The Willett Distillery comes with a long, rich history. John David Willett started the tradition shortly after the Civil War as one-third owner of the Moore, Willett and Frenke Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky. His son, Lambert Willett followed in his footsteps and started learning the art of distilling at age 15, later to go on working for multiple distilleries including the Bernheim Distillery. The original Willett Distilling Company was founded in 1936 by Lambert’s son, Thompson Willett and produced its first batch of whiskey in the spring of 1937 and continued doing so for some time. Then, during the 1970’s energy crisis the company switched from producing whiskey to producing ethanol for fuel. Wait, what? It’s speculated that this was not uncommon as the energy crisis demanded it and the distillation equipment was well suited to accommodate. This changed when fuel prices dropped, and in 1984 Thompson’s son-in-law, Even Kulsveen, purchased the Willett company and renamed it to Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD), Ltd. For some time KBD continued to produce whiskey from the aging barrels left over from before the switch to ethanol production, but this later shifted to purchasing whiskey from other distilleries and operating as an independent bottling company. Even still runs the company today, and has been joined by his son, Drew Kulsveen, his wife Janelle Kulsveen, their daughter Britt Chavanne, and her husband Hunter Chavanne. Drew is the current master distiller, Janelle runs the gift shop and tasting room, Britt runs day-to-day operations, and Hunter handles marketing and sales. The company is also known for production of a wide range of brands including Johnny Drum, Old Bardstown, Vintage, Willett Family Estate, Willett Pot Still Reserve, Kentucky Vintage, Noah’s Mill, Pure Kentucky XO, Rowan’s Creek, Corner Creek, and Kentucky Pride. Generally speaking, anyone who has experience with the Willett brand knows that they know their stuff even if the product is sourced, as they consistently produce top quality whiskey. In addition to their own brands they have contracted for a number of companies including Black Maple Hill and Michter’s. For a full history visit the company’s website which includes a detailed timeline dating all the way back to the inspiration of their company logo by Edward Willett in the late 1600’s.
Nose: Lively with youthful notes. A little burn which would be expected at this proof. Florals, botanicals, and gin come together with a good dose of raisins pulling through towards the end. A hint of the white dog element can be detected, but strangely in a good way.
Palate: The florals, botanicals, and gin are here as well. A little menthol comes forth, along with fresh cut grass and some spice. All of these flavors lay nicely on a bed of raisins, which makes for a good balance of sweet and spice. The white dog element is also present here, but again in a strange and welcome way. It’s youthful, but fun and balanced none-the-less.
Finish: Long and warm. Sometimes strange flavors come out in the finish, but not here. This is surprisingly good.
Uniqueness: This has been a highly anticipated release being the first in over 30 years that was actually distilled by the Willett company themselves. Aside from the rich history behind this bottle, this release is most interesting to me when you consider the quality and complexity relative to it’s age, and then consider the future releases yet to come at higher ages. I’m fortunate to own a bottle, so that gave me the opportunity to try this on multiple occasions. I liked it more and seemed to gain a greater appreciation for it each time I sipped it. I also put it against two other very unique ryes - WhistlePig and High West Double Rye. Just as they do, this Willett stands out. Although the unaged element (aka white dog) is present here, it plays with my senses making me re-think the whole idea of unaged whiskey. Had I not had an association with unaged whiskey in the first place I may not have even related it to unaged whiskey here - it becomes just another flavor element. It shows obvious youth but somehow it’s ok here, not nauseating as has been my experience with some unaged whiskeys. It all ends up coming together fairly nicely making for, quite possibly, the best a two year rye could ever get.
Value: Two years old for about $40. Doesn’t sound that great on paper, but this one is worth it. Although the Willett Distillery has been around for a while they’re still considered a craft distiller, so that alone puts the price within reason as the $35+ price point is the norm for craft distillery whiskey where the product is young or comes without an age statement. As future higher-aged vintages of this are released I would expect the price to increase fairly significantly and demand in the aftermarket to skyrocket. Until then, this is an incredibly unique tasting rye with a rich history for less than $50. It’s a solid deal.
Overall: This is easy drinking for 109.4 proof and only 2 years of age. The youthful flavor elements are welcome here. Willett traditionally releases single barrel bottlings, however this particular bottling is a small batch. It’s evident that the young age necessitated the need to blend in order to create a consistently good final product, which I don’t consider a detraction from this release. This was also released at barrel strength, as I noticed a few drops of water diminishes the complexity of flavors. As we wait in anticipation of future releases, those of us who get the chance to experience this two year version may be even more enthusiastic about what is yet to come. I certainly am.
To sum it up: Surprisingly good at two years old. The quality of this release inspires excitement for the future releases yet to come.
-Nick - Reviewed: 7/2014
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