I’m going to continue this run of bourbon reviews with a review of Willett Pot Still Reserve, Kentucky Straight Bourbon. This is a single barrel release, from barrel #9551, that was bottled back in 2013. Given that the Willett Distillery was closed from the early 1980’s until January 2012, this is a sourced bourbon. I could not find any definitive statement about the source, but rumors are that was distilled by Heaven Hill Distillery, which is located nearby. Also, the Willet website doesn’t specify the mash bill, but the Whisky Advocate article (see link below) references a mash of 72% corn, 13% rye, and 15% barley, but that may or may not be applicable to this particular barrel!
I picked up this bottle from Specs back in 2013 and for whatever reason ….okay, because I just have too damn many bottles! ….. I didn’t get around to opening it until recently. Spoiler Alert! I don’t normally jump ahead, but I will tell you now that I found this exceptionally good …. plus it has one of the all-time great bottles!
About the Willett Distillery
The Willett Distillery is located on the outskirts of Bardstown, Kentucky on a site that began as a farm owned by the family. Somewhat of a rarity these days, the company has remained under family ownership and operation at the same location since its creation in 1935.
During the 1970s energy crisis, the company switched from producing whiskey to producing ethanol, however, this plan failed when the crisis ended and fuel prices dropped . As a result, the distilling facilities were completely shut down in the early 1980s.
Drew Kulsveen (who is married to a Willett family member) purchased the company in 1984, and renamed the company Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD), Ltd. For some time, KBD continued to produce bourbon from the aging barrels that the Willett distillery had produced prior to the distillery’s closure. But without a functioning distillery, KBD increasingly began to purchase its bourbon from other distilleries and to operate as an independent bottling company. As an independent, contract bottling company, KBD became one of the largest independent bottlers of bourbon and rye in the US.
The brands owned and marketed by KBD include: Johnny Drum, Old Bardstown, the original Willett Distillery brand as well as the Willett Family Estate and Willett Pot Still Reserve releases, Noah’s Mill, Pure Kentucky XO bourbon, Rowan’s Creek (KBD’s best-selling brand), Corner Creek and Kentucky Pride. Some of the additional contract brands that KBD bottles and ages include: Black Maple Hill, Classic Cask, Conecuh Ridge, Michter’s, and Old Pogue.
KBD does not identify specifically where its whiskies were distilled, although speculation is that much of their whiskies come from the Heaven Hill Distillery, also located in Bardstown. KBD also releases their whiskies through various fictitious company names such as the Old Bardstown Distilling Company and Noah’s Mill Distilling.
Things are changing, though, for the Willett brand. Kulsveen began renovating the original Willett distillery building and in January 2012 Willett restarted distilling its own spirits. The new distilling operation has three operating stills – a vintage 24″ diameter stainless steel column still, a “doubler” that is original to the 1935 distillery, and a 1,200 gallon pot still that has multiple plates in the column that sits atop the pot still. Willett also has eight warehouses – each of which holds 5,000–6,000 barrels of whiskey.
Review: Willett Pot Still Reserve, Kentucky Straight Bourbon
This is a single barrel bottle of Kentucky Straight Bourbon that was bottled in 2013 at a 47% abv. It is at least four years old since to qualify as a straight bourbon is has to be over two years, but if less than four years, the labeling must declare an age. This is bottle 31 of 276 from barrel No. 9551.
Color: Reddish mahogany with gold tints (otherwise known as bourbon brown!)
Nose: Brown sugar and spice, wild cherry, a beautiful oak. Buttered toast, soft vanilla, corn syrup, molasses, black pepper. Subtle floral notes pop in and out. Ripe blueberries. With water, the nose shows more fruits: loads of ripe berries – blueberries, raspberries, canned peaches and Jolly Rancher wild cherry candies. The vanilla is there, but very subtle, playing a supporting role. A touch of orange juice/marmalade – sweet, tangy, rich. A bold floral aspect. Butterscotch. The oakiness remains as a beautiful counterbalance.
Taste: Softly sweet – a delicate, undemanding sweetness with hints of corn syrup creating a rich body. Orange marmalade and vanilla. Very soft oak tannins bringing out an elegant bitterness that complements the sweeter flavors to keep them from being too much. Great body. After adding a few drops of water, the flavors just jump. A beautiful, elegant arrival with creamy vanilla, soft fruits, floral and herbal spices. Now I also get just a hint of coconut. Orange juice, wild cherry and black pepper.
Finish: Gorgeous! Spiced vanilla with perfectly balanced oak tannins, orange marmalade with just a touch of peppery heat. More vanilla and spices, coconut and the oak tannin bitterness.
Overall: I really enjoyed this one. There is a core sweetness that is not overwhelming; the sweet vanilla and corn syrup notes are beautifully balanced by a complex set of lovely spice notes, fruits, and the softly bitter oak tannins. This is a “dry’, complex bourbon and one that I find hits all the right notes for my palate. Some bourbons can be overly sweet, too vanilla-focused, but this one strikes a great balance making for a great whiskey exploration. I am definitely going to be picking up another one before too long!
Region: United States, Kentucky
Bottler: Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Bardstown, KY. Whiskey is sourced, possibly Heaven Hill.
Type: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Maturation: New, charred American oak barrels
Price: $41.88 (Specs, 2013)
Availability: Quarterly releases
Sample Source: My own bottle