Whisky Advocate

Willett’s making whiskey. Again.

March 30th, 2012

Jay Erisman, Whisky Advocate contributor joins us today with news of Kentucky’s newest old distillery. (Be sure to check out the photos in the gallery included at the bottom.)

On January 18, 2012, a rare and marvelous thing occurred in Kentucky. A fermentation of 72% corn, 13% rye, and 15% barley was begun at a long-shuttered distillery, just south of Bardstown. The distillery in question is the Willett Distillery, founded in 1935 by a passel of Willetts, most of all A.L. “Thompson” Willett, born in 1909. Three days later an even more special event occurred when the grandchildren of Mr. Willett distilled, as they are wont to do, that fermentation into whiskey…and once again the sweet dew of the mountain, fed by a true limestone spring, did flow from a copper worm, high on a hill overlooking the dales and distilleries of Bardstown, Kentucky, and the number of active bourbon distilleries in Kentucky increased to fourteen. And the bourbon lovers of the world did see this, and in their rejoicing they did say: this is a damned good thing.

In Kentucky, the common fate of an old distillery is an irrevocable death; typically the brands from that distillery are sold off and their production moved to the facilities of the new ownership, while the old buildings and stills are recycled, razed, or simply deserted. Such a fate might well have befallen Bardstown’s Willett Distillery were it not for a native of Norway who married into the family. Even Kulsveen, having married a Willett daughter, purchased the plant in 1984.

Ever since, he has steadfastly, sometimes with calculating slowness, returned the plant to production, all the while taking not one thin dime of outside investment. (The Kulsveens also operate Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, a bottling operation that produces a range of private labels, as well as their own brands, including Willett Pot Still Reserve, Johnny Drum, and Willett Family Estate.) The result is as rare as hen’s teeth in the bourbon category today: a small, independent, family-owned distillery. It is owned and operated lock, stock, and new-charred-oak barrel by Even Kulsveen and his children Drew Kulsveen, who runs the distillery, and daughter Britt Chavanne, who handles sales with her husband, Hunter Chavanne.

The distillery includes a new 1,200 gallon pot still made by Louisville’s Vendome Copper and Brass; a column with multiple plates sits atop the pot still, which may be introduced to the distillation for added flexibility. There is a vintage stainless steel column still of 24” diameter, holding sixteen distillation trays, plus six rectifying trays at the top, one of which is packed with pieces of copper piping so the new whiskey can acquire adequate exposure to copper. Along with a stainless steel doubler original to the 1935 distillery, the collection of stills is all but unprecedented in a Kentucky bourbon distillery, and allows for tremendous flexibility in producing whiskey.

For example, the initial distillation on January 21, 2012 was slated to run through the column still, but a balky pump led Drew Kulsveen to take the first fermentation to the pot still, where it was distilled one time, utilizing five trays in the column on the pot still. The resulting spirit of 110.3 proof — which was made of a narrow “center cut,” discarding the heads and the tails of the distillation — filled six barrels at 103 proof, on January 27, which would have been the 103rd birthday of Thompson Willett.

The old-time firepower afforded by the stills is impressive, but more remarkable yet is the entire infrastructure erected by the Kulsveens. There are two new cookers, of 6,000 and 3,000 gallons, which again allow a great flexibility in making different whiskeys, and seven 10,000 gallon fermenters. Fed by a brand new pneumatic grain handling system and hammer mill, these reside in the reconditioned distillery building, which is kept cool by some amazing belt-driven cast iron ceiling fans. The 1935 vintage gauging building has been beautifully restored to preserve the wood-grained character of the old structure.

The gift shop and tasting bar are housed in the former distillery offices, where you will be kept cool by more of those remarkable fans while sampling 28 year old Willett Bourbon. A lake fed by a real limestone spring behind the distillery provides water for the process; plans are afoot to build an elegant turn-of-the- 20th-century style house at the edge of the lake. Perhaps most valuable of all, there are eight well-weathered, traditional rick-style warehouses at the property. These currently hold aging bourbon destined for the various labels and brands produced by the Kentucky Bourbon Distillers bottling operation. Slowly but surely they will be filled with new barrels distilled onsite by Kentucky’s newest…old distillery.

Take a photo tour here:


23 Responses to “Willett’s making whiskey. Again.”

  1. M Lange says:

    Wow, that still looks crazy. It will be interesting to see how this whiskey gets utilized; will it slowly replace the stocks purchased from other distilleries, become blended with whiskies from other distilleries to make their current brands, or be bottled on its own to create new brands? Given that KBD is typically tight lipped on the source of bourbon for any particular product, I would not be surprised if how much of their own whiskey is in any given product might be difficult to judge in the coming years, though I could be wrong.
    Do you know if they are distilling any Rye?

  2. sam k says:

    Incredible! What a gorgeous distillery and equipment. I’ve heard so much about this operation for so many years from both the optimists and skeptics. It’s good to see the optimists come out on top in this particular situation. Kudos to the Kulsveens!

  3. Vince says:

    A great day for Kentucky and the whiskey industry overall! I can’t wait to taste some of their bourbon. Beautiful distillery and i commend the Kulsveens for taking their time and doing it right!

    • Jason Beatty says:

      There’s actually a never ending waiting list for this first distillation and even I could get some of the whiskey. Hopefully they will let Jay get some. I was there on the 21st.

      • Jason Beatty says:

        I meant to say could not get some. Jay: are you getting a barrel of this first distillation?

  4. JSJ says:

    I was born one year before Mr. Kulsveen bought Willett, which brings home the point that he has spent a short lifetime reaching this goal. What great determination, and such an accomplishment! I shall begin rooting for KBD forthwith!

  5. Dave Pickerell says:

    So glad to finally see the distillery spring back to life! My first visit there was 22 years ago. It was so sad to see the distillery in such a sad state of disrepair. Watching the pot still and column still spring back to life was such a treat! Glad that the historic Willet family mash bills are also being faithfully reproduced.

  6. J Little says:

    I was fortunate to meet Drew last year and get a tour through his operation. The still is really amazing and they have obviously worked hard to get many of the details just right. Can’t wait to taste the whiskey in the years to come!

  7. McKinney says:

    I can’t imagine better whiskey news than a silent distillery coming back to life. I remember first reading about the Kulsveens’ efforts to rebuild Willett a few years ago and wished them luck as I raised a glass of Rowan’s Creek. I’ll do so again with a glass of Willett tonight and eagerly wait for the first release of on-premise whiskey from the new/old distillery’s in a few years. Tremendous news and thanks to John for focusing some attention on the results since the end of January.

  8. Louis says:

    Great news. I sampled (an understatement) some KBD about a year and a half ago, and it was really good stuff. There’s always room for more great bourbon.

  9. Andrew says:

    Time to break out a “Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Man” to express my enthusiasm. And there was much rejoicing.

  10. sam k says:

    I see some quarter barrels in the cistern room. Let the kvetching begin! :^D

  11. Jason Beatty says:

    That 28 Year Old was overly woody for my liking. This house by the lake will also be a bed and breakfast.

  12. lawschooldrunk says:

    Good news indeed.

  13. sam k says:

    P.S. Very well-written piece, Jay. Thank you!

  14. mashbill says:

    Great news, indeed. And am I the only one surprised by the amount of barley?

  15. Roger M says:

    Just had my first bottle of Willett Estate Rye and it was yummy. Sold out in a day at my local Wines and More so I ordered two more bottles.

  16. Vince says:

    I am enjoying a bottle of Willett Single Barrel Rye right now. It will be interesting to taste the output of the new/old distillery in a few years.

  17. Ed says:

    Last week I was at a local liquor store in NJ and the salesman recommended a bottle of Willett’s Family Estate Rye. The next evening, I had a few couples over and we mainly drank beer and wine. After a few brews, I was ready to move on, so after our meal I cracked open the Willett’s. And whoa!!! We were knocked to (or should I say: out of?) our senses. We sipped a third of the bottle that evening and then sung its praises for the weekend.

  18. BFitz says:

    I had a glass of their cask strength at a place called Bourbon in DC last week. I think it was 134 proof.

  19. R Scott says:

    I stumbled upon a bottle of the Willett Family Estate 4 year old single barrel rye at Park Avenue Liquors and I was blown away. The complexity and wood flavor in such a young rye was surprising and I found it very drinkable at 110 proof. I was distraught as I neared the bottom of the bottle, but my wife brought home another bottle from a business trip to NYC. I have not been able to find it in Maryand. Looking forward to future bottlings from Willett.

  20. J Fish says:

    I was lucky enough to get shown around the distillery by Drew earlier this year. (Not to long before the authors trip.) It was amazing to see the amount of work that the family has put into this operation and the plans they have for the future are nothing short of amazing. It is going to be a really good experience in the future.

    After gloating about how great of a place it is all of my friends are eagerly awaiting the time when they are able to do tours on a more regular basis.

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