Wheated Whiskey vs. Wheated Bourbon: Differences, Recs & More

by Jim Casey
photo by Outsider

There’s been an abundance of wheat-related hype in the whiskey universe over the past 25-ish years thanks, in part, to the Pappy Van Winkle craze of ’96. Even if you don’t know much about whiskey or bourbon, you’ve probably heard about the elusive expressions of Pappy that fetch top dollar (sometimes thousands of dollars above MSRP) from the enthusiastic “wheaters” (lovers of wheated bourbon).

Let’s dig into this whole wheat thing (see what I did there?). Because there are pronounced differences between Wheated Whiskey and Wheated Bourbon in terms of mash bill, standards, taste, and more.

Whiskey Standards

To be classified “whiskey” or “whisky” (the spelling generally used in Scotland, Canada, and Japan), the spirit must be:

  • fermented grain mash
  • distilled at less than 190 proof
  • stored in oak barrels with no minimum time requirement
  • free of neutral spirits

The most popular grains, in the aforementioned “fermented grain mash,” are corn, barley, rye, and wheat (other seldom-used grains include buckwheat, oats, quinoa, rice, and sorghum). The “whiskey” category is big and broad, with a number of designations. Think of whiskey as a universe, with numerous satellites in orbit that meet the “whiskey standards,” but are also their own distinct expressions, including wheated, rye, bourbon, and more. Each expression has its own mash bill, among other requirements.

Wheated whiskey must be made from a mash bill of at least 51 percent wheat. Some brands use the minimum 51 percent, while others go all the way up to 100 percent—and everything in between. Generally speaking, wheated whiskeys are lighter and sweeter than, let’s say, the spiciness of rye whiskeys, which contain a minimum 51 percent rye.

Wheated Bourbons (from left): Maker’s Mark, Pappy Van Winkle’s 15 Year & W.L. Weller 12 Year.

Bourbon Standards

According to the Code of Federal Regulations (5.143), bourbon must be:

  • made in the United States.
  • fermented mash of at least 51 percent corn
  • distilled at 160 proof (80 ABV) or less
  • aged in charred, new oak barrels
  • barreled no higher than 125 proof
  • aged for a minimum of two years
  • bottled at 80 proof or higher
  • pure (no color/flavor additives other than water)

Bourbon must be made with a mash bill of at least 51 percent corn. So, technically speaking, bourbon can’t also be a true “wheated whiskey.” Instead, what we call “wheated bourbon” features wheat in some part of the mash bill. The wheat can be added to the mash bill (along with corn, rye, and malted barley to create a 4-grain bourbon like E.H Taylor Four Grain), or the wheat can be used in place of the rye, which is typically a bourbon’s secondary grain.

Generally speaking, wheated bourbons are softer, nuttier, and have a more mellow finish than bourbons with high rye mash bills. And for newbies jumping into the world of bourbon, wheated bourbons are a great place to start. The sweetness of the corn and evenness of the wheat will have both newbies and aficionados vocalizing the “s” word.

Our Affordable (and Available) Recs

A handful of Outsider’s favorite Wheated Whiskeys and Wheated Bourbons are below. We picked our recs based on taste, price, and availability (note: while Weller Special Reserve is often hard to find, we feel like it still qualifies).

Wheated Whiskeys

Wheated Bourbons