May 6, 2014

Pilgrimage to Bourbon Country Part 3: The Bourbon & Bonsai Tasting with Doug Phillips

Well if you've read the blog over the past couple of weeks, you know that our tour of bourbon country in Kentucky was off to a pretty phenomenal start.  We'd visited Four Roses to see where all of Jim Rutledge's magic happens.  Then we got a private tour of Willett Distillery by Master Distiller Drew Kulsveen, who drilled into some barrels of their new bourbon and rye for us to taste the first original Willett-produced whiskey since the 1970's!  

It was shaping up to be a great day.  But as the sun started to fade, our journey through the whiskey motherland was just heating up.  As we mentioned last week, in recent history Willett has been known as one of the top NDPs - non-distiller producers.  Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD) would purchase stocks of whiskey from many different distilleries, age them, and then release them at their peak.  Willett released whiskey directly to distributors and retailers, but they also had a very famous private barrel program.  

Liquor stores and bars could visit the troves of barrels in Willett's rickhouses and choose one to feature as their own private barrel.  Picking barrels of Willett became something of an art form, and some of the most sought after ryes in the world came out of this program.  The Seelbach Hotel in Louisville chose the now infamous Rathskeller Rye.  LeNell's liquor store in Brooklyn released Red Hook Rye which is now one of the most collectible American whiskies. Joe Reilly from Ace Liquors in Washington D.C. brought forth the mythical "Iron Fist" and "Velvet Glove" Willetts.  

Another legend of barrel picking is Doug Phillips.  Doug's Willett picks are the types of bottles that whiskey collectors drool over and feature as the crown jewels in their display shelves.  We had asked Doug if he'd like to chat with us about whiskey.  He agreed, but only on the condition that we visit his home, sit out on the deck, and dram together.  It was tough, but eventually he convinced us to say yes.  Doug lives not too far from Willett and has a beautiful place out in the country.  We rolled in just before dusk and started with a tour of the property (a whiskey-in-hand tour of course!).   

Doug's Pond
Lumber shed
Outhouse (we just really liked this photo...)

Doug is a fascinating guy.  He is a glazier, glass sandblaster and contractor by trade and actually helped to build the new Willett distillery.  He's also into bonsai trees...

 Here's Doug at his dock appropriately enjoying an old Willett.

A curious eye and the right questions revealed some very interesting little facts.  Like these seemingly insignificant piles of bricks were actually salvaged from the old Heaven Hill Distillery which burned down in 1996.  That's the same distillery where many of those historic Willett's originated.

Fire-Surviving Heaven Hill Bricks
 We sat out on the deck and Doug started chopping wood for the barbecue.  "You need a lot of different kinds of wood for a good cooking fire," Doug says as he splits logs of cherry, hickory, white oak, maple and walnut. The neighbor's German shepherd comes sniffing around when he smells the fire start.  We're drinking old rye and Sierra Nevada Torpedo and eating chicken livers hot off the grill as an appetizer.  After a long day driving and walking around it doesn't get much better.  Until after dinner that is...

Some of Doug's picks

The bbq chicken and fresh cole slaw were outstanding, and it was time to get into some whiskey.  Doug pulls out a few of his favorite Willetts.  The 800 series bourbon barrels are wildly popular and we were lucky enough to try three of them.

They're brothers, all sharing a big vanilla, toffee, and spice flavor profile though each one has its own little distinctive characteristics.  These are amazing whiskies: big, cask strength, rich and ballsy bourbons.

"I came down to Kentucky to buy a barrel, but no one was interested in selling me one the way I wanted it." Doug explains, "Then I talked to Drew [Kulsveen] and said 'Hey if I wanted a barrel done at cask strength with no chill-filtering, would you do that?'  He just looked at me and said 'Ah... yeah, of course!'"  

We went through a bunch of other great whiskies and we're not going to try to list all of them.  Suffice it to say that Doug picks great barrels.  Smooth Ambler is one of his current favorites.  But then as we made our way through the cabinet, he pulled out something extra special.

"Dug'z" 17-Year Bourbon

The 17 year "Dug'z & Willy'z" Willett is the most unforgettable of the night.  It's a classic big boy on the nose, lots of baking spice and cocoa.  It's a nice oily thickness on the palate with lots of wood and some of that old leather we look for in a nice mature whiskey.  But the finish is what makes it so incredibly distinctive.  Right at the end there's a...  funk.  There's no other way to describe it.  It's a skunky funky herbal finish that floats right out on top of the tongue.  Very enjoyable and so unique that there's no doubt we could pick this one out blind among a dozen other beasts without any trouble at all.

The night moves on and we taste a lot of whiskey.  There was an awesome 9 year old bourbon from the now closed Deatsville Distillery.  We drank some things that weren't even in official bottles, real private stash type stuff. There's a rye that Doug has finished in barrels that previously held peated single malt whiskey.  Really wacky in a good way...  We start talking about single malts.  Doug, like ourselves, discovered great whiskey through scotch before he developed a taste for bourbon and rye.  We let on that our favorites are Lagavulin and Talisker.  With a glimmer in his eye, Doug makes a b-line to the malt cabinet and withdraws two incredible gems to top off the evening.

"You can't be a Lagavulin fan and not try the White Horse," Doug says.  Indeed, we've been wanting to taste one of the Lagavulin White Horse bottles for ages.

The White Horse Lagavulin is absolutely stunning.  Despite it being bottled in the early 90's, it tastes fresher than the Lag 16 they're putting out today.  The smoke is really tight and refined and layered in with the warmth and wood and slight sherry notes.  It's a subtle difference but very noticeable.  Really nice stuff.  

Doug's got one final trick up his sleeve when it is revealed that Hubby loves Talisker and was born in 1975.  Care to guess?  Yup a 1975 Talisker.  One of the original 25-Year Limited Edition bottles.  It's sealed, but Doug insists that we crack it and drink it to the shoulder before calling it a night.

The Tali is a complete gem.  We reviewed one of the current release Tali 25 year bottles early on in the blog.  It was good stuff, no doubt.  But nowadays they have dropped the proof down considerably.  Back then it was cask strength - 59.9% in this case.  The extra proof makes it a 'no contest' against the current release.  It's extremely smooth and drinkable for the proof with all that wonderful Talisker ocean brine and sea air, smoldering smoky rocks, huge peat, and just an incredible balance.  Absolutely everything you want in a Talisker.  

Doug was a phenomenal host and shared a tremendous amount of whiskey knowledge, not to mention a top-notch tasting!  If you're lucky enough to try one of Doug's barrel picks, you'll be in for a treat.  And spending an evening watching the light fade over bbq, beer, and whiskey was the perfect way to end an unbelievable day in Kentucky.  

Until next time.  /SmokyBeast


  1. is there anything else to say but holy fucking shit!

  2. These last two Willett posts caused me such profound and acute jealousy it was almost physically uncomfortable. Otherwise: I absolutely love reading your guys' site. I manage a liquor program in Brooklyn, and am constantly cycling my paycheck back into American whiskies, guided primarily by this site and SourMashManifesto. Picked up the Michter's 10 on your recommendation last week and was so-much-more than satisfied. Thanks, and keep it up!

    1. HAHAHAHA Chris. We're working on another WIllett post, maybe you can find time to come in to Manhattan and be a guest judge for the tasting? :) Hit us on up and let us know more about your liquor program. cheers!

  3. Any suggestions on how to get ahold of some of Doug's barrel picks short of a self-invite?

    1. Hi Bret, Doug's picks aren't publicly available, however send us a message on and we can point you to some great private barrel picks