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.


Josh Feldman said...

It's a wonderful story of brokered bourbon financing the resurrection of a live distillery making new juice. I raise a glass to my first taste of Willett's own stuff somewhere down the road.

tmckenzie said...

They are fine folks and the bourbon that will be coming out of the new distillery I expect to be fine as well.

Anonymous said...

The copper pot is their doubler, correct? I believe they use a column still just outside of the new building for the first distillation.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I don't know but it's awfully big for a doubler.

ilium55 said...

I had the privilege of being shown around the distillery last may, and I believe that Anon is correct, (or at least was when I was there)they use a column still outside the new building and use the pot as a doubler.

Anonymous said...

Hi there,

afaik the original setup of the Willet distillery was a copper still and continous still. So nothing changed really.


Anonymous said...

We got a chance to go on a tour in September during the Kentucky Bourbon Festival - such a great group of people! Their Master Distiller (Drew) was working the column still and took the time to explain to our small group (as in - all FOUR of us) how they tell when to cut the heads/tails from the run. Spent a good 15 minutes talking about it, along with their operation. Looking forward to their product in the coming years!!

Eli said...

This is great news. As a big fan of the Willett Family Estate bourbons I look forward to taking a tour this fall

Anonymous said...

Richnimrod said;
I may have been on the same distillery tour with you, Anonymous. My son and I had the same experience during the KBF last fall. The Willett site is very picturesque, and the folks doing the yours (at least ours) were very friendly and knowledgeable about historical as well as technical questions. Great fun! I too, look forward thru the lens of several years to the time when we may taste the wares.

Greg said...

I've been to Willett numerous times over the last number of years and have watched the progress unfold until finally last year seeing the still up and operational. I was standing with Drew next to the column still last April and he pulled some white dog. I must admit, it was tasty right out of the spigot. They've done a nice job sourcing their whiskey and I look forward to tasting some of their own aged product. Drew and the team are a class act and solid business people. It's been a pleasure dealing with them as we've purchased barrels from them over the years.