If you have been following me for a while it will come as no surprise that I’m a huge fan of Willett. You will also know I can be a mean and cruel prick. Rumor is I’m opinionated. I have to take out a microscope to find a place I’m really comfortable with. It puts these rarities under much more of my personal scrutiny.
There is a great book called “Raving Fans: Revolutionary Approach to Customer Service” by “The One Minute Manager” author Kenneth H. Blanchard. In the former, he talks about the value of devotion to a brand or company from a customer perspective. The more I got to know the folks at Willett, the more I liked these guys and girls and reminded me of this books values. I say girls because, as Fred Minnick has demonstrated in his newest book “Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey,” women have been important in the history of American Whiskey and nothing could be truer than at Willett. I know of no other distillery where it’s more important.
Martha Willett Kulsveen is where the “Willett” part of the family comes from, like the last name of “Noe” in the current Jim Beam family, the lineage transferred through the mother. She married Even Kulsveen in 1972 after they met while Even was selling his Lionstone (and other) Whiskey decanters. Even (Drew) and Britt Kulsveen Chavanne were their kids. Drew is now the Master Distiller and Brit runs Sales and Marketing with her husband Hunter. Drew married Janelle Vincent Kulsveen which runs the “face” of the family and company to visitors.
The air of integrity and “we do it our way”, “we don’t care what others think” could be considered arrogant, but isn’t. It’s resulted in some of the most sought after bottles of American Whiskey on the planet. They are a mostly secretive bunch, and they are one of a handful of old distilling families left still owning the show. I was shocked to know that most (if not all) of their business deals are on a handshake and someone’s word. Tradition and the “right stuff” done the right way guides them.
What they have done together is rather amazing in today’s distillery climate; they are what the Van Winkles should and could have done. In fact the two families share some similar backgrounds. They both owned Distilleries, then didn’t, then went into “rectifying” by buying other people’s Whiskey and bottling it under their and others brands. The difference is the Van Winkles are now the face of a brand (made by Buffalo Trace) with stories and legend in support, Willet has resurrected their traditions and have been making their own Whiskey again for two years. On Jan. 27, 2014, that Whiskey officially becomes “Kentucky Straight Bourbon,” and is two years old.
A recent visit to Willett, aka Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, was the equivalent of a Whiskey Geek visiting the Willy Wonka factory, and I played the role of Charlie holding the Golden Ticket. I didn’t see any Oompa-Loompas there, but I saw plenty more and the secretive Wonka offered some generous insight in what’s been going on.
Before I get too far into my look inside where the magic is happening, let’s briefly go back.
Excerpts edited from their website say that Aloysius Lambert Thompson Willett, who went by Thompson, was born January 27, 1909, in Bardstown, Ky., the son of Lambert Willett and Mary Catherine Thompson. Thompson joined his father, Lambert, at the Bernheim Distillery in the capacity of Assistant Superintendent, at the age of 25. In the spring of 1936, at the age of 27, Thompson and his brother, Johnny Willett, who was a young engineer, started the Willett Distilling Company, RD #43, near the site of the Boone Brothers and later Thixton-Millet Distillery, RD #422. The distillery was erected on the family farm, which had been purchased by Lambert Willett.
In the spring of 1937, the Willett Distilling Company produced its first batch of whiskey. The newly-barreled whiskey was stored in the traditional metal-clad warehouses, capable of holding between 5,000 and 6,000 barrels. The warehouses were built on some of the highest ground in the county, assuring a fresh breeze would aid in the maturation of the whiskey.
Lambert later retired from the Bernheim Distillery to manage the farm and assist in overseeing the Willett Family Distillery in Bardstown.
In 1972, Even G. Kulsveen marries Martha to become son-in-law to Thompson Willett. During the gasoline crisis of the the late 1970’s they cease making Whiskey in 1981 and lease the distillery from 1981 to 1983 to “Bardstown Fuel Alcohol Inc.” to produce ethanol but it was short lived. In 1984, Even purchases the property from the Willetts and becomes known as “Kentucky Bourbon Distillers”, or KBD. They bottle Whiskey from old and purchased bulk stocks; many become legendary such as Rathskeller Rye, Black Maple Hill (which the Van Winkles had bottled at their own business until they went to Buffalo Trace), Classic Cask, Michter’s and Jefferson 17/18 to name a few. Whiskey geeks happily sell some of the best of the best Willett bottled brands and their own private barreled bottles for upwards of $2,000.
Onto the Glass Elevator
So let’s pick it up in the present; I have plenty in the blog already, so some of this might be recapped as I recount my visit to KBD. The distillery itself and visitor center is really cool and homey. If you could put a large craft distillery at the back of your house it would be like this one. Their expansion of buildings include rick house, a bed and breakfast, a mill, new bottling building, etc., and they are all under way or finished. A Mill? Yes, as in milling their own grain. They hope it can support some of their grain needs for very limited distillations of artisanal methods from centuries ago.
The only thing missing from the place is a river of bourbon, much like the river of chocolate in the Wonka factory. But, like I said, no Oompa-Loompas to be seen. Still, there was a day when that wasn’t quite true. On November 7, 1996, the Heaven Hill Distillery, just a few hundred feet from KBD, had a massive fire along with several large rick houses. Flaming Whiskey surged out of the buildings and into a creek so close to the Willett property they could feel the heat. Drew tells a story of climbing the Column still tower as a teenager and thinking the fire would take everything. After a tense night they got lucky, and the fire spared the property.
On Jan. 27, 2012, the stills at KBD began filling barrels. KBD never said they made their Whiskey when they didn’t; they were always very clear. The current state of the “Craft Movement” and Non-Distilling Producers (NDP) has its heroes and villains, to Drew. Some choose to be upfront with their Whiskey’s origins, while others obscure or confuse the public. Willett is up front and straightforward because it’s the right thing to do. If the Rye is made in Indiana, as most of what’s being currently bottled is, they put it right on the bottle for the world to see. Drew also states that it’s the law to list it. Until 2012, Willett bottled Whiskey for others that they bought from others. They had bottled Whiskey they made in the 1970s until it ran out, but rumor has it they may have a tiny bit left. I suspect they still buy Whiskey from others (even with their own stills running) but many distilleries do that to round out blends and such. Secrecy in what goes into the bottle is nothing new for bottlers and they are no different. As I’ve said, often the promise not to divulge this information may have been a handshake 20 years ago that is still honored.
Willett started off in 2012 making 3,000 barrels and in the second year were able to take it up to 4,000 and fill a rick house with newly distilled barrels. The current plan is that the Rye will be ready before the Bourbon, maybe seeing bottles around summer or fall of 2014. The current Rye from “Indiana” may say three or four years on it but it’s all older than that – 4 to 8 years, in fact but intended to hold the younger age statement. It is felt that if they put out their own 3 year old rye, while the Indiana Rye is 7 or 8 years old, that the gap is too great. For this reason, the transition of the sourced Rye to their own as far as age on the label won’t be a big jump. They released 7,500 six-packs of Rye last year and would like to take that up to 10,000. Current annual production of their own brands is around 100,000 cases.
Bourbon may be another year or two behind it. “We need to see how it develops,” says Drew. They have very little old stuff left, so they have been scaling back. Meanwhile, brands such as Jefferson and Michter’s are no longer supplied or bottled there.
Some other changes in store will be the gradual end of wax dips once the new bottling line is put in use, and foil capsules will become the norm. Regarding any type of counterfeit prevention of the bottles, they say they are aware of the issue and are considering options as they switch to foil.
Synthetic corks will begin testing soon with plans to phase out natural corks due to a very rare cork taint problem of less than 1 percent. It was explained that, “How would you feel if you held that special bottle for years only to open it and find that you got that 1 of 100 bottles with a bad cork?” It’s a fair question. So, if the test goes as planned, Synthetic corks will become the norm by the end of the summer.
Private barrels are catching up. The program needed to be suspended so customers would not be left waiting again for long lengths of time, possibly as much as 18 months. Once it is resumed, which they hope will be mid-year, it will be much less aggressive than before so they can keep up better. Once the bottling line is brought online this will help, especially with the end of the wax – those were all hand bottled. The current hand bottling will remain for the special bottlings with the automated bottling line being utilized for the larger volume brands.
Their business is up 10-fold from where it was 10 years ago but distillation is only at about one-third capacity. Limitations are numerous. For one, the plant uses propane, which is very expensive. They have been trying to have a gas line run to the building, but the gas company wants to charge Willett six figures, whereas it installs gas lines at no cost to others. Willett is hoping to have this issue resolved shortly.
Another issue is the outlay of filling rick houses with barrels for almost three years before they see a return. The labor, grain, barrels, taxes and other costs have to be paid on each expensive batch for which they proudly state that they don’t borrow money. The cost of 10,000-15,000 barrels of whiskey before seeing a return is enormous. It is also very costly to make Whiskey for brands they don’t own and that they need to put out resources and funds for which they won’t be paid for until the bottles ship. It was explained that the handshake deals usually don’t have production guarantees. The requirements of so many company owned brands they still bottle (with the barrels they own) can be burdensome at times. They don’t know if there will be no need for barrels and bottles or a couple hundred.
There will be six mash bills, or recipes: two Rye and four Bourbon. The current LDI/MGP Rye they use has a barrel entry proof of 115 which they bottle at 110. They will have barrel entry proofs of 110 for the Rye, 115 for Wheated Bourbon and 125 for other recipes. A few special exceptions may get tweaks to this. Sixty percent of what they are making is Bourbon: 72 percent corn, 13 percent Rye, 15 percent; Barley Malt recipe will be 2 to 1 over the others.
There will be three other bourbons:
Rye will be:
- 51% Rye, 34% Corn and 15 Barley Malt
- 74% Rye, 11% Corn and 15% Barely Malt
They specially selected new yeast. Turns out Drew’s grandfather kept his yeast in a jug and would periodically make banana bread with it. After he passed away and they were doing some spring cleaning of his house, the cleaning lady mistakenly threw the yeast away.
The barrel of 1½ year old Bourbon I tried had a very nice fruity, citrus taste. The finish has a long way to go, which is expected and why they are holding it back longer.
They have reduced 42 barrels into 25 experimental rebarrels for what will be up to 6,000 experimental bottles to start with. These are expected to start being released around the beginning of summer 2014, and the release will have about 7-8 years of age with another half-year to a year of age in the experimental barrels by the time they are expected to be released. The 25 barrels that the bourbon was re-barreled into are from a famous French flavored cognac liqueur; they don’t want the name used until they get company’s approval to list it on the labels. It is unknown if they will release the entire 6,000 all at once or if the stock will be broken up into multiple releases. An undisclosed number of charred oak varieties (not just American White Oak) are also aging currently.
I asked if they have been trying to replicate the old Willett flavor and taste to the new distillations. I remember being in Bourbon’s Bistro a year or so ago when the bartender gave me a few drops of a Willett Bicentennial Bourbon. He felt it was the best he had ever had and, based on the taste I had, I would say it was absolutely one of the best.
Disappointingly, Drew says it’s not possible. He mentions a multitude of variables such as the trees back then were much older and bigger. The wood behaved very differently with those trees. Their column still is not the same but still have the family’s old “doubler” even though not used much as Drew feels using the Pot Still for additional distillations produces better results. Also, climate and grains have changed a lot. The consistency issue is also varied in the rick houses. As other distillers say, the same exact batch of distillate put in the same rick with two neighboring barrels of the same tree will often be very different from each other.
The last thing I covered with some fascination was “step reduction.” According to Drew, no one is currently utilizing this time-consuming process. Rather than bringing a barrel-proof Whiskey down to bottling proof in one step as is the norm, it will be done in micro steps of a little at a time with days, weeks or months to sit. The taste difference and result is said to be amazing. Several amateur Whiskey Vatters have tried much smaller scale experiments and found the same thing with a noticeable difference to add the water to a barrel proof in stages and they put it back in a new bottle to rest. When the Whiskey is eventually consumed, it’s remarkably better. It’s one of the things Drew would like to see eventually as the Master Distiller. It will be really cool to see how Willett uses this technique if/when it happens.
My main fear is and has been that their cult status will just grow until Willett Whiskey reaches Pappy-esque popularity. With only 4,000 barrels of current annual production, even doubled this is an incredibly small amount. It’s all very exciting stuff for a Whiskey geek to look forward to.
Thanks, Willett, for the ride in the Glass Elevator.