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Book Review: The Night Ranger

A Visit To Willett

There are special behind-the-scene tours, and then there are very special behind-the-scene tours.  Last week, I was graced to get a very special tour of Willett Distillery at Bardstown, Kentucky.  This family-owned and run distillery has a unique history, and the former distinction of being the only distillery that didn't distill -- at least on site.  Now, however, after extensive renovations the family is once again distilling using a column still and a beautiful copper pot still. 

The distillery house

When I arrived, I was told that a group was coming in for a tour, and asked if I would mind waiting for them.  I agreed, and it was one of the best decisions I've made.  The group coming in was from Longman & Eagle, a most interesting bar/restaurant/more in Chicago that takes great pride in not just selection, but a knowledgeable staff.  They had arranged the very special tour, and I got to go along. This is going to be a bit long, with lots of photos, so more is below the fold.

Master Distiller Drew Kulsveen talks grain and process
The tour was led by family members Hunter Chavanne (marketing) and Drew Kulsveen (master/head distiller).  The tag team was amazing, and seamless as they moved from history and operations into details on their process.  It was more than just informative to have Drew go into the grains, temperature profiles, and much more. 


The grains on display

The process starts, of course, with corn.  The grain is brought in to be "cooked" and the process requires care and control. 

Where it all starts

A different view, up

Willett is a craft distillery, which means that they don't do the huge amounts of the major brands.  In fact, for that reason, they and a number of other small, craft distilleries have their own special tour on the Bourbon Trail.

Will11aFrom the initial cook, the mash travels to a tank where it becomes sour mash.  Want to know more about the process?  Well, take the tour. 


Drew explains the process of turning mash into sour mash


From there, the mix goes on to ferment for several days


After a few days...


After some time has passed, the fun begins.  Most distilleries do more than one distillation, for a variety of reasons.  Willett does the first distillation in a column still.


The first distillation

A view of the distillation in process


The result of that first distillation is a product known by several names, but "White Dog" is one of the ore prevalent.  It generally tends to be clear, but not crystal clear.  In this case, it was fairly clear, and the tasting we did had a nose full of grain, and you could clearly taste the individual grains in the mix.  The taste was literally as if eating raw/slightly-cooked grain. 



A different view of the copper pot still

Then comes the second distillation in the copper pot still.  Copper does many wonderful things to the process, and the result is:



Beautiful, clear White Dog
What comes off the second distillation no longer tastes of slightly cooked individual grains.  The flavor is more melded, and holds hints of spice no present before.  The nose is different, somewhat richer, and shows a hint of that which is to come. 
Belt driven fans

When I say that the family has been doing a lot of renovation and restoration, I'm not joking.  You can see the love and craftsmanship in the distilling house.  One little detail lies with the belt-driven fan system.  Just had to share it


The cooperage


The next step is what makes modern bourbon so good:  aging in charred barrels.  What Elijah Craig started carries through today, and Willett -- like many distilleries -- gets its barrels made to its specifications at a cooperage.  The empty barrels arive, are stored, and filled fairly quickly.


Awaiting Filling


After the second distilling, the White Dog is piped over to the cooperage/barrel house.


The storage tank


Over at the barrel house, a couple of different views jumped out at me:

Once filled the barrels go into storage to age.  Each barrel can lose 4-5 percent of its volume per year, which means the longer it ages, the more goes into "the angel's share."


Aging in the warehouse


Will25Again, because of the very special nature of this tour, we got to go places that tours never go -- such as into the upper floors of a storage barn.  I made the most of the opportunity while I could.

  Will22 Will29

From the storage barn, we retired to the visitor center, and a sampling of some of the products

Some quick tasting notes to share:  I enjoyed all, but there were two things that stood out as exceptional even at a craft distiller.  The first is their rye whisky, which has a nose like fresh-out-of-the-oven good rye bread, and a taste that was rich, full, and even better than eating that loaf of bread. 


The "cabinet" bourbons
Years ago, there were the wines one drank everyday with meals.  Then there were the wines you kept hidden the cabinet for special occasions.  I started calling these bottles the "cabinet" bourbons and if you see one, you should buy it.  I particularly commend the 7-year estate reserve, and would love to have the funds to try the very special more-than-20-year-old... Rich, spicy, but with a mature mellowness that is everything one could hope for in such a product. 


The tour I got was not the regular tour -- let me be clear on that.  That said, however, any tour there is going to be good and special just because of the nature of a craft distillery.  Things are changing there, and work is already underway on a grist mill and a bed-and-breakfast that will add a very different touch to visiting and touring. 

To say I had a good time would be an understatement.  I highly recommend going for a visit, and just so you know, at least one person there is a veteran of the 101st.  Good place, good people, and a very good product. 


The crew of Longman & Eagle