Wednesday, February 27, 2013
The Willetts Are Back
During last year's Kentucky Bourbon Festival, I was driving down Loretto Road, leaving Bardstown, and noticed that where the sign for Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD) always is, there was a new one that read "Willett Distillery." The ground around the sign looked freshly tilled.
The next day I saw Henry Preiss (formerly of Preiss Imports, which brought A. H. Hirsch Reserve Bourbon to the masses), who I knew was staying with a member of the Willett family. I mentioned that I had seen the new sign. "It looks like they just put it up yesterday," said I. "They did," said he. "I helped."
Because Martha Willett married Even Kulsveen in 1972, the Willetts are now the Kulsveens. Martha and Even's two children, and their daughter's husband, run the company with their father.
Kentucky Bourbon Distillers and the Willett Distillery are slightly different entities. KBD has been in business for 30 years, the Willett Distillery has been in business for about one. It is on the same site as the original Willett Distillery, which before that was the Willett family farm. Just outside of Bardstown, it sits across the road from Heaven Hill.
The new distillery is in a new building. The rest of the property looks about like it did when the original distillery stopped operating 30 years ago, although one of the aging warehouses and some of the other buildings have been refurbished. That's all good, because while the new distillery has a unique and very personal style, the rest of the site looks exactly like a typical Kentucky bourbon distillery from the post-Prohibition period.
The new Willett Distillery filled its first barrel of bourbon on January 27, 2012, the 103rd birthday of Thompson Willett, Martha's father, who founded the original Willett Distilling Company in 1937.
Willett is a micro-distillery member of the Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA) and a stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour. Their still, a copper pot, is larger than what most other Kentucky micros have.
Willett is one of the easiest craft distilleries to visit because it is so close to Heaven Hill and other Bardstown-area whiskey-related attractions. Tours are offered daily.
Another thing Willett has that other micros don't is a sales force with a 30 year track record. KBD, which started as an exporter, is a well-established independent bottler and whiskey broker. Their customer list is a who's-who of non-distiller producers. KBD buys bourbon and rye from distillers, aging some in its own warehouses. It then sells some of that whiskey to its customers, also bottling it for them, and the rest it sells as its own brands, including Old Bardstown, the original Willett Distillery's flagship bourbon. .
There is a lot more to the Willett story, which they tell very well on their fine web site.