It’s time to get back to the magic happening over at Willett. We left off with the clear, potent liquid called the heart. Most distilleries refer to it as white dog. It is essentially moonshine. And, while it is not vile at this point it is not quite what I’m, and hopefully you as well are, looking to drink. So, let’s get this nectar barreled and let the angels do their work.
We stepped outside and took the short stroll across the gravel drive to the barreling house. The distillate enters the barrel cistern at a maximum of 125 proof. This is the highest proof at which bourbon can enter the barrel. 4 barrels are rolled in and filled. Willett uses the traditional 53 gallon barrels. To ensure they are filled properly and yet not too full, their system shuts off just shy of 53 gallons. Interesting note, all the machinery being used, including that which fills the barrels, is the original equipment from 1935!
Once filled and corked, the barrels must be weighed. As you already know, the US Government monitors everything and the bourbon industry is no exception. In the US, whiskey, not just bourbon, is taxed when it enters the barrel. This is not the case in every country. Which puts our distillers at a distinct disadvantage when competing with the likes of Scotland, who are often taxed much less and therefore have more profits to put back into production and innovation. You can check out more on our laws and how they will hopefully, fingers crossed, change soon here.
In the meantime, Willett, along with all other US distilleries, must weigh their barrels as soon as they are filled. Once the barrels are filled they are rolled out of the barrel house and down a track (a mini train track) to the rickhouse. All of this is done by hand.
Then, once in the rickhouse, the position and level is selected for each barrel by the master distiller, Drew Kulsveen. Willett does not rotate their barrels. So, once they go to sleep, they sleep until they are ready.
I love the first step into a rickhouse. I could live in that moment and never leave. Someone seriously needs to capture that fragrance and bottle it. The musty, sugary, carmely, woody goodness of that aroma is almost as intoxicating as the liquid held within the barrels lining the walls of the rickhouse.
As I mentioned in the previous post, Willett is registered with the Federal Government as Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD). Therefore, most of their barrels are stamped with the KBD label. Only the Willett Pot Still Reserve, at this point, has the Willett label.
The barrels tower above you as you walk down the center aisle. In order to sample and eventually approve a barrel for bottling, Drew climbs in and out of the narrow passages through the rickhouse. He is one skinny and limber guy.
Because I love whiskey, I am always curious what bourbon distilleries do with their barrels after they are done. Since bourbon must be aged in new oak barrels, once spent they cannot be used for bourbon again. So, they are often sold to distilleries in Scotland who frequently use ex-bourbon barrels to age Scotch. As we exited the rickhouse I took a moment to ask our tour guide, Evelyn, what they do with their barrels when they are done. Her answer was very interesting.
While some of their barrels do make it across the pond, most of them are used in the gift shop or are sold to breweries. Three Floyds in Munster, Indiana buys a lot of their barrels to use for their barrel-aged beers.
As we took the short jaunt over to the gift shop for our tasting, Evelyn mentioned that their first bourbon (they were strictly a NDP until 2012) will be released in 2016. Exciting!
The tasting took place on the second level of the gift shop. Along the back wall they have a small bar which was lined with bottles of bourbon and rye. Evelyn took the time to explain all the bottles, but I immediately knew what I was going to try: Willett Family Estate 3 Year Rye.
They had just bottled it! We were some of the first people to sample it. It was a brief, and frankly small, dram so it was hard to pick out all the notes. But, I can tell you it was delicious. I have reviewed their 2 year rye which you can check out here. This one had some stronger legs than its younger brother.
Unfortunately, as she poured my sample, another gentleman asked her if he could purchase a bottle. That is when my dreams for the day were crushed. One of my major motivations for going to Willett was to hopefully get my hands on one of the first bottles of their 3 year rye.
“We sold our last bottle earlier this morning,” was Evelyn’s response. While it had been a beautiful day and I had learned a lot and I even really enjoyed the sample, I knew it would be a while before I got my hands on a bottle. A small dark cloud rolled over the landscape of the day.
As I took the last sip from my second sample, the tour ended. While my dream for the day was crushed, I decided the best way to bring myself back up was to purchase a consolation prize. So, it was time to head downstairs to the special case containing the rare selection for the day.
I stepped in front of the glass doors and peered in. “What was going to be my reward?” They had a 20+ year rye (I cannot remember the exact age for the life of me) going for over $300 bucks. “That is a little drastic for a consolation prize, plus my wife will kill me.” They also had a 10 year old bourbon and a 13 year old bourbon. It was $100 for the 10 year old and $130 for the 13 year old. “A little pricy but I know it will be good juice.”
So, I leaned over the the guy working behind the counter and asked his opinion. He told me his preference was for their bourbons between 9 and 14 years old. “Not extremely helpful,” I thought to myself seeing that both options fall in that range. So, I asked him about the differences between the two options. He told me the 10 year old had the classic bourbon notes: carmel, vanilla, lots of sweets. The 13 year old would be much drier and oakier.
Now, I just had to choose. But, I also had to convince my wife. She is not much of a bourbon drinker. But, I know she likes sweeter bourbons. And, it is our anniversary coming up. So, I decided to go with the 10 year old bourbon. It was $30 cheaper and I could pass it off to my wife as an anniversary gift for the both of us. Win-win.
As we were checking out, my former boss, co-bourbon companion, and friend, came up and asked what I was getting. I told him the 10 year old bourbon. So, he walked over to the case and asked the same guy what they had. He mentioned the 20+ year old rye, the two bourbons, and then he turned to a box behind him, placed his hand on it, and said, “plus this last box of 3 year old rye.”
“What!!!!!!!” I couldn’t believe my ears. They had one more box. Had this been a parlor trick? A gimmick to get us to purchase it? I was sure they didn’t need tricks to sell this stuff. No matter the case, my friend and I said in unison, “I’ll take one!”
Day redeemed. We both walked out of there with a 10 year old bourbon and, the just bottled, 3 year old rye. A review is sure to come so keep on the lookout. Plus, an added bonus, they have returned to the single barrel with this release (the 2 year was a small batch).
We exited the gift shop and drove off the lot feeling like champions.
The next stop on this tour de force will be Four Roses Distillery. It is a wholey different experience than Willett. But, it will bring some interesting stuff so stay tuned.