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The first Willett distillery was established in Bardstown/Kentucky in 1936 by the Willett Distilling Company that was owned by the Willett family who had been based in Bardstown since the end of the 18th century. During the energy crisis of the 1970s, when the bourbon industry fell on hard times, the distillery switched from producing whiskey to producing ethanol for gasohol fuel. This strategy soon failed when fuel prices returned to lower levels, and the distilling facilities were shut down in the early 1980s. The Norwegian Even G. Kulsveen (who had joined the Willett family by marriage) purchased the company and distillery in July 1984 and renamed it to Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD) Ltd. For some time, KBD continued to produce bourbon from the aging barrels that the Willett distillery had produced before they had stopped distilling. However as time moved on, KBD increasingly began to operate as an NDP (non-distilling producer), bottling and releasing bourbons and ryes that had been distilled at other distilleries. One of their highly esteemed brands are the "Family Estate" single barrels that come in an elegant bottle with the original family name and crest. Some of these Family Estate whiskies were from Stitzel-Weller or Old Bernheim, but many were younger whiskies from the Midwest Grain Products (formerly Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana) facility. This particular bottling is a 4-year old single barrel rye whiskey, bottled from barrel no. 102. In 2012, the Willett family established the new Willet distillery, which means that we should be able to enjoy their new product(s) in the not-too-distant future.
The nose begins with a load of rye that hits you right away, together with an onrush of mint. It takes a while to get beyond these two main flavours, but after a while there are notes of vanilla, cinnamon and leather, followed by some soft wood spice. What a super bold and assertive nose!
The palate is medium-bodied and spicy, yet very smooth and mouth watering. There are again delicate flavours of wood spice, then vanilla, mint, and some grassy notes. After a while the cinnamon creeps back in, together with faint notes of dark fruits.
The finish is long, very warming and rather oaky. There is more vanilla, together with notes of – again – cinnamon and oranges.
This Willet Family Estate rye was altogether a stunning experience. Despite the big, assertive flavours it was incredibly smooth on the palate and very, very drinkable. It has got punch and a nice texture, and yet it is fruity and almost sweet. And it definitely smells and tastes older than four years. What is more, this time I did not mind the mint flavours at all. Just thinking that this was “just” a 4-year old and that there are older expressions out there in the market, like 24-year or 20-year old ones, makes my hair stand on end. This was and is absolutely stunning rye whiskey. Bravo, bravo!