A few months ago, I got laid off. Thats a phrase I never expected to say in my career, but here we are. The day it happened, I took stock of my situation and realized that it was a great time to step back and re-evaluate how I wanted to spend the next decade or two. And, thanks to that change in mindset, an event that was at first very negative became an opportunity I never expected. I decided to celebrate this new chapter in my life in my customary fashion: with a trip to the bottle shop on the corner. And as if the universe was rewarding me for not being a Debbie Downer, I finally saw this bottle of Willet that I had been trying to find for quite some time.
In 1692, the Willet family moved to Maryland from England as part of a wave of settlers to the new world. They would live there throughout the American Revolution until 1792, when William Willett, Jr. moved to the recently formed state of Kentucky.
The Willet family would first get into the distilling business as part of a larger venture, with John David Willett (born 1841) becoming the master distiller at a number of local distilleries in the area. His son A. Lambert Willett would follow in his father’s footsteps, also getting into the distillery business and purchasing a small farm in the area.
The whiskey business practically dried up during prohibition — but once it was repealed, the Willet family got to work. They broke ground on a new distillery facility located on Lambert Willet’s recently purchased farm and in 1936 they incorporated as the Willet Distilling Company. The very first barrel of spirit went into the warehouse on St Patrick’s Day of 1937.
Willet would continue to produce bourbon continuously throughout the years, but starting in the 1970’s the company stopped actually distilling their whiskey. Trying to take advantage of the 1970’s energy crisis, they switched to alcohol-based fuel called “gasohol”… but that strategy proved unprofitable and in the 1980’s they stopped producing alcohol in all of its forms.
Around the same time they stopped distillation, Willet also changed their name to Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (or KBD). With the crash of the whiskey market in the 1970’s, Willet had plenty of stock on hand that they simply couldn’t sell, so they kept putting out bottles of their spirits from that old stock. When supplies started to run low, rather than restarting their own distillery, they instead took advantage of similar situations at other distilleries and bought their excess whiskey to be bottled under KBD’s brand. Rumor has it that the biggest source for their products was Heaven Hill Distillery, which was located down the street.
But everything changed in 2012 when the company started using its original name again and restarted their own distillery. However, since many of their products require some significant aging, it will take time before all of their products are once again made in-house.
This is one of the bottles of whiskey that Willet markets, but is rather cagy about whether they actually distilled it themselves. There’s no proof either way about whether this is made in-house or sourced, but the age of the spirit is consistent with this being something that they could have produced and matured all on their own. That said, it is more than likely that at least some of the spirit in here is sourced from other places.
The general process for making a whiskey starts by grinding the grains, cooking them to convert the starches into sugars, and then throwing them into a big pot with water and yeast to allow the mixture to ferment. In this case, we do know that they use two specific mashbills in this product — Willett high rye (74% rye, 11% corn, and 15% malted barley) and Willett low rye (51% rye, 34% corn, and 15% malted barley). Although, like I mentioned, whether they actually distilled either strain themselves or instead had someone else make it for them is unknown.
Once fermented, the mildly alcoholic liquid is distilled to concentrate the alcohol content and selectively capture the elements of the whiskey that the distiller wants to highlight. Both the high rye and low rye products are distilled to a relatively low 110 proof, which allows for a more characterful and flavorful spirit. The resulting distillate is added to new “hand selected” charred white oak barrels and aged for 4 years before being blended (high rye and low rye) and bottled. My specific bottle is noted as a 109 proof whiskey.
Willett uses a very “traditional” whiskey bottle shape, which looks rather boring and uninspired — especially when you look at some of their other offerings, such as their Pot Still Reserve offering. I don’t typically mind traditional bottles as they fit on my shelf better and are easy to pour out, which is a very different experience than Nick had with the Pot Still Reserve bottle.
Here, we have a cylindrical body with walls that are arrow straight until they meet a rounded shoulder and a medium length neck that is capped off with a plastic and synthetic stopper. There is no adornment on the glass outside of the labeling which gives it an almost classic, old school style vibe.
The labels themselves use a slightly yellowed paper adorned with mostly black text. The upper label has a handwritten section to capture the proof of this specific batch. The only elegant element to this bottle is the Willett crest that stands out in the middle of the label.
Given the long history of the Willett family name and distillery, I like this bottle. It’s simple, classy, and reminiscent of brand that has been around since prohibition.
The first thing that I notice is the warm aroma of a delightful combination of rich cherry layered with black pepper, chocolate, and mild tobacco. Its wonderfully complex, and reminiscent of the aroma of German chocolate cake fresh from the oven.
On the palate, this rye whiskey presents a robust character, boasting dark cherry, burnt vanilla, molasses, and earthy leather. There is a delightful mix of pepper and spices that linger on your taste buds, likely from the high rye content. Speaking of which, the blend of high rye and low rye mashes come together in a remarkably balanced spirit, even at the higher 109 proof level.
The finish is prolonged and lingers, allowing you to savor the flavor even more. It’s not too sweet, it’s not too bitter, it’s not too rich… it’s a rye whiskey that even Goldilocks could enjoy.
Ice can often dull some of the more extreme flavors of a whiskey, and it’s no different in with this rye. That said, what you lose in the extremities of flavors, you gain in a greater balance.
The overall experience seems to open up, allowing the milder flavors to taste like they’ve been blended together. There are also more subtle notes that are able to come out now, and you can pick out more individual spices of fennel and cinnamon, a slight lemony note, and just a hint of fresh bread.
As good as this spirit is neat, I think it might be better on the rocks.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
This is where things get difficult.
First of all, this is a damned good old fashioned. The whiskey shines through the bitters and the sugar, but you can still pick up some of the stronger cherry, molasses, and tobacco notes. It’s really everything you look for in a great old fashioned.
That said, the additional ingredients seem to take away from the whiskey itself. I prefer the bold flavors neat and the intricate flavors on the rocks much better. For the price and rarity of the bottle, it’s hard for me to want to make another cocktail with it.
After the excellent (but still disappointing in its own way) old fashioned, I was not excited for the Kentucky mule. And sure enough, I’m faced with the same dilemma.
The cocktail itself is wonderful. The citrus note that was present during the rocks tasting seems to be enhanced with the ginger beer and lime. You can still pick up some of the richness of the leathery flavors, and you can tell that this is the same Willett rye that was just tasted neat.
But my recommendation is the same here as it was with the old fashioned: it’s a good cocktail, but making a cocktail with a whiskey of this price point and rarity is a waste.
I really enjoyed this bottle, especially when taken neat or on ice. It makes delicious cocktails, but is so good on it’s own that using it in cocktails just feels like a crime.
Not only does this whiskey taste great, it also holds a special place in my heart. It was a lucky find on the shelves of my local bottle shop on a day when I needed some luck. It’s an interesting parallel that the bottle that I found was from Willett, a family that had both ups and down in the history of their distillery.
|Willett Family Estate Bottled 4 Year Straight Rye Whiskey
Kentucky, United States
Classification: Straight Rye Whiskey
Aging: 4 Years
Proof: 54% ABV
Price: $69.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 5/5
A well balanced and complex rye so good on it’s own that use in cocktails, albeit delicious ones, is a total waste.