A visit to Willett Distillery

Willett Distillery

It’s hard to know exactly where your bourbon comes from. Sure, the label gives you a brand name and maybe even a distilling company. But only bonded bourbons are required by law to tell the truth about origin on the label. Otherwise, a bourbon’s label can craft any origin story it wants.

Willett's Pot Still
Nikon F3HP, 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor, Kodak Plus-X, 2015

For several years my favorite bourbon by far has been Willett’s Pot Still Reserve. Its distinctive bottle is fashioned to look like a pot still.

I leave it to the pros and serious enthusiasts to describe bourbon flavors. One I found on the Web used words like citrus, caramel, pepper, and dry oak to describe this bourbon. All I know is that its deliciously interesting complexity keeps me sipping.

That’s probably why the one photo I have is of an empty bottle. It doesn’t help that this bourbon isn’t always available. When I find some, I buy it — and drink it.

Willett also issues special single-barrel and small-batch bourbons and ryes under their Willett Family Estate label. They’re hard to find and they’re expensive, but they are the most delicious bourbons and ryes I’ve ever enjoyed. I usually find rye to be too spicy and to burn too much. But the most delicious, most interesting whiskey I’ve ever sipped was Willett Family Estate Rye. It was the closest I’ve come to a religious whiskey experience. I will buy any bottle that says Willett on the label.

What I learned only after touring the Willett distillery in March is that until about 2016, all of the amazing Willett whiskeys I’d ever sipped were distilled by rival Heaven Hill Distilleries using Heaven Hill mash bills. From the early 1980s until 2012, Willett distilled no spirits. They merely aged the Heaven Hill-sourced whiskeys in their warehouses.

Nothing against Heaven Hill, which produces some delicious whiskeys. I just didn’t enjoy feeling duped. Maybe it’s unrealistic, but I assume the company on the label distilled, aged, and bottled the brown liquid inside. Not that this sly deception will keep me from enjoying their whiskeys, all now distilled on the Willett premises from Willett mash bills.

Willett Distillery

Here it is, Willett’s pot still. Notice to the similarity to my photographed bottle.

Willett Distillery

And their fermenting tanks.

Willett Distillery

And a couple of their rickhouses, where barrels of whiskey are left to age.

Willett Distillery

On this March morning this rickhouse was cool and dark.

Willett Distillery

A fun quirk of the Willett distillery is that three cats roam the grounds to keep mice away. This one is named Noah, I think.

Willett Distillery

The distillery is in the midst of transforming its campus to offer more amenities to bourbon tourists. They’ll soon have a B&B and a restaurant to offer.

Willett Distillery

But the rickhouses…they’ll always look like prison barracks. Hardly tourist-tempting.

Willett Distillery

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17 thoughts on “A visit to Willett Distillery

  1. Pingback: Bourbon – jfbonnin-logbook

  2. DougD says:

    Yup, the rules are less strict in the new world. As part of my research for “Scotch Night for Gentlemen” I found that Canadian Rye is allowed 9.09 percent “whatever”.

    I think JPC needs a trip to Scotland. Or at least he needs to watch episode 3 of Oz and James Drink to Britain:

    I woudn’t pay money to sleep over in that rickhouse.

    • Every rickhouse we toured was cold and damp. Not good sleeping!

      Yeah, Canadian whiskey can be adulterated and still called whiskey. But you know what? Canadian Club is still a decent cheap drink.

  3. tbm3fan says:

    I always say the best bourbon or the best wine is the one you absolutely like. Who cares what a critic says? Besides did they go to a bourbon critic school or wine critic school? No, they most likely sipped a ton of different bourbons, or wines, and then said these are the ones they absolutely like (see my first sentence).

    • The more bourbon I drink, the more refined my palate gets. That’s been fun. But the Willett-branded whiskeys have just been consistent winners on my tongue.

  4. Yup, a trip around Ireland and its loads of fine stuff is like a trip in paradise ;)

    IMHO the best Whisky is the one you have at your hand. The one at hand should be the one you like. So all is good ;)

    Bourbon … well, that was clearly still not my favorite when having a tasting-battle at Jameson in Dublin (Bourbon, Scotch, Irish). Bourbon always remembers me on the half gallon Jim Beam my dad bought at the PX some 40 years ago ;)

  5. Hard to know which way is better in the long run, transparency-wise. More moral to be upfront and tell everyone that someone else is making their whiskey, but then would anyone buy it if that were the case? And telling everyone after the fact, it doesn’t seem like you’re angry enough by their practices to switch to something else. So I guess you visited more than one distillery! Are there more posts to look forward to?

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