Author & Taster: Jesse Nicholson (follow on Instagram @j.nicholson11)
Participating Taster: Zachary Jones (follow on Instagram @zjones3)
Thank you Jesse for letting me share this amazing Willett Wheater Showdown on thebourbonbuddy.com website. Note to readers. While this tasting is epic and interesting to read the results, don’t take the final rankings as fact. Everyone has a different palate. We could debate the rankings for hours. Jesse and Zach are just sharing their experience. Cheers and enjoy!
In October 2015, I purchased a bottle of Willett 22yr #C4D after a strong recommendation on it from a friend. Unfortunately, when I opened it and had a pour, I wasn’t all that impressed. It just didn’t live up to the expectations I’d built up from my one other similar bottle, the Ledroit DC release 21yr C19A “Pot O Gold”. Willett had been releasing wheaters at the gift shop regularly throughout 2015 and it seemed everyone had different opinions about which one was “the best”. I decided that rather than have a bottle sitting around that I was kind of disappointed with, I’d see if I could trade samples of it for all the other 2015 releases. Then I could see which one I thought was the best. I decided to limit the scope to 2015 releases because not only was that a lot of bottles already, but finding samples of the older releases would be really difficult.
I ultimately gathered 23 different samples: 19 gift shop releases, 2 store picks and one 2014 gift shop release. One gift shop release (B51) was released so late in the year that it unfortunately did not make it into the tasting. The tasting would consist of multiple rounds with two tasters: myself and Zach Jones. Although we would know what was being poured in every tasting, we poured for each other so the order of pours was blind. The tasting was set up as a double elimination with the winner moving on against a “reference pour” group of 2014 releases: C10A, C19A and C19D.
The tasting would have four preliminary round groups (A, B, C, D) and then five elimination round groups. For preliminary rankings, we used internet hype to assign each release a rank of 1-5. Each preliminary group would consist of one pour from every rank. After tasting, Zach and I would compare notes and come to a consensus on new rankings. For the elimination rounds, the first round was all 5’s would face each other in the first round. The winner would move up and go against the 4’s and so on.
Note: there were four releases that came out after we started the tasting (B52, C8D, B51, C12A). We incorporated three of these (B52, C8D, C12A) on the fly into the elimination rounds.
- 50 – 21yr, 67.5%, 135 proof, 72 bottles, released 3/7/15
- 324 – 22yr, 67.5%, 135 proof, 109 bottles, released 5/30/15
- B49 – 22yr, 66.9%, 133.8 proof, 103 bottles, released 6/22/15
- B49C – 22yr, 68.2%, 136.4 proof, 105 bottles, released 9/12/15
- B52 – 22yr, 65.9%, 131.8 proof, 106 bottles, released 11/18/15
- C4D – 22yr, 67.5%, 135 proof, 132 bottles, released 10/22/15
- C5D – 22yr, 69.1%, 138.2 proof, 97 bottles, released 9/19/15 (2015 KBF release)
- C7D – 22yr, 64.8%, 129.6 proof, 82 bottles, released 10/9/15
- C8D – 22yr, 66.1%, 132.2 proof, 105 bottles, released 11/27/15
- C10A – 21yr, 72.2%, 144.4 proof, 83 bottles, released September 2014 (2014 KBF release)
- C10D – 22yr, 67.6%, 135.2 proof, 102 bottles, released 10/31/15
- C12 – 21yr, 68.7%, 137.4 proof, 126 bottles, released summer 2014 “The Gunnar”
- C12A – 21yr, 71.2%, 142.4 proof, unknown yield, released 12/14/15 (Astor Wines release)
- C12B – 22yr, 67.9%, 135.8 proof, 106 bottles, released 8/8/15
- C13D – 21yr, 70.5%, 141 proof, 115 bottles, released 3/7/15
- C14D – 22yr, 69.6%, 139.2 proof, 108 bottles, released 4/4/15
- C16D – 22yr, 67.2%, 134.4 proof, 114 bottles, released 5/15/16
- C17D – 22yr, 71.4%, 142.8 proof, 112 bottles, released 5/1/15
- C18D – 22yr, 68.85%, 137.7 proof, 113 bottles, released 4/25/15
- C19A – 21yr, 71.9%, 143.8 proof, 113 bottles, released summer 2014 (Ledroit DC “Pot O Gold”)
- C19D – 21yr, 71.0%, 142 proof, 96 bottles, released September 2014 (2014 KBF release)
- C20A – 22yr, 68.5%, 137 proof, 76 bottles, released 8/8/15
- C20D – 22yr, 69.1%, 138.2 proof, 92 bottles, released 9/16/15 (2015 KBF release)
- C22D – 22yr, 68.7%, 137.4 proof, 96 bottles, released 9/18/15 (2015 KBF release)
- C67A – 21yr, 71.4%, 142.8 proof, 83 bottles, released February 2015 (Bonilli Japan release)
- C69A – 22yr, 66.8%, 133.6 proof, 63 bottles, released 8/22/15
As mentioned in the Premise, we pre-ranked all the bottles based on things we’d read in the bourbon groups over the course of the year. The groups were as follows:
Group A: C13D (1 seed), C4D (2 seed), C10D (3 seed), C20D (4 seed), C12 (5 seed)
Group B: B49C (1 seed), C20A (2 seed), C18D (3 seed), C12B (4 seed), C16D (5 seed)
Group C: 50 (1 seed), C5D (2 seed), C7D (3 seed), 324 (4 seed), C22D (5 seed)
Group D: C67A (1 seed), B49 (2 seed), C69A (3 seed), C14D (4 seed), C17D (5 seed)
1st Place: C13D – 21yr, 70.5%, 141 proof, 115 bottles, released 3/7/15
Jesse: Nose on this one was very bright with a lot of burnt corn notes. By far the most intense nose of the group. Brightness carried over onto the palate. By far the most bold of the group. Very well balanced with pretty subtle oak. Lingering heat on the finish knocked this to 2nd place, but very close.
Zach: Orange peel and burnt toffee on the nose. Good mouthfeel with a lighter, less charred oaky finish. One of the fruitier ones in the group. Clear winner for me, which gave this the win for the group.
2nd Place: C4D – 22yr, 67.5%, 135 proof, 132 bottles, released 10/22/15
Jesse: Very subdued nose compared to the others in the group. Very balanced, no single note stood out. Balance also best describes the palate. Everything is in the right proportion. Almost no heat, very drinkable. Short finish. Somewhat boring but the overall balance and lack of heat gave this 1st place ranking.
Zach: Very solid pour, well balanced. Beat out by C13D due to lack of complexity.
3rd Place: C10D – 22yr, 67.6%, 135.2 proof, 102 bottles, released 10/31/15
Jesse: Really great nose, best of the group. Candy, buttered popcorn, cinnamon. Initial rush of heat on the palate, which then lingers through the finish. Cinnamon is noticeable throughout as is buttered corn. The oak is a bit out of balance and leaves a bitter finish, knocking this one back significantly from the first two. 3rd place.
Zach: Overall very good with similarities to C13D. Fruitiest of the bunch with a good deal of heat on the back end. Lacks in complexity compared to C13D. Good expression of this style overall. 3rd place.
4th Place: C20D – 22yr, 69.1%, 138.2 proof, 92 bottles, released 9/16/15
Jesse: On initial nosing, this seemed very soapy compared to the rest. Soapiness faded after a bit of time in the glass and revealed some buttered corn. Very typical nose for one of these. Palate was a bit peppery, but otherwise typical. Weak nose and lack of real interest on the palate knocks this to 4th place.
Zach: Typical toffee and wood character. Nothing off-putting but overall just bland and uninteresting by comparison. 4th place.
5th Place: C12 “The Gunnar” – 21yr, 68.7%, 137.4 proof, 126 bottles, released summer 2014
Jesse: Nose is immediately off-putting. There is some funky/savory/meaty thing going on here. Very buttery when you get past that. The palate is just as bad as the nose. Very little sweetness, just funk and bitter wood. Hot finish to cap it off. Very clear loser.
Zach: Light, soapy nose. Lots of char with a deep, off-balance finish. Chewy, lingering mouthfeel but in a bad way. Bitter and not good at all. Don’t really want to finish this one.
Jesse: C4D, C13D, C10D, C20D, C12
Zach: C13D, C4D, C10D, C20D, C12
Overall: C13D (1st), C4D (2nd), C10D (3rd), C20D (4th), C12 (5th)
2nd Place (tie): C18D – 22yr, 68.85%, 137.7 proof, 113 bottles, released 4/25/15
Jesse: Buttery nose with a good deal of wood polish. Some underlying fruitiness as well. Best, most intense nose in the group. Chewy mouthfeel with a good deal of nuttiness. This is what these should taste like for my money. Long finish with oak, wood polish, toffee. A bit hotter than ideal making it less than exceptional. 1st Place.
Zach: Pretty strong nose, second best in the group. Palate is a bit of a letdown after the nose. Notes of fruit and vanilla on the nose that don’t follow through on the palate. Short finish leaves you wanting more. Decent but not a standout. 2nd Place.
2nd Place (tie): C12B – 22yr, 67.9%, 135.8 proof, 106 bottles, released 8/8/15
Jesse: Much lighter nose with significantly less oak. A bit of soapiness. Good deal of heat initially on the palate that fades into a very pleasant finish with a lot of lingering corn. Definitely less oaky with the wood polish knocked down as well. Good pour but ultimately doesn’t bring what I’m really looking for. 2nd Place
Zach: Oak and pine tar very evident on the nose. Explosive palate, really good. Palate hit you with waves of different flavors. Hard to pin down what some of the flavors are? Very sweet like candy. Good amount of heat throughout, but pleasant, not off-putting. Just a small step behind some of the best from Group A. 1st Place.
3rd Place: C20A – 22yr, 68.5%, 137 proof, 76 bottles, released 8/8/15
Jesse: Pretty typical nose with toffee, corn and some underlying cinnamon. Oak much more towards the front here. Good balance, heat is in check, very rounded. Oakiness fades into a corn finish. Very good overall. Top three were very close, this fell to 3rd Place mostly because of a lack of anything extremely distinct.
Zach: Strong, very intense nose. Very hot on the palate, all the way through the finish. Cherries and raspberries coming though on the palate. Not overly complex, but a good expression overall. 3rd Place.
4th Place: B49C – 22yr, 68.2%, 136.4 proof, 105 bottles, released 9/12/15
Jesse: A lot of varnish on the nose, which fades only slightly with time in the glass. Candy corn underneath. Wood and heat dominate the palate. Thin, somewhat bitter mouthfeel. This tasted much better immediately after taking a sip of water. Not a great expression at all but nowhere near as bad as the worst of these. 4th Place.
Zach: Nose is a bit musty but has some floral notes, hints of cherry and butterscotch. Not unpleasant. Palate is awful, almost as depressing as C12 from last round. Very dry and bitter with Band-Aids on the finish. Impression improved after tasting 5th place finisher. 4th Place.
5th Place: C16D – 22yr, 67.2%, 134.4 proof, 114 bottles, released 5/15/15
Jesse: Musty wood on the nose. Hard to describe bad scent. Band-Aids? Some cinnamon underlying. After the nose, the sip is initially good, but then you’re bowled over mid-palate with putrid wood. Thankfully that fades and the finish is more corn forward, but that fades into Band-Aids after a while. Awful. 5th Place.
Zach: Nose seems somewhat faint compared to the others. Wood polish, pine and some underlying sweetness. Then take a sip. Whoa. Just bowled over by used Band-Aids. This is a megaturd. Puts the other one in perspective. Not finishing this one. 5th Place.
Jesse: C18D, C12B, C20A, B49C, C16D
Zach: C12B, C18D, C20A, B49C, C16D
Overall: C12B (2nd tie), C18D (2nd tie), C20A (3rd), B49C (4th), C16D (5th)
1st Place: C5D – 22yr, 138.2 proof, 97 bottles, released 9/19/15
Jesse: Lots of toffee and corn on the nose, with restrained oak. Not really a standout on the nose. The palate is about as close to perfect as it comes for me on one of those. Great balance, heat is in check. Very lingering finish with just the right amount of wood. Only thing separating this one from exceptional is maybe a bit of lingering bitterness at the very end. Very clear 1st place.
Zach: Pretty boring nose with a lot of alcohol and some dry oak and caramel. Dry, fairly one dimensional palate but the finish is long and great. One of the best finishes I’ve had. Palate is a bit too dry and one dimensional to be great. 2nd Place.
2nd Place: 324 – 22yr, 67.5%, 135 proof, 109 bottles, released 5/30/15
Jesse: A bit astringent and soapy on the nose compared to some. Very buttery underneath. Below average nose for one of these. Good balance on the palate with enough heat to let you know the proof but not overwhelming. Some cinnamon mid-palate and a short finish. Fine expression. 3rd Place.
Zach: Great nose, very balanced. Might be the best in the bunch. Good on the palate. Finish is long and nice. Buy this shit. 1st Place.
3rd Place: C7D – 22yr, 64.8%, 129.6 proof, 82 bottles, released 10/9/15
Jesse: Nice bit of wood polish on the nose which I really enjoy. Best nose of this group and one of the best in the tasting so far. Decent amount of heat on the palate with some astringency. Dense, chewy mouthfeel. Good expression for one of these. 2nd Place.
Zach: Sweeter, fruitier nose compared with some. Very interesting. Very intense flavors on the palate. A bit one dimensional and the finish is kind of hot and bitter, knocking this one back a bit. 3rd place.
4th Place: C22D – 22yr, 68.7%, 137.4 proof, 96 bottles, released 9/18/15
Jesse: Pretty typical nose, not a lot to say here. The oak is definitely out of balance here. Too bitter and hot. Interestingly, this seemed great after taking a break and coming back to it. Almost moved it up but then re-tasted against others and immediately went back to my original notes. 4th Place.
Zach: Bit of pepper, syrup and candy corn on the nose. Bold, sweet palate with a medium length finish. Oak isn’t overly heavy. Solid pick overall. This was the first glass and it got moved down later after comparing to others. 4th Place.
5th Place: 50 – 21yr, 67.5%, 135 proof, 72 bottles, released 3/7/15
Jesse: There is something very strange coming through on the nose. This is unlike any of these I’ve ever smelled. Some sort of cloying perfume scent. Really not inviting at all. When you take a sip you’re hit with a citrus or perfumey cleaner flavor of some kind. I want to say that it’s Mop & Glo but I have no idea what that tastes like. That flavor fades and you get a lot of corn mid-palate, but then it comes back on the finish. This is really bad although not bad like C12 or C16D. 5th Place.
Zach: Not inviting nose at all, very dry. Some sort of weird soapiness on the palate. Very different from C16D and C12, but bad. Nothing positive to write. Just weird. 5th Place.
Jesse: C5D, C7D, 324, C22D, 50*
Zach: 324, C5D, C7D, C22D, 50*
Overall: C5D, 324, C7D, C22D, 50* (* 50 sample was later confirmed to be contaminated)
1st Place: C67A – 21yr, 71.4%, 142.8 proof, 83 bottles, released Feb 2015
Jesse: Pretty typical nose, nothing particularly jumps out. Really good mouthfeel. Lots of wood on this one but it seems balanced with the other flavors. Really lingering finish; flavors stay in balance throughout. Really opens up when you try it after a sip of water. Burst of corn at the beginning followed by some wood polish. Probably a bit too woody to be really superb. 1st Place.
Zach: Really interesting nose. Hints of chocolate and caramel. Really good palate; intense and bold. A bit off balance but the intensity sort of makes up for it. This is probably a love it or hate it pour. Not exactly what I’m looking for. 3rd place.
2nd Place: C17D – 22yr, 70.9%, 141.8 proof, 112 bottles, released 5/1/15
Jesse: Very corn forward on the nose compared to the other in this group. Candy-like palate, way lower oak here and the heat is in check. Tasting after a sip of water brings out even more corn. Too much corn here for my preferences. 3rd Place.
Zach: Dry oak with some underlying sweetness on the nose. The more you swirl the glass the better it gets. Palate is pretty sweet with a lot of burnt toffee. A bit too much char but solid overall. 2nd Place.
3rd Place: B49 – 22yr, 66.9%, 133.8 proof, 103 bottles, released 6/22/15
Jesse: Nose seems very typical. Palate is incredibly subdued for this group. Almost like it isn’t there, not even any heat to remind you what you’re drinking. Seems overoaked. Taking a sip following some water, it just fades away to nothing. 5th Place.
Zach: Seems a bit woody on the nose. Caramel and butterscotch underneath the wood. Palate is definitely heavy on the oak, but there is good balance overall. Deep, long finish. A little bit boring but a good pour. 1st Place.
4th Place: C14D – 22yr, 69.6%, 139.2 proof, 108 bottles, released 4/4/15
Jesse: Pretty similar, typical nose. Wood is maybe kicked up just a notch. My favorite nose in the group, but splitting hairs. First sip was disappointing. Heat and oak are out of balance and this one lacks a really great mouthfeel. Tasting after a sip of water is a huge improvement. Improved my perception markedly after that. Bitter finish still lingers. 2nd Place.
Zach: Light and airy nose with some softer fruit notes. Palate is a major letdown though. It just seems all over the place. 5th Place.
5th Place: C69A – 22yr, 66.8%, 133.6 proof, 63 bottles, released 8/22/15
Jesse: More fruit present on the nose of this one, but some underlying bitterness. After some time in the glass I get a lot of cinnamon notes as well. Initially pleasant on the palate but then the bitterness from the nose really smacks you and carries through into a hot finish. Slightly more balanced tasting after a sip of water but still very off. 4th Place.
Zach: Woody, sweet, nutty nose with some caramel/toffee. Best nose of this group. Palate is a big letdown. Dry, woody and off-balance. Pretty overwhelming bitterness. I don’t understand what happened after the pleasant nose? 4th Place.
Jesse: C67A, C14D, C17D, C69A, B49
Zach: B49, C17D, C67A, C69A, C14D
Overall: C67A, C17D, B49, C14D, C69A
To recap, all the bottles were re-seeded after the preliminary rounds based on overall rankings. These were tasted from the bottom moving up, so the winner of each round would move up. By this point there had also been more releases to we had to figure out a way to drop them in. Rankings listed represent the final rank in the competition.
Turd Group: These two were just so bad that we tasted them on their own to determine the worst of the worst. These were not given the opportunity to move up.
Jesse and Zach: C16D (22nd) over C12 (23rd)
Play-in Group: Two pour play-in of the bottom rated releases from the preliminary rounds.
Jesse and Zach: B49C (win) over C69A (21st)
Group 5: C17D wins the group and moves up to Group 4.
Jesse and Zach: C17D (win), C20D (17th), B49C (18th), C22D (19th), C14D (20th)
Group 4: B52 was added as a drop-in to this group. This was the first time where we did not agree on final rankings, so our brackets began to diverge after this.
Jesse: B52 (win), C17D (13th), C20A (14th), C10D (15th), B49 (16th)
Zach: C17D (win), B49 (13th), C10D (14th), B52 (15th), C20A (16th)
Group 3: Different bracket for each taster although C67A emerged as a clear winner for both of us.
Jesse: C67A (win), 324 (9th), C18D (10th), B52 (11th), C7D (12th)
Zach: C67A (win), 324 (9th), C7D (10th), C18D (11th), C17D (12th)
Group 2: With a consensus winner from the previous group, the brackets came back together again. Unfortunately we killed the C67A sample in the last round, so we had to scramble a bit here. We added C8D as a drop-in (it had just been released) and a new sample of 50. I can’t say that I would not have put C8D lower were it to be in from the beginning, but considering how much Zach liked it, it was probably placed correctly. Also, since we only had six pours left, we just did them all.
Jesse: C4D (3rd), C12B (4th), C13D (5th), 50 (6th), C5D (7th), C8D (8th)
Zach: 50 (3rd), C8D (4th), C4D (5th), C13D (6th), C5D (7th), C12B (8th)
Group 1: With the unexpected release of C12A and a fresh bottle of C67A, we decided to try both of those against each of our top three picks. C12A and C67A emerged as the clear winners here, which probably isn’t surprising considering they were the only store picks in the competition. I ended up reversing C4D and C12B in my final rankings, preferring C4D. Otherwise we both picked the same order as the previous tasting.
Jesse and Zach: C12A – Astor Wines (1st), C67A – Bonilli Japan (2nd)
Final Overall Ranking:
|Jesse Nicholson||Zachary Jones|
|1st Place – C12A||1st Place – C12A|
|2nd Place – C67A||2nd Place – C67A|
|3rd Place – C4D||3rd Place – 50|
|4th Place – C12B||4th Place – C8D|
|5th Place – C13D||5th Place – C4D|
|6th Place – 50||6th Place – C13D|
|7th Place – C5D||7th Place – C5D|
|8th Place – C8D||8th Place – C12B|
|9th Place – 324||9th Place – 324|
|10th Place – C18D||10th Place – C7D|
|11th Place – B52||11th Place – C18D|
|12th Place – C7D||12th Place – C17D|
|13th Place – C17D||13th Place – B49|
|14th Place – C20A||14th Place – C10D|
|15th Place – C10D||15th Place – B52|
|16th Place – B49||16th Place – C20A|
|17th Place – C20D||17th Place – C20D|
|18th Place – B49C||18th Place – B49C|
|19th Place – C22D||19th Place – C22D|
|20th Place – C14D||20th Place – C14D|
|21st Place – C69A||21st Place – C69A|
|22nd Place – C16D||22nd Place – C16D|
|23rd Place – C12||23rd Place – C12|
Since doing this tasting, I’ve been asked a number of times to say if certain releases are good or bad. The most general statement I could make is that they are almost all good save the two noted that finished at the very bottom. Anyone with a bottle of C14D (final rank 20th) would be very satisfied with their bottle. These are extremely unique and excellent bottles, so I encourage people to not get too hung up on how good their bottle is. Without tasting these side by side, the differences are fairly minor.
What generally separates the bottles at the top from those further down the list is the overall balance, oakiness and relative heat. The bottles we ranked low tended to seem a bit over oaked, leading to some bitterness on the finish. We were overall looking for pours where the oak was well balanced with the other flavors and if there was some heat, it was balanced out by something else which really stood out.
What separated the top two store pick releases from the gift shop bottles was generally a bigger and more explosive flavor, combined with balanced oak and heat that was in check for the high proof (these all tend to be 140+). I have a few other 21yr bottles that were not included in this tasting and they tend to share these similar qualities.
Jesse NicholsonTags: Bourbon, bourbon blog, bourbon ranking, bourbon review, cleveland, review, whiskey, Whiskey blog, Whiskey review, willett family estate, Willett Family Estate - Epic Wheated Bourbon Showdown