Dan’s (not quite) Bourbon of the Week: Willett Family Estate 2 Year Rye

Dan’s (not quite) Bourbon of the Week: Willett Family Estate 2 Year Rye

Well, first of all, Happy Halloween! Once more it’s the time of year with ghosts and goblins, tricks and treats.  Children dressing scarily and wondering through your streets collecting candy.  I hope you and yours enjoy it this year.  It’s also deep into autumn, with the harvest coming up, and I like to think of all the corn, the wheat, the ryes that will soon be mashed and distilled into my favorite treat – whiskey!

Secondly, congratulations to the San Francisco Giants, who last night won their third World Series in five years.  I feel like the Giants are our adoptive team, as my wife Jen and I went to see them during our honeymoon in 2012.  Particularly amazing was the performance of Madison Bumgarner,  I’m glad I watched this series through to the end!

And now…on to bourbon.  Or in this case, rye.

The Willett name has a long and storied history, going all the way back to pilgrims who arrived in the US in the 1600s.  The Willett family has been responsible for bourbon distilling in Kentucky since the 1860s, and has played an important role in much of the great bourbon legacy there.

In the 1930s, the Willett family started the Willett Distilling Company on the family farm in Bardstown, Kentucky, and it still sits there today.  Willett, which later changed it’s name to Kentucky Bourbon Distillers(1984), made bourbons on the family farm up until the 1970s.  At that time, during the oil crisis, they made the decisions to have their whiskey brands made elsewhere and age and bottle them (or just bottle them) onsite.  This allowed them to convert their production facilities to make gasahol fuel.  This venture did not work out, however, and by the 1980s, the Willett location was only used for it’s warehouses and bottling.

Several brands are released under the Kentucky Bourbon Distillers name – Johnny Drum, Kentucky Vintage, Rowan’s Creek, Noah’s Mill among others.  They also do aging and bottling for a few other brands, including Corner Creek and the sought after Black Maple Hill.

In the mid 2000’s, the family started work to reopen the Willett production facilities, and by 2012, they barreled the first of their new products.  And in 2014, they unveiled it at last – the Willett Family 2 Year Rye.

I was down in Kentucky in June and visited Willett, and was lucky enough to land a few bottles of the brand new, Willett produced two year rye.  So how’d it taste?

Dan's (not quite) Bourbon of the Week: Willett Family 2 Year Rye
Dan’s (not quite) Bourbon of the Week: Willett Family 2 Year Rye

My review:

107 proof – that was the strength of my Willett 2 Year Rye – a nice barrel proof number.  And Willett certainly knows bottling – their Still Pot Reserve has won awards for it’s beautiful bottles, and their ryes come in beautiful bottles adorned with the family seal as well.  In short, it’s a lovely bottle.

It has a nice gold color, and the nose is fantastic.  There is a definite fruitiness in the nose – I picked up cherry, citrus and a hint of raisin.  The woodiness reminded me of something other than oak – more like a cedar or even a Christmas pine.  I soaked it in, and found some vanilla.  What shocked me the most was the lack of a burn.  Despite the high proof, this pour didn’t smell like pure alcohol, and had a surprising richness.

I’ll admit, my first sip was jarring.  The nose had put me to sleep, and I took perhaps too big of a drink, forgetting the high potency of the proof.  But even as I coughed a bit, caught off guard, I noticed how smooth it was going down.  My next drink was more restrained, and I got a good feel for this rye.  It was softer than a 2 year has any right to be, with a great range of flavor that belies it’s age.  It had an earthiness to it, and I thought mint rose to the top, along with a maple.  I didn’t note the usual pepper or cinnamon ryes have – it’s probably too young to have really soaked that in from the wood – but there is far more citrus than I would have ever expected.  Overall, it’s rather sweet.

And it has a nice finish to boot.  Not the longest finish, but smooth and lingering where a touch of spice mixes with an earthiness (that is probably the biggest tip off to it’s age).

On the whole, I’m not as big a fan of ryes as I am traditional bourbons.  But for this Willett entry, I’ll make an exception.   It doesn’t have the ‘graininess’ of a young rye – that taste that lets you know that some of this whiskey has never touched the side of a barrel.  Instead, I would have thought upon blind taste that it was at least four, and maybe even six or eight years old. What really intrigues me is what these barrels will taste like in a few more years!

Dan’s Rating: 8.5

Bourbon Classic Day Two: Day-drinking

Bourbon Classic Day Two: Day-drinking

Saturday morning opened with clouds in Louisville, but that did not put a damper of any kind on the Bourbon Classic, or our trip in general. We woke up relatively early, and went to meet a gentleman from whom I purchased a bottle of Weller 12 Year (unavailable in Michigan) for later review.

I would like to say this about Kentucky – I have now met with several third-party “craigslist” style sellers to procure bottles not available, or hard to find, in Michigan – and have found there is a genuine friendliness in these exchanges that I have not found anywhere else.  Maybe it’s just better manners, but my wife and I were chatted up, about bourbon and life in general by every ‘collector’s market’ person we met.  Here in Michigan, the same transactions are tense as a TV drug deal, and all of the friendliness too.

We wondered over to a store called Vault Liquor and added a few more bottles of more accessible bourbon to our hall with the help of the friendly gentleman behind the counter of this round, strangely set-up store.

From there, it was back to the Classic, and it did not disappoint.

Master Distillers & Brand Legends: Wes Henderson, Angel's Envy; Fred Noe, Jim Beam; Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace; Tom Bulleit, Bulleit Bourbon; Daniel Preston, Cacao Prieto Artisan Distillery; Colin Spoelman, King's County Distillery; Willie Pratt, Michter's; Dave Schmier, Redemption Bourbon; Drew Kulsveen, Willett; Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey
Master Distillers & Brand Legends: Wes Henderson, Angel’s Envy;
Fred Noe, Jim Beam;
Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace;
Tom Bulleit, Bulleit Bourbon;
Daniel Preston, Cacao Prieto Artisan Distillery;
Colin Spoelman, King’s County Distillery;
Willie Pratt, Michter’s;
Dave Schmier, Redemption Bourbon;
Drew Kulsveen, Willett; Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey

The Classic kicked off with a panel discussion where some of the biggest and most famous Master Distillers, as well as some younger up-and-comers, talked frankly about bourbon trends, tastes, the future of the industry, how to maintain quality but be inventive, and many other topics.  It was extremely fun, but also incredibly informative.  Some of the things I noted:

  • They all were in agreement that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with micro-distilleries or start-up labels outsourcing the actual alcohol production, but that the quality comes into question depending more on which supplier they use, and how involved they were in the recipe (as opposed to buying bulk leftovers).
  • They also agreed that there is an incredibly high demand for all bourbon right now, so it will be very hard and expensive for new micro-distilleries to start.
  • Fred Noe from Jim Beam said he truly doesn’t anticipate any changes to the Beam model, recipe or productions once the Suntory purchase is finalized, and that it has the most to do with expanding markets, not changing products.
  • Jimmy Russell, the legendary Master Distiller from Wild Turkey, pointed out the changing demographics of the bourbon audience.  “It used to be old men, going into the backroom at the bar, and having a cigar…playing poker,” he said, then pointing out the audience is now as diverse as the brands themselves.
  • There was some disagreeing over whether or not the aging process could be hurried or enhanced by other methods.  Most of the panel felt strongly that you can’t rush aging and attempts to do so are failures.  Daniel Preston, from Cacao Prieto, disagreed, and pointed to investments made in limestone mines where the barrels can be heated and cooled daily, and therefore, aged faster.  This was met with much skepticism.
  • A reminder that, as bourbon is an aged process, true market research is difficult – higher production today takes years to hit the market, and if the market is slower, there can be significant financial loss.

We left this fun session and went to the first of our breakout sessions, Bourbon Flavors with chef Ouita Michel of the Holly Hill Inn.

Chef Ouita Michel, Holly Hill Inn, walks us through bourbon taste profiles
Chef Ouita Michel, Holly Hill Inn, walks us through bourbon taste profiles

Now, I had expected this session to be more about recognizing flavors in bourbon itself, but it was more of a lesson in taste pairings between bourbon and food.  Using a variety of different tastes, and Woodford Reserve bourbon, we sampled and noted how sharing each sip with a food taste enhanced the overall experience.

Food pairings with Woodford Reserve
Food pairings with Woodford Reserve

As we sampled dark chocolate, Parmesan cheese, orange, dried cherries, hazelnuts and sorghum, we tasted Woodford and enjoyed.

Next, it was a more formal food session with Albert Schmid, National Center for Hospitality Studies, Sullivan University.  Here, Chef Schmid walked us through some do’s and don’ts of cooking with bourbon, and showed us two recipes that we then got to sample – a bourbon chicken and Woodford Pudding.

Albert Schmid, National Center for Hospitality Studies, Sullivan University
Albert Schmid, National Center for Hospitality Studies, Sullivan University

Both were delicious (we got to sample each), and when it adjourned, it was time for the Ultimate Bourbon Experience.

This is an amazing thing – there is plentiful delicious food – beef tenderloin, pork tenderloin, corn pudding, sausage stuffed mushrooms, and on and on – and you walk through the lobby and main areas with a bourbon glass, getting samples from and chatting with representatives from almost all of the major and many smaller distilleries.

For review purposes, this isn’t the best way.  But for sheer enjoyment, most definitely! We started at Angels Envy, sampling the A.E. Rye, then moved on to the Western Spirits display, makers of the Calumet Farm bourbon I’ve spoke highly of.  To be honest, the representative there was not very helpful in talking about the bourbons, and didn’t particularly seem interested in it.  Disappointing, but I had a drink of their Lexington bourbon and moved on.

Nelson’s Green Brier distillery has a great story, and it was a pleasure hearing Charlie Nelson tell it.  The Belle Meade bourbon was distinctive, and I hope to get a bottle to review here in Michigan soon.  From there we wandered longer, stopping for a bite, then a drink. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Prudence dictated we head back to our hotel at a decent enough time to take off for home bright and early (to prepare for a Super Bowl party we host), but I cannot say enough great things about this event.  It was truly a great time, and I hope to return next year.  Fantastic.

bourbon. Mmmmmmm
bourbon. Mmmmmmm