The Willett family has a long history in distilling, going all the way back to the 19th century. But for whatever reason (it’s not quite clear to me why) they hadn’t distilled since the early 1980’s. That changed a couple of years ago, when in 2012 they opened their new distillery, located only minutes outside of Bardstown, Kentucky. In the intervening years they did release whiskey though. How have they been able to do that?
For years Willett has operated as what we Scottish malt whisky drinkers know as an independent bottler, like Cadenhead’s or Gordon & MacPhail. The Willett Distilling Company (also going by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers) releases brands like Rowan’s Creek, Noah’s Mill and Old Bardstown. Where the actual spirit in those bottles has been distilled is up for debate (read about NDP if you want to know more about this practice).
Anyway, you can read all about the Willetts and their distilling history on their home page. The most important thing is they now do have a distillery. And I was in the neighbourhood, so I popped in. And that is what this blog post is about, an actual visit to the Willett Distillery. So let’s get on with it.
Willett Distillery is and isn’t part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. They’re too small to be mentioned with the big boys like Four Roses and Jim Beam, which is why they are included as a Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour. The distillery site is located where the old Willett family farm used to be. It’s a lovely tranquil place. The old rickhouses, the remnants of the farm, the lake (which also serves as their main water source), the gravel road leading up to the distillery. And of course the cute and very welcoming distillery cats, Noah and Rowan.
The distillery is run by master distiller Drew Kulsveen, a fifth-generation Willett. It is pretty small, especially in terms of production. They fill about 15 barrels every day, which equates to a bit more than 700.000 liters of spirit every year (very roughly calculated). Although that’s certainly not a lot, on the other hand it sounds to me like way above average for a distillery branded as a craft distillery. But whatever 🙂
Being quite the bourbon noob, I never realized that bourbon distilleries use column stills. The one at Willett is situated outside of the main building. Inside they also have a pot still (the design of it is actually patented) which serves as a doubler. After the first distillation in the column still, the spirit comes out at 120 proof (60 percent abv), which is pretty much high enough to just put it straight into a barrel. But it needs to be distilled in the copper pot still a second time. Not just to raise the proof to 140 (70 percent), but mostly to filter out the impurities in the spirit.
You pretty much can freely wander about in the distillery during the tour. And since it was a pretty informal and relaxed tour, it wasn’t a problem when I dipped my finger in the sour mash to taste it (disgusting by the way). An attitude rarely seen at most Scottish distilleries, especially during a standard tour. At Willett, you were encouraged to taste it. Oh, and before I forget, there are six (!) mash bills. Two are for rye whiskey and the other four are for bourbon.
When we were done checking out the distillery, we walked outside (in beautiful Kentucky weather) towards the filling station. From there the barrels are rolled into the rickhouse along a wooden track. A rickhouse is really something else. I’m used to visiting the old traditional dunnage warehouses in Scotland, which are only a couple of stories high, but these rickhouses are humongous. At Willett they are thirteen stories high, which is probably not even that impressive for an American warehouse, but it sure made an impression on me.
Fun fact: some hams were maturing inside of the rickhouse we visited. They are for the high-end restaurant Husk in Nashville, Tennessee, which is owned and operated by chef Sean Brock. If you don’t know him, check him out. The second season of Mind of a Chef features him, and is really fun to watch. I believe you can find it on Netflix.
The distillery tour ends in the visitor centre, which is really cool with its leather band operated fans. Very old school. The tasting room is on the second floor and you get to pick two of about nine available expressions to taste. All of ’em are brands sold by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, but you can also try Willett’s own two year old rye whiskey. You’re not rushed in any way, and be sure to check out the shop afterwards, they have a proper selection of whiskeys to buy and take back home.
Willett Distillery is small, but not tiny, and certainly leaves an impression. I really enjoyed visiting and, fingers crossed, might one day make my way back there.