The link between age and quality in whiskey has always been a touchy subject. The same goes for distilling versus producing — but we’ll get to that later. Older whiskey is considered better, at least up to a point, because it takes time for a barrel and the surrounding environment to work their magic on a spirit.

So why is a new, young rye that barely meets the legal age requirement to be called “Kentucky straight bourbon” worthy of praise — especially when compared to other excellent ryes that are more than twice as old and cost half as much?

For one, Willett Family Estate Small Batch 2 Year Rye is bottled at cask strength and delicious, crushing preconceptions of what’s possible from a mere 24 months of aging. It’s sweet, smooth and packed with notes of vanilla, mint, apples and even some orange. There’s a dryness that stems from its youth, but with none of the awful astringency that plagues most young pours.

Its existence also marks a momentous occasion in the world of American whiskey, reconnecting decades of bourbon distilling heritage to an incredibly bright future — one directed by family traditions and a respect for the craft, rather than the shareholders of a global corporation.

 Willett Family Estate Small Batch 2 Year Rye is bottled at cask strength and delicious, crushing preconceptions of what’s possible from a mere 24 months of aging.

Willett Family Estate Small Batch 2 Year Rye is bottled at cask strength and delicious, crushing preconceptions of what’s possible from a mere 24 months of aging.

Though the original Willett Distillery was founded in 1936 shortly after the repeal of Prohibition, no whiskey was distilled on the property from 1976 to 2011. A declining bourbon market and the gas crisis of the late ’70s led the family to convert the facility for ethanol production. North America’s eventual recovery ended production at Willett for good.

Native Norwegian Even Kulsveen, husband to Thompson Willett’s daughter Martha Willett, saw the potential to bottle the distillery’s remaining stock and market it under various labels to overseas markets like Japan, where bourbon demand was booming. He purchased what was left of the old distillery grounds in 1984 and formed Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBS) to follow his plan. The strategy worked well, eventually depleting the original Willett stock.

Lacking production facilities of their own, the family was forced to embrace “sourcing”, which involves buying whiskey from other distilleries to blend and bottle under different labels. Despite being a Non-Distilling Producer, or NDP — a term that carries plenty of negative connotations among diehards these days — many of the blends Kulsveen continued to make from old and purchased bulk stocks became the stuff of legends, including labels like Rathskeller Rye, Black Maple Hill and their own Willett-branded private barrel releases. The success left fans dreaming about a distilling renaissance on the original Bardstown KY grounds; a dream Even had shared since the beginning.

In January of 2012, stills sprang to life once again, housed in a new distillery built on the original Bardstown foundations. It was the culmination of the hard work of his children; Drew Kulsveen now runs the distillery while his sister Britt Chavanne and her husband Hunter Chavanne manage sales.

As first starts go, the Family Estate 2 Year Rye Small Batch is a hell of a debut in a new era of distilling for the Willett family. It’s the best-tasting rye we’ve ever encountered at this young age, and one can only imagine how good this stock will be with a few more years in the barrel.

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Aged: 2 years
Proof: 110 (varies)
Mash: rye, corn, malted barley