Whiskey Wednesday: Willett Of The Past

Age adds value.

That doesn’t just mean a dollar value, I personally own dozens of books, papers, and social media accounts that only still exist because they’ve essentially become a time capsule. They’re important simply because they’ve survived.

Before NDP, Non-Distilling Producer, was short hand for overblown marketing these producers were some of the most celebrated.

I started collecting whiskey when I got back into bartending in 2011. I suddenly found myself with income surplus for the first time in years and set about recreating the back bar I had at work in my tiny Venice apartment. I ended up with more whiskey then I conceivably drink on my own, which leads directly to the fact that I have dozens of bottles in my overblown collection that are there because anytime I pick them up I think to myself, “I can’t drink that! I’ve had it forever.”

This is directly antithetical to my belief that all whiskey is for drinking, not hoarding. So I thought it was high time to revive that spirit and open some “old” spirits.

Before NDP, Non-Distilling Producer, was short hand for overblown marketing these producers were some of the most celebrated. And none have reached the cult status of the Willet Distillery.

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Officially know as the Kentucky Bourbon Distillers the distillery is most closely associated with it’s Willet Family Reserve line of premium whiskies. And that’s not marketing. The distillery was founded in 1935 by the Willet family as the Old Bardstown Distillery, which produced its first bourbon in March of 1936. Flash forward to 2016 and the old distillery is still family owned and some of the first whiskey distilled on site rolled down the line all over again.

How do you do something for the first time twice? You stop producing whiskey in the 70’s to make ethanol during the fuel shortage. Then the fuel prices drop, the bottom falls out from under the market, and you’re left flat footed.

From the 1980’s until about 2012 the “distillery” was just in fact an independent bottler, a NDP. They began by relying on the back stock of their own product that was still aging and began to source excess whiskey from neighbor distilleries. Most notably they were sourcing from Heaven Hill, which is so close you could roll a Bourbon barrel down the hill and hit a rickhouse. During this time Willet/KBD continued to produce award winning whiskies like Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek, the formerly eponymous Old Bardstown, and turned the Willet brand into a coveted line of old, premium, single barrel whiskies.

While they may not have been producing liquid in-house the team at Willet showed

The Willet Pot Still…was incidentally also how I thought anyone who sat in front of my bar for years about what a “Pot Still” looked like.

remarkable skill in aging. The single barrels and older expressions of whiskey that they put together have long stood out as some of the best bottlings of the past two decades. But as the Bourbon boom ramped up the writing was on the wall for people trying to source whiskey. More was going to the in house brands and in 2012 KBD fired up its own set of stills and now 6 years later we are seeing bottles of old brands with new juice.

But lets get back in the way back machine to right before these stills started producing to when I bought this bottle of Willet Pot Still Bourbon.

The Willet line was already well established as a premium category but they were also pricey. The Willet Pot Still, introduced in 2008, was a non-age statement variation that could introduce people to the line with out breaking the bank. It was incidentally also how I thought anyone who sat in front of my bar for years about what a “Pot Still” looked like.

This bottle is a Single Barrel versus its modern counterpart, which is simple a “small batch.” Bottled at 94 proof, 47% alcohol, this whiskey has nearly as many awards for its packaging as it does for the Bourbon itself. So, after 7 years how does it taste?

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On the nose is a sweet corn, yet dusty oak presence. The alcohol burn is larger than I would expect for something bottle at 94 proof, and for something that’s been in the bottle for three quarters of a decade. But under that burn is a touch of coffee and toffee.

On the palette the alcohol is much les noticeable. A large oak, vanilla, and slight char carry all the way through the dram with some darker fruit, a touch of cherry and almost blackberry, before giving sway to a musty, earthy, barn house sense.

The finish is light fades quickly leaving the oak on the tongue and the alcohol on the sides of the mouth.

It’s a good whiskey, something I wouldn’t be upset picking up off the shelf and drinking today but it’s not transcendent on its own. What is transcendent is the act of opening the bottle, pouring, and reminiscing as I sip on where I was at in my life when I bought this bottle and on all the events that have transpired since.

Nothing is precious on its own, the spirit we imbue it with verifies that value. And for something to have value it must have some use. So let’s raise a glass and reminisce.

Categories: Bourbon, Heaven Hill, History, Whiskey, Whiskey WednesdayTags: , , , , , , ,