We all know that bourbon is made from corn. So what's a wheated bourbon? Well, since by law a bourbon has to contain only 51% corn in its mashbill (though most bourbons contain north of 70%), there's plenty of room for other grains. Malted barley is used in small quantities as a catalyst for fermentation. The other grain is usually rye, which provides a nice spicy counterpoint to the sweetness of the corn. Wheated bourbons forgo the rye for, you guessed it, wheat, which gives the finished product a softness and a smoothness you don't get with rye. The most coveted (and overhyped) bourbon in the world, Pappy Van Winkle, is a wheater. And so is Maker's Mark, which only happens to be one of the best selling bourbons in the U.S.
For decades after its founding in the 1950s, Maker's had exactly one product on the shelves, even as other bourbon distilleries tinkered with their formulas through countless variations, limited editions and the like. Maker's has never messed with its mashbill, but over the last few years it's experimented with finishing the bourbon in French oak staves — which is what differentiates Maker's 46, introduced in 2011, from standard Maker's Mark. More recently, their Private Select program lets anyone with enough coin buy a whole barrel in a unique bespoke style, based on different types of staves and flavor profiles.
The latest edition of Maker's Mark, the oddly named Seared BU 1-3, is apparently a failed experiment, in which Maker's tried to add a seared and sous-vide stave to mix things up a bit. According to the brand, the flavors imparted by the new stave didn't mingle well with the other staves, but it made a delicious whiskey on its own. And it's that whiskey which is seeing a very limited release, exclusively at the distillery and select Kentucky retailers. The half-size (375 ml) bottles, 1,400 of which will see the light of day, retail for $40, but by the time you read this, they'll likely be going for several times that on the secondary market. At least you'll save plane and hotel fare if you go that route. And if you're a bourbon buff, it's definitely worth hunting down. It's sweet and velvety, with oodles of toffee, caramel and vanilla and an oh-so-smooth finish, despite its being bottled at cask strength (110.7 proof). Enjoy it while you can.
Another limited edition wheater is out now from Jefferson's, one of many brands that doesn't distill its own product — rather, it sources its juice from outside distilleries in Indiana and Kentucky. And there's nothing wrong with that, since they're not lying and making up some cockamamie story about the booze's provenance. Jefferson's founder Trey Zoeller does some interesting things with what he buys. The most interesting, arguably, is Jefferson's Ocean: Aged At Sea, which is really what the name says it is — barrels of bourbon stuck on a boat that stays at sea for about four years, stopping at up to 30 ports and crossing the equator a few times in the bargain. Gimmicky? Hell yes. Tasty? Affirmative.
The 15th batch of Jefferson's Ocean to be released is also the first wheater of the bunch, the rest having been corn-rye-malted barley mashbills. If you're expecting to taste the sea air in your bourbon... well, it's there if you concentrate hard enough. The years spent on the water have imparted a bit of salt and smoke to the whiskey, but it's a more subtle influence than you might suspect. However, it definitely has more volume than your typical wheater, with characteristic soft caramel notes but a lot of body and a robust, slightly spicy finish. This, says Trey Zoeller, is due to the equatorial heat encountered during the time at sea. If you like wheaters and don't mind paying $80 for one (ocean voyages ain't cheap, you know), this is worth checking out.