There are a few bourbons that really stand out for one reason or another. There could be an interesting production process, or an interesting aging location, for example. For this one, though, the biggest draw might be the truly unique design of the bottle (which was enough to get me to open my own wallet to give it a try).
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, in 1792, 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The whiskey business practically dried up during prohibition — but once it was repealed, the Willet family got to work.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.
That all changed in 2012 when the company started using its original name again and restarted their own distillery — but since many of their products require some significant aging, it will take time before all of their products are once again made in-house.
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
Introduced in 2008, a few years before the family distillery would be fired up again, the Willet Pot Still Reserve Bourbon started out life as a single barrel expression similar to Blanton’s with individual barrel information listed on the paper tape across each bottle’s cap. That changed in 2015 when the company switched to a “small batch” production process.
For this latest version, the source spirit is a Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey. That specific designation means that this spirit started as a mixture of at least 51% corn with other grains added for flavor, and that all of it is cooked, fermented, and distilled in Kentucky. (Exactly what other grains are added to the mixture is not disclosed.)
Also not disclosed is the source distillery for this whiskey. The bottle only says that it was bottled by Willet — not that Willet did any of the distillation. We can suspect that Heaven Hill had something to do with it, but that is far from confirmed.
Once the whiskey has been produced, it is placed into charred new oak barrels for a period of no less than two years. When the whiskey is appropriately developed, it is dumped in “small batches” (again, batch size not disclosed) and bottled.
There’s quite a lot going on here.
The bottle is shaped vaguely like a pot still, with a bulbous large base and a long slender neck. This is definitely something different and unconventional, and bound to stand out on the shelves. The top of the glass still is capped off with a wood and cork stopper.
The base is almost completely transparent, with the brand information visible in gold lettering. It’s a bit hard to read in most conditions, actually, which is unfortunate. But the design does allow the whiskey inside to shine through, which is always a win.
I appreciate the thought and the effort here, but this might be one of the most wildly impractical bottle designs I’ve ever tried to use.
Starting from the pour, the fact that there’s just so much mass concentrated at the bottom of the bottle makes it difficult to really control as you tip and pour the bottle. That mass shifts and moves up the neck quite a distance while pouring, making it unstable and tricky.
Another observation is that, thanks to the intermediate chamber there at the top of the pot, the bottle makes a distinct “glug” gurgling sound every time you pour it as air gets trapped and moved around. It can be a little surprising at first, and gets a bit annoying over time. Not ideal in my opinion.
The biggest issue I have with this bottle is that it just unnecessarily massive. The width of the base, the height of the neck… for what? Other bottles accomplish a similar effect without causing as much disruption as this bottle does. And now, thanks to the shape, it neither fits on my shelf nor does it fit in my whiskey cupboard.
I appreciate the concept, but the execution is just plain annoying.
There’s a great standard bourbon smell as soon as this ‘glugs’ out of the bottle and into your glass. It’s got some good brown sugar sweetness with a bit of butter in there, some vanilla around the edges, and just a hint of sourdough bread. Also in there is some citrus in the form of a little bit of lemon zest adding some brightness.
Taking a sip, the charred oak flavors are large and in charge. There’s some charred caramel in there and a good bit of vanilla, and at times the flavors combine to muddle together and just come across as charred wood. It’s nicely sweet in the middle, with a good bit of brown sugar, sometimes a touch of that cherry pokes through, and finishes with some cinnamon spice and a light cherry flavor.
With “bad” whiskey, ice can be a godsend. It tends to reduce the less pleasant aspects and accentuate the good rich flavors instead. But if you start with something good, chances are that the addition of ice isn’t going to have a positive impact.
In this specific spirit, there are some interesting changes happening. The aroma has shifted to more of a one-note caramel and vanilla mixture without much complexity. And the flavor of the spirit is similarly toned down, enhancing that lemon zest citrus note but with the charred oak aspects of the caramel and vanilla almost completely dropping out. Usually, I’d expect the citrus to be the note that is eliminated from the chorus, but instead it almost becomes the soloist.
With the added ice, it’s a lighter and more typical bourbon for sure.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
I’m actually a little disappointed here.
When we started out, I thought that the darker and richer aspects of the spirit would help it shine in cocktails. But the issue here is that the only remaining flavor I can reliably get is that lemon citrus note — which doesn’t balance very well with the angostura bitters.
It isn’t terrible, but it feels very one note. There isn’t much depth or complexity here.
Normally, when we’ve got a whiskey that doesn’t perform well as an old fashioned, that’s a hint that the mule won’t be that good either. But since this has surprised me at every turn, I guess it’s actually unsurprising that it once again threw me a curveball.
What’s going on here is that the bourbon is adding a bit of sweetness and balance to the ginger beer, making this a pretty respectable Kentucky Mule, actually. I think its primarily thanks to a bit of caramel peeking through that we didn’t really get in the old fashioned. That said, beyond the sweetness, there’s not much the spirit brings to the table. There’s none of the charry flavor or the cinnamon that we saw before — just ginger beer. It’s decent but it’s not great.
I appreciate that this is a family distillery that has been handed down from generation to generation since prohibition ended. It’s a cool history. The problem for me is that zero percent of that history is reflected in this product.
It’s a whiskey sourced from other locations, and (as far as I can tell) zero changes were made to the end result before it was put into a fancy bottle. You could get everything you see here from somewhere else — the only difference is the name.
And the results here are far from spectacular. I’ll definitely drink this neat, but even the addition of a single ice cube starts to spell the downfall of this bourbon. There just isn’t anything special enough about the contents to warrant such an obnoxious bottle.
|Willett Pot Still Reserve Bourbon
Kentucky, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 47% ABV
Price: $42.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 2/5
The definition of “all flash and no substance”.