July 7, 2014

Review: Willett Small Batch 2-Year Rye, Willett 5-Year Rye - More Willett! More more more!!!

Ok so we're admittedly smitten with Willett.  We struck gold with the 25-Year Rye.  LeNell's Red Hook was by far the greatest rye we'd ever tasted.  We got a tasting with private barrel legend Doug Philips. Even the Willett 4-year (sourced Indiana rye) won our best buy of 2012, for being an awesome barrel of cask strength goodness at under $40.

A couple of months ago we got a rare treat: a personal tour of Willett Distillery from Drew Kulsveen, master distiller.  Drew proudly poured us the first original Willett-distilled whiskey in over forty years.  Drilling right into the barrel to give us a taste, Drew mentioned in passing "this stuff is just a few months shy of being 'straight.'"  Of course he was referring to the regulations for straight rye whiskey, which must be aged for at least two years in new charred oak barrels.

Well it's a few months later and we were lucky enough to get our hands on some of the new 100% Willett-distilled Family Estate Small Batch Rye.  As a fitting pairing, we put it next to the new Willett 5-Year rye, which is likely a similar batch as the 4-year (LDI-sourced) rye only a year older.

The new Small Batch Rye on the left, and the 5-Year on the right
New Look

We notice a few immediate differences.  Willett has moved away from the handwritten labels and the beautiful hand-dipped wax seals and now has typed ABV and proof and a foil seal.  This is a sad turn of events.  Tearing through the wax was a beloved moment as you first opened a new bottle of Willett and got to nose what was inside.  Also the assorted wax colors just somehow added to the mystery and collectibility.  But hey, if this means that they're going to produce a lot more Willett and it's just prohibitively difficult to wax-dip each one, then that's a welcome development.  We also notice that they've moved to a synthetic cork, so perhaps there's some issue with wax-dipping here.  Anyway we'll sure miss the wonderful wax tops, but it's still a gorgeous presentation.  Thankfully they haven't messed with the classic WFE bottle design.

Old wax tops on the left and right, the new foil top in the middle.

Also the bottle and barrel aren't numbered.  Presumably a small batch can't be numbered, since it doesn't come from a single barrel.  However we've noticed that some of the new single barrels are also missing bottle numbers, which is a shame.  It doesn't really matter, but numbering the bottles and yield of a particular barrel is a strong sign of integrity for you as the consumer and we hope they continue to do it.

The 5-Year Label.  Notice the hand-written age, ABV, proof, and barrel number.

5-Year Rye Tasting Notes

Nose:  Solid big punchy rye nose with lots of cracking spice, some char, a hint of vanilla and mint.

Palate:  The taste confirms that this is a brother of the 4-year.  It's just a solid rye, very much in the zone for what a rye should be and fitting with a top LDI barrel pick.  Very drinkable, particularly at the high 110 proof.

Finish:  Not a particularly memorable finish, but again it's very smooth and drinkable with this much ABV and flavor.

The small batch label.  Moving to the typed/printed ABV & proof.

2-Year Small Batch Rye Tasting Notes

Nose:  The nose is sharp.  A big burst of mint, some tree bark, char, and shoe leather.  Some creaminess, like vanilla yogurt.  But it's definitely a "trebly" nose - meaning not a ton of depth and richness, and a lot of heat & spice in the top of the nose.

Palate:  Wow!  Don't let that nose fool you, it will get better over time as it picks up the wood.  But what they did with the taste is amazing.  Sweet with a lot of mint, some tea leaves, and butterscotch.  Very fresh tasting and floral.  There's a maturity that shouldn't be here at two years, and a complexity of flavor that is very pleasantly surprising.

Finish:  Clean finish with a little throat burn but a good balance of sweets, spice, and a little wood.

The 5-Year, left, showing Indiana provenance and hand written bottle/yield; Small batch on right.

The Straight Rye Skinny

Ok first of all it's difficult to be impartial once you've visited a place, met the great people who are involved, tasted the spirit before it's even ready for the bottle, and feel very connected to the story.  But we think that this new Willett product will be reviewed very highly even by folks who aren't as biased as us.  With so many brands sourcing from LDI, it's nice to taste something that's obviously a completely different animal.

The Family Estate Small Batch is a remarkable achievement for Willett. It has a lot of fresh flavors that speak to great care with the recipe and distillation process.  But it also has a richness that's striking considering its age.  We prefer it to the 5-year at less than half the age.  Also, for a small private operation using local ingredients, the price point of around $40/bottle is right where it should be.  We see a lot of small "craft" distillers trying to come to market with spirits that don't taste nearly this good and are priced up at $60 or $70.  While we prefer it neat, at this price you won't feel guilty adding an ice cube or making a truly exceptional cocktail if that's your thing.

Those 20+ year bad boys that we've been lucky enough to taste are still the stuff of dreams.  But granted that they're going for impossible four-digit figures, and that's if you're lucky enough to find them, we're thrilled to see some great and reasonable drinkers coming out of the new Wileltt.  You'd be lucky to pick up a bottle of this first Small Batch Rye.



  1. Hi-one point of clarity here- are you comparing the 2yr. to the 2013 4-year or did Willet recently release the 5yr along with the 2yr? I have only seen the 2yr on the shelf locally and I couldnt agree more...my mind is blown, especially when considering the age and price point.


    1. As far as I can tell (this is total conjecture) they bought a big stock of LDI rye and have been releasing it each year as it ages. There was a 3-year back in 2012, a 4-year in 2013, and this is the 5-year which I bought in March of 2014. They seem to have sold out pretty quickly... http://www.klwines.com/detail.asp?sku=1073549

  2. Nice reviews as always. A couple of notes - 1) I for one am glad they have moved away from the wax tops. I personally have been the victim of a unopened Willet wax top completely blowing the cork and cleanly breaking the wax during transport in my vehicle. I'm not the only one either, I've seen several reports of this in just the past couple of months. 2) I've read one of the reasons they moved away from the handwritten labels was to combat alterations of the label. The guy that reported that has never been wrong on these things so I am inclined to give it some credibility.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. That's very interesting re #1. Was this problem with the wax tops with a newer bottle with the synthetic cork or an older bottle? We had heard about this, but never had this problem with the old natural cork. Personal theory, the synthetic corks create more tension upwards from the bottle and so they may pop the wax where the natural corks were fine. That would explain why all those complaints happened over the past couple of months when they switched the corks, but hand't switched from wax to foil yet...

      #2 is very interesting as well. so people were erasing the proof/abv/barrel # and rewriting them? i presume this would be to sell them on the secondary market? That's friggin evil! It would be difficult since most of the very rare Willetts have some printed evidence (bottle names, private barrel labels, etc) but i suppose people will do anything these days!

      Anyway thanks for the insightful comment and good drinking!

    2. The bottle that popped on me was from last Fall. It's a natural cork unless I am horribly mistaken. It just so happened to have popped on me around the time of the latest Liquor Barn Willett release a couple of months ago. I saw mention of several people with the Liquor Barn selection post pictures of blown was tops as well as talking about going back to LB to complain and the manager responding that it wasn't an isolated issue. I don't know if the LB release uses synthetic corks or not... I have two of them but have not opened them yet.

      As for reselling on the secondaries, yes. Some of the hyper-aged bottles sold in the gift shop don't have special names or label but still cost a fortune so I assume people were forging the year and reselling. Very evil. https://twitter.com/Bourbontruth/status/484559013531492352

  3. Is the new two year old better than the four year Rye Beastie of the Year?

    1. Yes. The 4-Year is basically the same as the 5-year that we compare it to above. The five year is one year older and probably a little bit better than the four year. We prefer the small batch to both...

  4. I shopped in Louisville for a bottle, but no luck. Then found some on vacation in Fl. I have yet to open.

  5. I wonder if you would be willing to re review the 2 year after your heads have cleared after your wonderful distillery tour. I have feeling that the bloom is off the rose and you will see the white dog for what it is. This is NOT a good rye for the price point, and it is not a good rye at all. I am glad that after a year, people are finally calling the Kulvseens for selling lower quality products at a higher price, taking full advantage of the name they built to profit from lesser quality.

    1. Well we did taste it head-to-head against their LDI rye with a bunch of people who had not visited the distillery.. But sure we'll go back for a second taste. Stay tuned.

  6. Have you tried the eight year? The only ones that are available here are the two and the eight. I don't mind the price on the eight, but I don't want to get it if the two is superior. Thanks

    1. The eight year is not made by Willett, it's the eight year version of their LDI rye (same one they've been releasing as 4/6/8 year)... The 2 year is their own product. They're both quality whiskeys. You'll have to make up your own mind!