Distilling in his family stretches back over 120 years. The original Willett distillery, as it’s thought of today, began in 1936, though Willetts manned stills long before that. Today, select bottles of the Willett Family Estate Bourbon and Rye are compared to the ultra-hyped
Making bourbon there was out of the question then, but the warehousing on site and the remaining Willett-produced bourbon stocks were just fine. The market for bourbon had bottomed out in the states; however, international interest in Japan and Europe was growing. Even saw the NDP strategy as a rung on the climb back to distilling. He began blending the remaining family whiskey with reserves sourced from other distillers and bottled it under vintage-sounding names like Johnny Drum and Old Bardstown. His business acumen kept KBD afloat and primed to return from the dead. It also shrouded the company in mystery.
The accolades fueled curiosity around the company. Mainly: where were they getting their stuff? The grounds sit in the shadow of the second largest holder of aged American whiskey barrels in the world, Heaven Hill. Many surmised it was trumped-up Elijah Craig juice. The family was forthcoming where they could be: the words “distilled in Indiana” are clearly written on the back of older Willett Family Estate Rye bottles, referencing where they were distilled, just across the Ohio River from Willet. Some relationships just
“…we are people of our word and you know, that’s where we stand. Because you really don’t have anything else other than your word. Nothing else really matters.”
“We didn’t have just one straight source. Everybody thinks we did but we didn’t”, he says. “One of the things that I can’t wrap my head around to this day is the disclosure aspect. We’ve always respected the fact that if someone asked not to do something, or if we, you know, sign a disclosure agreement, we are people of our word, and that’s where we stand. Because you really don’t have anything else other than your word. Nothing else really matters.” Frustration never mutes his practical side though. “It helped us rebuild the distillery and rebuild our family name. I think it’s a bittersweet story, it’s good to be a part of it.” The stigma of being an NDP will soon no longer be an issue if things continue to go
“I think it was always a goal of my father’s. It just required a lot of capital investment and a lot of time. I don’t think he would have made that investment unless he couldn’t pass it along to me and my sister, the next generation. We definitely helped push it along. It was always in the back of his mind that he wanted to do it the second he got out here. But you know, time just seems to get away from you. I was fairly young, straight out of college. Came here in 2004 and I was eager to do something and I think it helped push that
Their first bottling, released just this year, is the 2 Year Old Willet Family Estate Rye, a blend of both of their mash bills bottled at barrel proof. It’s an early sign that the family can distill as well as they blend.
Like other Willet Family Estates in the past, the fresh bottle has been well-received by critics and made our 2014 GP100. Like Drew, its maturity belies its youth. Strong notes of green apple and pear mix with cinnamon. But Kulsveen acknowledges that it’s only the first step in the family’s larger plan. “For a young whiskey, it’s very approachable, very drinkable. Is it fully matured? Absolutely not — we all know
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While their own barrels supplies continue to build, Drew and his father will continue to lean on the blending and barrel selections skills that have brought them this far. “I don’t know how much longer we’re going to keep those relationships or those agreements. But it’s turned us into a pretty interesting company.”
Drew glanced at his watch. He had spent 45 minutes taking us through his family’s life work, and other matters required his attention. We thanked him for the time and shook hands. He had just made three new believers.