I’ve always believed that great spirits are made by great people.
That’s not to say that great spirits can’t be made by rigid, difficult, and generally disagreeable people, or that truly wonderful people always succeed in their distilled ventures. I’ve had good booze made by tyrants, and terrible booze made by saints, but for me the best booze seems to always coincide with the best folk.
Without a personal connection to alcohol—the passion and the know-how of a particular individual or family—the hooch never tastes quite as good, in my opinion. Alcohol is not something I can disassociate from the people who make it, which is what makes drinking Willett Bourbon is so much damn fun. Not only is it delicious, it’s that Even, Martha, Britt, and Drew Kuslveen—the people behind Kentucky Bourbon Distillers—are passionate and principled producers who make me very excited about whiskey, putting heritage, tradition, and quality into delicious liquid form.
Over the last decade, the family’s operation in Bardstown, Kentucky has gone from private bottler to full-time distiller, and it’s been amazing to watch their passion for great American whiskey evolve and improve over that time. Juxtaposed against an increasingly corporate landscape, much of which is owned by multi-national conglomerates, Willett distillery stands out as one of the true family-owned Kentucky Bourbon distilleries of merit, every bit as quaint and romantic as you might imagine, and every bit as good as you might hope.
What’s interesting about Kentucky Bourbon Distillers as a company is that, among the Bourbon intelligentsia, they’re often renowned for the whiskies they didn’t make rather than the ones they’re currently distilling today. Trophies like Black Maple Hill, Stitzel-Weller single casks, and a number of other cult classics like Kentucky Vintage have cemented KBD’s status as an iconic bottler within the genre, and for rarities that sell for hundreds if not thousands on the market today. For decades, the Kulsveens used their connections to contract and source Kentucky whiskey for a multitude of labels, including Noah’s Mill, Johnny Drum, and Old Bardstown—just to name a few—but today 100% of its labels are produced in-house. Having rebuilt the Willett distillery from the ground up, the company resumed distillation in 2012 and has now fully transitioned its portfolio over to estate juice.
I cannot even begin to tell you how happy that makes me.
In my retail days, a bottle of Rowan’s Creek was a blend of Bourbons from another Kentucky distiller, purchased, matured and bottled by the Kulsveens, but today it’s all Willett-distilled from beginning to end. And you should feel completely confident today buying a bottle of KBD whiskey because of how it tastes, not just because of the cachet it represents. The whiskies coming out of the new Willett distillery are far more than just cultural novelties from Bourbon’s new gilded age; they’re the best new American whiskies on the market in terms of their quality and character—hands down. Not having tasted much from the new editions since leaving the industry in the Spring of 2018, I flew out to Bardstown this past Thursday to reacquaint myself with the Kulsveens and select new casks for future California release.
They did not disappoint.
Drew Kulsveen, the master distiller for Willett, met us in Bardstown for what was to be a day-long dive into several dozen single barrel whiskies, comprised of all six mash bills currently in production at Willett:
Bourbon #1. 79% Corn, 7% Rye, 14% Barley - 107 Entry Proof
Bourbon #2. 72% Corn, 13% Rye, 15% Barley - 125 Entry Proof
Bourbon #3. 65% Corn, 20% Wheat, 15% Barley - 115 Entry Proof
Bourbon #4. 52% Corn, 38% Rye, 10% Barley - 125 Entry Proof
Rye #1. 74% Rye, 11% Corn, 15% Barley - 110 Entry Proof
Rye #2. 51% Rye, 34% Corn, 15% Barley - 110 Entry Proof
Getting to know the mash bills is important to understanding the KBD whiskies because most of them are a marriage of more than one recipe. What’s more important to note for the time being is that all six of them are spectacular. They taste, smell, feel, and finish like traditional, flavorful, and familiar Kentucky whiskies. The profile of each one also completely matches the recipe description, allowing your ultimate senses to match your expectations. The high corn Bourbon #1 is by far the sweetest, and we were all oohing and ahhing over the creaminess on the finish. The high rye Bourbon #4 is spicy, bold, and peppery, like you would expect.
Due to the intensity of tasting dozens and dozens of single barrel selections, all at full proof, over the course of a single day, we had to space out the flights over the span of many, many hours—sandwiched between numerous walks, snacks, meals, and conversations. Just about everything we tasted was coming up on 7 years of age, making it the most extensive and evaluative overview of the current mature Willett inventory I’ve ever seen. We all had our favorites, and there were winners in every group. It also gave us a change to tinker with small batch blending, an exercise that resulted in a few stunning specimens.
While the most coveted Willett editions are the single barrel releases due to their rarity, when these puzzle pieces interlock to form a super whiskey it’s truly something special, which is why I think it’s important to reiterate the ancestry of the entire KBD portfolio. As an example, the sweet baking spices we loved in the Bourbon #2 cask samples are just as enticing in the standard 90 proof Old Bardstown release, and you can find that bottle in most retailers for $25 or so (and if you go to Kentucky, you can get the 100 proof bottled in bond edition, which I snagged before leaving). If you want to taste that same recipe at a higher proof and older age, grab a bottle of Noah’s Mill.
Speaking of old Old Bardstown, getting to stay in America’s “most beautiful small town” for the first time was a treat. I’ve been to Kentucky more than a dozen times in my life, but I’ve always stayed in Lexington or Louisville. Getting to wake up in our tiny inn, go for a run through the hills, walk the streets at sunrise, and get a real sense of the historic community was a new experience for me. There are about 11,000 people in Bardstown and the town was officially founded in 1788, so there are some very old homes and cemetery plots, including a number of Civil War monuments.
The old brick houses are also a beautiful sight, something we don’t see too much of in earthquake country out west.
What I really appreciate about Drew Kulsveen, beyond everything I’ve mentioned thus far, is that he has a taste for luxury and isn’t afraid to splurge when he’s passionate about a specific genre. I very much relate. I’ll drop serious coin on shoes, jackets, bags, and booze if I see something truly special, and for Drew that passion extends to cigars as well.
“These were hand-rolled in Havana in the 1930s,” he told me, opening an antique box of La Coronas that he had purchased from an auction.
“We can smoke these right now?” I asked in shock.
“Yeah, that’s why I brought them,” he answered in his typical calm demeanor; “We don’t make whiskey just so it can sit in the bottle, and I don’t buy cigars just to look at them.” It’s also important to point out that Drew is incredibly gracious and generous, which makes drinking his whiskey that much more enjoyable for me. Like I mentioned before, great booze tastes better when it’s made by great people, and Drew is one of my favorites in this business.
Getting to spend the day drinking, talking, eating, walking, smoking cigars, and bonding with great people while drinking great booze is about as much as you can ask for in life, and behind that pleasure lies the intention of any true whiskey maker. Whiskey is meant to be consumed and enjoyed, so why not make it taste as good as possible? The people who stand by that creed, practice what they preach, and lead by example in this industry are what keep us alive and motivated as suppliers. The Kulsveens are as honest and authentic as it gets in Kentucky, and their Bourbon tastes pretty damn good to boot.
What else do you need beyond that?