Willet

Location: Bardstown, Kentucky
Founded: 1936, began distilling again in 2012
Master Distillers: Evan and Drew Kulsveen
Grains: Locally sourced Corn and Wheat, Rye from Minnesota and Malted Barley from Europe
Mash bills: 6 different mash bills across it’s product range

One of the oldest new distilleries in Kentucky

Originally called the Willett Distilling Company when it was founded in 1936. John Willett had previously been the master distiller for the Moore, Willett & Frenke Distillery, which he had formed with his brothers-in-law until he fell ill and sold his interest in the company.

David’s son, A. Lambert Willett picked up his father’s profession and purchased a farm. Together with his sons, led by Thompson Willett, they founded the Willett Distilling Company on the site. John David Willett’s original bourbon recipes were used and the whiskey the produced was Old Bardstown, named after a race horse.

In 1936, shortly after the end of Prohibition, the construction of the Willett Distilling Company began. The company produced its first batch on March 17, 1937.

Prohibition had only been a temporary setback. The company had far bigger problems to content with when vodka and clear spirits sales overtook Whiskey in poularity in the 70’s. Seen as out dated, bourbon lost popularity. By 1981, the company had leased his stills to an ethanol producer that then went bankrupt, leaving only ruined equipment behind

Current Master Distiller Drew Kulsveen’s father, Even, took over a few years later and Drew joined him in 2004. It wasn’t until 2012 when Willett began distilling again.

In that time between, Willett had become a cult Non-Distilling Producer. They were buying in stock from the likes of Four Roses, and Jim Beam, forgotten casks and ones with flavours that couldn’t be blended into standard labels. Willett used the whiskey to make its own brands, including Johnny Drum, Rowan’s Creek and Noah’s Mill. Their skill lay in their ability to blend what others hadn’t found use for.

The 27th January 2012 was a momntous day for the Willett Distillery. It was the day that they put their very first barrell of new-make whiskey, off their own Pot still, into storage in Warehouse A. Barrel number 001.

By 2014 the distillery had reached it’s 10,000 barrel, a fantastic achievement for a distillery that is essentially made up of family members and a small handful of work hands.

In March 2016 Willett Family Estate Bottled Bourbon Whiskey, Aged Four Years, was released. The first Bourbon to be released that came off the Willett copper pot still.

Though the old family recipes are still in use, wheated bourbon, which is smoother and sweeter, drives Willett’s distilling nowadays with new expresions on the horizon. Willett is experimenting with stave curing and different barrel woods.

Kulsveen is balancing his heritage with innovation to create a Willett for the 21st century whiskey that’s more approachable than in the past, yet deeply nuanced—handcrafted by a fifth-generation Kentucky distiller with the stomach to let each barrel sit until it hits its sweet spot. We’re just going to have to wait.