April 30, 2014

The Pilgrimage to Bourbon Country - One Miraculous Day in Kentucky Part 2: A Private Tour of Willett Distillery with Drew Kulsveen

Last week we kicked off our recap of spring break in Kentucky with a look inside Four Roses.  It was inspiring to see the inner workings of one of our favorite distilleries.  But our day on the Bourbon Trail was just getting started.  There were some miraculous things to come.  

The next stop was Willett Distillery.  Willett may in fact be our most beloved operation.  Most everything they've touched over the years has been gold, though in recent history it's been sourced from other distiller producers and bottled by Willett.  Recently Drew Kulsveen, a fifth-generation Willett, has resurrected the family business and started producing whiskey again.  When our hosts Alan and Brock told us that Drew had agreed to give us a personal tour of the distillery, we all of the sudden got extremely excited to meet Drew and perhaps get to taste a sample of the new product - the first original Willett whiskey to be produced since the 1970's!

Willett is the picture-perfect fantasy of a Kentucky distillery.  At the end of a dirt road, you find a small property with a series of rickhouses, a small pond and fountain, and the farmhouse-style distillery.

Mill and outside of main distillery 
Spring and rickhouses

Drew starts the tour by showing us the inside of some previously used barrels.  

You can see the char on the inside of the barrel.  And if you look really closely at the side, you can see a vertical line that shows how deep the whiskey soaks into the wood.  This is the key part of barrel aging!

We get to taste some of the fermented mash (beer) that's about to go into the still.

The still itself is a tall hand-hammered copper thing of beauty.

Cuts are made, heads and hearts.  Willett doesn't make a tail-cut, but reuses the tails as part of the next batch.

And of course the hearts go into the barrels.

Yup, check out that fill date.  This is bona fide new Willett whiskey, distilled in 2012!

Drew took us into the rickhouse for a closer look.

Four stories of beautiful oak, filled to the brim with new Willett whiskey, patiently awaiting its time to get bottled.  It's like a big room full of heaven.

Drew takes us all the way up to the fourth floor...

And sneaks between the rows with his drill and a glass to retrieve us a taste of his new baby.

Well, not to spill the beans too much, but we can tell you that we tasted three different products.  A rye whiskey (just a couple months short of being a "straight rye"), a high-rye mash bill bourbon, and a wheated bourbon.

While all the whiskey was young, you could immediately taste the quality of the distillate.  The rye was sweet and spicy.  The bourbon was all fresh corn and vanilla.  For us, the wheater was the winner of the three.  We remember thinking "we'd probably buy this right now, but we can't wait to taste it in a few years!"

More than anything, it was just so amazing to be part of the birth of this new chapter in the history of Willett.  Everyone there treated us like family, and that's what this place is all about.  Generations of family dedicated to making great whiskey and sharing it with the world.  The pride in the product could not have been clearer.

Thanks again to Drew, Alan, & Brock for an amazing time.  Here are the three of them are enjoying a dram.  Cheers guys, what a great day!

Brock, Drew, & Alan
While you might not get a personal tour from Drew, make sure you stop by Willett if you're ever in the area.  It's a class operation and they're really onto something special.  /SB


  1. Drew really is a great guy. He's not putting up any BS to throw you off from who he really is. Can't wait to try some of their originals. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Yeah he didn't know us from a whole in the wall, but went out of his way on the Saturday of Easter weekend to show us around. Very cool. You should definitely try to make it there. They're also building a b&b on the property which may be an interesting place to stay for bourbon lovers right there in the heart of bourbon country & they sometimes keep some gems in the gift shop that you can't find anywhere but the distillery.

  2. Sounds like a hell of a way to spend a day to me. Great photos, too. Thanks for sharing!

    1. It was awesome and there's a part three of the bourbon pilgrimage coming next week. We did a tasting that night (Hint - it was with one of the original private bottlers of Willett and we got to try some very rare whiskeys!)

  3. Thanks so much for giving us a look see and some advanced tasting notes on what's cooking down there. I'm not surprised it's good. I'm excited as hell.

    1. You of all people would have totally appreciated the day Josh. You have to come down next time!!!