The Real Reason the People Behind Pappy Van Winkle Make a $17 Vodka

When you produce some of the country's most sought-after bourbons, why go clear?

A bottle of Wheatley Vodka, produced by Buffalo Trace
A bottle of Wheatley Vodka, produced by Buffalo Trace (and under $20).
Buffalo Trace

Buffalo Trace’s Harlen Wheatley is an award-winning master distiller behind some of the most sought-after bourbons in the country, including his company’s namesake brand and, more recently, anything that says Van Winkle.

But his name is front and center on something entirely different: a vodka.

Over at VinePair, writer Aaron Goldfarb — who is also an InsideHook contributor — asks an interesting question: “Why was a distillery in the heart of bourbon country, which produces the absolute most acclaimed bourbons in all of America, wasting their time also making vodka?”

Amongst many bourbon fans and outspoken Reddit users, the answer seems to be a marketing ploy: “If you buy 1000 cases you too can get a Pappy 23!” as one user suggested in the r/bourbon subreddit. (The bar and store owners interviewed for VinePair, however, pretty much laughed this idea off.)

First, some background. On the Buffalo Trace website, the company suggests, “Wheatley Vodka is made in small batches using Harlen’s one of a kind micro-still and a unique recipe of wheat and other grains. As Harlen describes it, ‘This is how vodka is supposed to taste.’”

The answer to “why” appears to be fairly straightforward. After Wheatley took over as master distiller, the distillery had access to the new E.H. Taylor, Jr. Micro Still, which was a custom-designed pot and column still combination. While crafted with whiskey in mind, Wheatley wanted his own take on vodka.

And after months of testing, he got it (and a patent, too). “It was a really, unbelievably smooth, mellow vodka,” as Wheatley told VinePair. “Like so smooth you had to be careful.” That product became HDW CLIX, a once-a-year offering with an MSRP ($300) that’s technically higher than Pappy 23.

A bottle of Harlen D. Wheatley CLIX vodka in its case
A bottle of Harlen D. Wheatley CLIX vodka
Buffalo Trace

Meanwhile, Wheatley the brand — the more mainstream but still “craft” vodka project — actually features a mash bill that either “predominantly consists of corn and the exact same soft red winter wheat used in the Van Winkle and Weller line.” Or, perhaps, even the exact same mash bill. Now you’re intrigued, right?

Still, Wheatley himself isn’t that much of a vodka drinker. The idea for a vodka bearing the master distiller’s name was actually a suggestion by a former VP at Sazerac to associate a well-known figure in the bourbon world with vodka. In other words, quality by association. Wheatley’s only demand? “If you’re going to put my name on it, it better well be damn good,” he told VinePair.

And it’s apparently, yes, damn good. Also award-winning and under $20 per bottle, too, and unlike a lot of Buffalo Trace product, easily available. Besides, Julian Van Winkle III himself is a vodka fan, as we recently learned. So maybe it’s time for bourbon fans to take an inexpensive leap of faith and try a cheap but quality clear spirit.


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