to the Bourbon County / Fred’s Liquor store pick:
REGULAR – a pale toasted-honey yellow
PICK – same, only a very slight notch darker
REGULAR – caramel and dusty oak, lemon, less forthcoming overall
PICK – vanilla, caramel, dusty oak, all notably more forthcoming
REGULAR – sweetly tart and lemony caramel, slight oak, a light floral note
PICK – caramel up front, with crisply tannic oak, a slight herbaceous note
REGULAR – warm pepperiness, the floral note, caramels fade pretty quickly leaving the warmth to linger
PICK – warm pepperiness, the oak tannins and herbals, flavors fading more slowly than the regular WSR sample
REGULAR – a good, solid daily sipper, with that floral aspect and generally less forthcoming at each stage than the store pick
PICK – also a good, solid daily sipper, with more texture and oomph than the standard bottling, and an herbal note where the standard goes floral
So this confirms that the previous comparison was indeed tainted by a soapy jar, and not oxidized. But more interesting to me this time is how the store pick is the more forthcoming of the two, whereas when I tasted them blind a month ago that aspect was reversed. Also, now that the dish soap possibility is cleared up, there is the distinct difference between the floral note in the standard bottling that in the store pick comes across as herbaceous. This aspect in the standard bottling conjures a bouquet of flowers, whereas the store pick conjures moss on oak bark.
When given the choice between floral versus herbaceous, I tend to lean toward the latter. For me it’s a more interesting area of flavors. Exceptions abound, of course. An herbal Booker’s isn’t my favorite emphasis in that line. And the distinctly floral Jefferson’s Reserve is in its own way as tasty a daily sipper for me as any Weller Special Reserve.
All of that, along with the store pick featuring more prominent vanilla in its caramel, reaffirms my preference for the store pick overall.
So, the Weller journey continues…