When one thinks of Kentucky Bourbon Royalty, Willett isn’t one of the first names to come to mind. But it should be. Their distilling legacy began in Prince George County, Maryland, in 1692. It continued when they moved to Nelson County, Kentucky, in 1792. Their family tree represents three hundred and thirty years of American distilling history!
In the beginning, the Willett family produced a Maryland Rye style whiskey, probably similar to the rye made on George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon. It had a mash bill of 60 percent rye, 35 percent corn, and 5 percent malted barley. After moving to Kentucky, they had two flagship whiskeys. “Belle of Nelson” was named for a racehorse, and “Morton’s Spring Rye'' was named for the spring water they used for their whiskey. Once again, Kentucky limestone’s impact on racehorses and whiskey was proven.
The Belle of Nelson was advertised as an “Old Fashioned Hand Made Sour Mash Whiskey.” One of their original advertisements is preserved for posterity at the Library of Congress.
It fell to Aloysius “Lambert” Willett to get the family through Prohibition. Apprenticing at age 15 to a distiller, he shifted to husbandry and raised pigs and cows until Prohibition was repealed. The family started distilling again as soon as the 18th Amendment was lifted. Three years later, Lambert’s son, Aloysius Lambert “Thompson” Willet, broke ground for a distillery on the family farm. On St. Patrick’s Day in 1937, the Willett family placed their first barrel of whiskey in warehouse A. It was the first of the distillates from the family farm.
In 1984, The Willett Distilling Company shifted ownership to Even Kulsveen, the husband of Marta Willett Kulsveen. The name was changed to Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd. It wasn’t all smooth sailing; whiskey was declining in the U.S. Some feel it was due to the rise of the “shaken, not stirred” martini. Whatever the cause, bankruptcy soon put the family history in jeopardy.
The next generation took over and got scrappy, becoming a Non-Distilling Producer (NDP). They created whiskies like Johnny Drum and Rowan’s Creek. These were blended using odd lots purchased from distilleries including Four Roses and Jim Beam.
The business is still in the family, as Even and Marta’s grandchildren Britt and Drew now run the Distillery. Britt Kulsveen Chavanne is President and Chief Whiskey Officer and Drew works as Master Distiller. Britt studied distillation at the L’allemond Ethanol Tech in Montreal, Quebec. Her brother has the honor of being a semi-finalist for the 2020 James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirit Producer.
Since 2010, The family has restored the main distillery building, cistern room, and warehouse on the property. They still use the belt and pulley fan system, which dates to the turn of the last century, and which runs through the distillery and visitors’ center. Whiskey was first produced in the new facility in 2012. The first whiskey made from their new copper pot still was the 2015 Willett Family Estate Bottled Rye Whiskey.
It all started with Britt and Drew’s Father’s Small Batch Boutique Bourbon Collection. Offerings include Pure Kentucky, Rowan’s Creek, Noah’s Mill, Kentucky Vintage, and their Johnny Drum line. The family has since moved on to produce the first Estate Bottled Rye and Bourbon, and recreate the Old Bardstown line. Gradually, they’ve changed the provenance of their distillates to the Willett family farm.
According to many a connoisseur, the best of the choices coming out of the Willett Distillery is their Estate Bottled Bourbon and Rye.
The Willett Family Estate Bottled Bourbon is cask strength, single barrel, Kentucky Straight Bourbon whiskey. As a single barrel, there can be a lot of variation. Different bottles vary in age, mash bill, ABV (alcohol by volume), and flavor profile. Those interested can find more information on the six different mash bills used in their Estate Bottled Bourbon at Bourbon.
The Willett Family Estate Bottled 4 Year Rye is a 110-proof small-batch rye whiskey prized for its flavor profile. Eric at Breaking Bourbon called it a one-of-a-kind rye whiskey. He notes, “A 4-year-old rye doesn’t seem like much to take note of, that is until you taste this rye’s unique collection of flavors.” Eric’s full review is here.
Unique (or Historic) Bottles to Try
The 80 Year Anniversary Straight Bourbon Whiskey (if you can find it, there were only 5,200 bottles produced) is a 4-year-old, 100 proof, Bottled-in-Bond, Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Reviews are as hard to find as bottles, but we found this review from the LiquorHound podcast informative. (Tasting notes edited for brevity.)
As with some young bourbons, there is a hint of freshly grown corn to them. The nose is sweet corn with caramelized toffee notes. There is cherry, red fruit, and orange oils and baking spices - the oak meshes with the corn, creating notes of toasted marshmallows.
The ground corn continues as you taste and includes flavors of brown sugar, orange oils, burnt brown sugar, a little bit of clove - it just warms things up but doesn’t overwhelm.
The finish is roasted nut, toffee, brown sugar, oak, and well-balanced.
The Willett Pot Still Reserve Bourbon Whiskey stands out as much for its bottle as for its bourbon. It is a small batch of Kentucky Straight Bourbon, bottled at 94 proof.
The bottle is striking, made to look like the Willet copper pot still. The packaging won double gold at the 2008 San Francisco World Spirits Awards the year it debuted. It also won the Gold for the bourbon it contains.
Willett offers a handful of bitters and syrups, too. One of our favorites is the Bittermilk No. 4. It is an Old Fashioned Rouge colored by the red cochineal beetle from Peru and aged in the Family Reserve Rye Whiskey Barrels. This bittersweet combination of wormwood, fennel, and gentian root is not to be missed.
If you are in the area, Willett is worth the visit--not just for its restored distillery or great whiskeys, but for the bar. The Bar at Willett serves up classic cocktails and small plates, and they have vintage spirits for guests to sample. It is so popular you will need to make reservations.
Have a favorite Willett bottle or Willett Distillery story? Let us know in the comments.