You can’t drink packaging. But you do pay for it. Packaging is admittedly useful. The days of taking your own container to the grocer’s and filling it straight from the cask are long gone, so we have to accept some amount of packaging. And despite the cost, I’m glad to buy packaged whisky. I’ll happily pay to have my whisky in a bottle rather than poured straight into my hands. And I’ll pay extra to have that bottle be made of glass rather than plastic. Those points I think most whisky buyers will agree on.
Beyond the basics, we wouldn’t all agree on the packaging we would like for our whiskies. I suppose I’d pay for a nice label, a nice box, a nicer bottle. But I don’t want to pay for artisan carpenters and glassblowers to do their work. We all have our limits.
For the consumer, these kinds of changes are hard to put a price on. We don’t have to put a price on them, though, because we aren’t given the option to buy the same bottle with or without a label or a box. We’re given what we’re given based on the producers’ spreadsheets and marketing research. When we decide whether or not to buy, we have no choice but to judge the whisky and its packaging as a whole.
Because the costs of packaging are hidden, whisky buyers view packaging changes with great suspicion. I know that I do. It’s not that the new packaging is always uglier. There have always been better and worse whisky labels and bottles. Today, there’s a greater diversity of whisky packaging than ever, with dozens of excellent examples that were not around a decade ago. But all too frequently, packaging changes are part of premiumisation – that’s what we’re actually suspicious of.
When a brand wants to increase their prices and their margins, the change is generally accompanied by new packaging. The rebrands bring bigger and heavier bottles with fancy engraving, wooden boxes, and press releases with more ‘premium’s than a car insurance accounts sheet. And even non-premium rebrands incur great costs. Just as there’s no free lunch, there’s no free bottle mould. Money spent on packaging is passed onto the purchaser.
The whisky I’m reviewing today is a ~2016 bottling of W. L. Weller 12 year old. It was bottled just before Buffalo Trace introduced new bottle designs for their Weller whiskies in late 2016. This change warranted some suspicion around possible premiumisation of the Weller whiskies, which were already in heightened demand. The Wellers are produced at the same distillery and with the same mashbill as the Van Winkle line, so the hype around Pappy has trickled down to them.
The new bottles were described as “taller and more sophisticated” and designed for “stronger consumer brand name recognition”. Taller is a fact – although the shift from the dumpy design turned off those who liked the old bottle. It feels unsophisticated to boast about how sophisticated your whisky bottle is, but the label is indeed a bit fancier. But despite these alarm bells, the new bottles were not accompanied by new prices. Phew.
To give the designers their due, it really is true that the new bottles are better for brand recognition. From a distance, it was harder to read the text on the old bottles and harder to tell the different Weller whiskies apart. The new bottles have sidelined “W. L.”, made the “Weller” text large and clear, and differentiated the Weller whiskies by colour. A new colour for every new Weller release has inspired many memes – Weller Jaundice, anyone? – but it’s a simple method and it works well. Whisky marketers and designers can sometimes make us cringe with their jargon, which belongs far away from regular drinker eyes and ears. However, they do know what they’re doing. The new bottles do a better job of letting you know what’s in them and I can’t be mad at that.
Despite the Old Weller Antique 107 price doubling more recently, the suggested retail price for Weller 12 today sits at only $29.99. New packaging isn’t always bad. Rather, it’s premiumisation – and whether the new bottles will fit in our cupboards – that we need to be concerned about.
Today’s W. L. Weller 12 year old was bottled at 45% ABV around early 2016. It’s a 750ml bottle imported from the US. Weller 12 yo is a Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey distilled at Buffalo Trace distillery. It’s a wheated bourbon, which means the primary grain in the mashbill is corn, the secondary ‘flavour grain’ is wheat and the third grain is malted barley. The grain percentages are a mystery but an educated guess is approximately 70-80% corn, 10-20% wheat, and 10% malted barley.
Nose: Opens on vanilla yoghurt, brown sugar, and blanched almonds. There are also hints of grilled sweetcorn and blueberry syrup. In the background, there is the tannic or peppery oak character you’d expect from an aged bourbon, but here it is expressed more lightly as burnt toast and chia seeds. The only off note is a drop of varnish, which appears more on some pours than others. Adding water switches the fruit from blueberries to cherries and adds a shaving of sawdust.
Taste: A blast of caramel and vanilla, with side servings of blackberries and cherries. The mouthfeel is slightly syrupy and there is very little spice or tannin for a 12 year old bourbon – only a pinch of black pepper. Adding water further amplifies the caramel and introduces some cinnamon.
Finish: Short to medium length on caramel and blackberry cough syrup.
Weller 12 is a very good bourbon. This will come as no surprise to those in the know, who’ve been drinking this since it was easy to find at under $20. It has long-aged bourbon caramel and some lovely fruity touches. Unlike some older bourbons, there are no overwhelming spices or tannins, which make Weller 12 an ideal drink to sit back with, relax and enjoy.
Auction buyers who stump up over £100 for a bottle may expect something more challenging, more complex, more transcendent than what’s on offer here. In that sense, Weller 12 is a victim of its own success, which has inflated expectations higher than they were ever meant to be. Reviews since the packaging change have varied by the year, so I suspect that batch variation is more responsible for any changes than a change of approach since the new bottle design was introduced. Old bottle or new, this whisky is always worth buying at the recommended retail price. Just don’t buy at auction or lose sleep over when you might next be able to find it for a reasonable price.