We left off the other day relaxing on the back porch of the Deatsville Inn with cigars in-hand and bourbon in our glasses. It was nice to relax among the rolling hills of Kentucky while watching the sun set, but we were there on a mission. A mission to explore the world of Kentucky bourbon. So, after a laid-back Friday evening we headed out the next morning for Willett Distillery (AKA Kentucky Bourbon Distillers). This is what we saw, heard, discovered, tasted, and purchased.
The drive to Willett, as to most Kentucky distilleries, was breath-taking. The rolling hills, wooded forests, and expansive farmland of Kentucky are something to behold. On the way, we passed Heaven Hill’s main location and a bunch more of their massive, white and black rickhouses. And, then, to the left, there it was. Willett. The copper sign welcoming all who wish to enter their small but ever-expanding (more on this later) plot of heartland.
Winding around the gravel drive up to the distillery we were greeted by barrels pointing the way to where the magic happens and the angels are nourished. As we pulled into the parking lot I was eager to get the show on the road. I had been anticipating this day for months. And, after purchasing two bottles of their 2 year Family Estate Rye Whiskey (their first self-distilled product in ages) earlier in the year, I was eager to sample and hopefully purchase a bottle of their 3 year (if it was even out yet).
We got out of the car and took the short stroll to the gift shop where we had to check in for our 12 o’clock tour. They handed us our Glencairn tasting glasses and wristbands. The tasting glasses were souvenirs which we purchased for a little extra on top of the tour admission. I highly recommend the purchase. They are great glasses and are embossed with the Willet logo. Our wristbands were pretty cool as well. They were the not quite but almost high-quality wristbands (think Live Strong). We pursued the gift shop for a minute or two, but knowing we would have ample time to make our purchases after the tour, we stepped out of the gift shop and walked the grounds for a bit.
We took pictures of the different buildings and barrels around the lot. As we walked and snapped pictures we settled near the stillhouse. The facade of the stillhouse had recently been updated. The doors leading in were magnificent. Giant dark wood, the handles shaped in the classic Willett potstill design.
As we took pictures in front of the iconic doors, my attention was drawn to a bush in front of us. Nestled below the bush was a yellow cat. I walked slowly over and snapped a few pictures, taking the time to chat with the little one a bit. I love cats.
Meanwhile, a few tourists from Great Brittain came out of the stillhouse. So, I took the chance to peak inside. There, I was greeted by another cat. This one a handsome grey. I snapped a few pictures and chatted with this one as well.
It wasn’t long before the tour began and we were greeted by our guide, Evelyn. Willett is a small operation and it’s an “All In The Family” place. Everyone who works at the distillery is a blood or marriage relative.
Evelyn lead us into the stillhouse were we paused in the entryway, the walls lined with pictures and accounts of Willett past and present. The grey cat started to sneeze as it rolled around the dusty floor. Evelyn told us the cats were Noah and Rowan, aptly named after Rowan’s Creek and Noah’s Mill, two of Willett’s Bourbons.
She continued by explaining the contents in and around the stillhouse. The red bins on the exterior house their grains. Corn in one and malted barley/rye in the other.
She then jumped into a little history. The distillery was founded in 1935. It opened its doors and was operated from 1936 through 1981 by Thompson Willett. It was also the Willett family farm. In the 1970s during the oil boom the distillery shutdown its whiskey distilling and started producing ethanol. This ended up being a disastrous decision because when fuel prices started dropping so did production. And, in the 1980s they went bankrupt and shutdown.
It remained this way until 1984 when the land and distillery were purchased by the Kulsveen family. They sold some old stock for a few years. Since then, the family has been a non-distiller producer (NDP), buying up other people’s juice and barreling, aging, and selling it under their own name. In the meantime, they started restoring the old distillery. They have done this without ever borrowing a dime, financing all the development out-of-pocket.
They officially opened the new distillery in 2012 and their first product, a 2-year-old rye, hit the shelves last year. Evelyn told us their first bourbon will hit the shelves in 2016 and will be 4 years old.
After the brief history we made our way to the cookers. Unfortunately, they were shutdown that day for maintenance. They have both 6000 and 3000 gallon cookers. Each cooker results in about 20 barrels.
We then moved on to the mashtuns. This is where the yeasts devour the sugars to make alcohol. They are equipped with cooling coils to ensure the mash does not get so hot that it either boiled over and/or kills the yeast. Last year one of the coils failed resulting in $4000 worth of mash to spill over the edge and on to the floor below.
Their yeast is nothing special. It is a bagged yeast and Evelyn was quick to point out there are no gimmicks. “Our yeast is not from a special recipe first used by Abraham Lincoln.” All their water is sourced from a lake behind the stillhouse which is fed by 4 separate natural springs. Their corn is sourced from a local farm in Nelson County. The wheat they use is the same wheat used by Maker’s Mark. Whereas, the barley and rye is brought in from Wisconsin.
After the yeast has consumed the sugars in the mash, the tanks are dumped into the beer wheel. The grains are pulled out and sold to local farmers to feed their livestock. At this point the alcohol content is 8-10 percent. Here it is fed into the potstill where after the first run it comes out at about 60-80 proof. While in the still, which was hand designed by the Kulsveens, the mash is heated by steam and purified as it rises up the still. There are valves all the way up. When all the valves are opened the resulting distillate will have a higher ABV than if all the valves remain closed.
After this process then distillate enters the hearts tank around 140-160 proof for bourbon and up to 180 proof for rye! That is high! Despite the acetone levels, I’d love to taste it at this point. No such luck.
From here it enters the heads and tails tanks. This is where that acetone flavor is eliminated by further cutting the roughly 10 percent of “bad” distillate that remains. It goes back and forth between these tanks until all that is left is the heart. The heart is that beautiful ‘white dog’ which will be barreled, aged, bottled, and in a few years to come, consumed by you and me. Maybe even on a porch with a cigar in hand while the sun sets below the horizon.
In the next post we will journey through Willett’s barreling process, rickhouses, tasting, and gift shop. Come back to see what interesting stuff we learned and surprises we have in store. There just might be a Willett 3 Year Family Estate Rye at the end of the day.