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: