I am often asked about the history behind the wheat recipe Bourbon; It is a short history to write, but a long history over all. It starts in the early 19th century. There are several mash bills dating to the 1810s in the collections of the Filson Historical Society and the Kentucky Historical Society, that state their mash bill uses either rye or wheat as a flavoring grain in their whiskey. I say whiskey, not Bourbon, because these mash bills pre-date the earliest written mention of Bourbon in 1821.  However, it can be easily assumed that they were making whiskey that would become Bourbon.

For the rest of the 19th century and the two decades before Prohibition, there are not any written references to using wheat in Bourbon. However, there were distillers who owned mills before they became distillers, such as Henry McKenna, who could very easily have used wheat in their Bourbon. Millers often took a portion of the grains they milled as payment for the grinding of grain. They would have had extra wheat available to use in making Bourbon. Rye became the more popular grain as wheat had more value than rye in making bread. Rye was cheaper to use to make Bourbon and became the flavoring grain of choice for distillers.

After Prohibition. We know that Stitzel-Weller began to make a wheat recipe Bourbon. I should say, during Prohibition they started using wheat in their mash bill. This is because they were one of the distillers allowed to start making beverage alcohol in 1928 in order to replenish dwindling stocks of “medicinal spirits” sold to pharmacies during Prohibition. According to a letter in  the United Distillers Archive for Julian Van Winkle, they started using their recipe because the  Stitzels had been experimenting with it for decades and they found it tasted better at a younger age than most other recipes. They wanted their Bourbon to taste good at a young age because they would need the stocks of whiskey in a short four years.

Stitzel-Weller kept their recipe a secret for many years. They went so far as to mark their wheat grain hopper “rye” so visitors would not see that they were using wheat instead of rye as the flavoring grain. That changed in the 1950s when Julian Van Winkle advised his friend T.W. Samuels on getting back into the whiskey business. He gave Samuels the wheat recipe and yeast to start Maker’s Mark. Maker’s Mark “tweaked” the recipe somewhat, raising the barrel entry proof from 107 to the legal maximum of the time of 110 for example, to make it their own recipe. However, Maker’s Mark made no secret that they were using wheat as the flavoring grain for their Bourbon. In 1972, the Stitzel-Weller Distillery was sold and the new owners wanted to make Bourbon cheaper so they started to slowly raise the barrel entry proof of the recipe to save money by using fewer barrels. By 1992, when the distillery closed down permanently, the barrel entry proof had reached 114 at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery.

For the rest of the century, Stitzel-Weller and Maker’s Mark were known as the only two distilleries making a wheat recipe Bourbon. That changed in the last few years of the 20th century. In 1997, United Distillers became Diageo and sold off the Old Fitzgerald brand to Heaven Hill, the W.L. Weller brand to Buffalo Trace, and the Rebel Yell brand to David Sherman (now Luxco). These distilleries are all making wheat recipe Bourbons. 

With the “Bourbon Boom” came an explosion of growth in the number of distilleries in the United States. Many of these new distilleries are making wheat recipe Bourbon. I do find it interesting that many of the owners of these distilleries tell me that they are making the wheat recipe because they always thought that Maker’s Mark was the best Bourbon they ever tasted and want to make their own version of Maker’s Mark. I find this interesting that it is Maker’s Mark, not Old Fitzgerald or W.L. Weller, with all the hype they receive, that have inspired them to make wheat recipe Bourbon.

Wheat recipe Bourbon has a long history dating back into the early 19th century. It also has a long future ahead of it. Wheat recipe Bourbons are very popular and are going to continue to grow as more and more distilleries are making this style of Bourbon.

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller