Deep insights into spirits, cocktails, and drinking
Whiskey Nirvana – The Willett Distillery tour
In October, 2014 Mrs. Wonk and I toured eight whiskey distilleries in the vicinity of Louisville, KY, and Nashville, TN. In a prior post, I described the common elements of these tours in detail, while this post focuses on the unique parts of our Willett Distillery visit. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, it’s a good idea to read that post first.
CocktailWonk Rating: 9/10 (standard $7 tour)
The Willett distillery in Bardstown, KY, first started operations in 1935, producing both bourbon and rye whiskey. Unlike many other well-known distillers, the Willett brand remains family owned and not part of a conglomerate. For a number of years between the mid-1980s and 2012, the distillery wasn’t in use. However, the larger parent company, known as Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, stayed in business as an independent bottler, handling whiskey made at other distilleries. In 2012 the Bardstown distillery was refurbished by the family to the beautiful facility there today.
Rickhouse at Willett Distillery
Beyond the flagship Willett brand, Kentucky Bourbon Distillers makes a number of other well-regarded brands including Johnny Drum, Noah’s Mill, Old Bardstown, and Pure Kentucky. What this means however is that any reasonably current bottle from Willet/Kentucky Bourbon Distillers aged more than 2 years (at this moment in 2014) wasn’t distilled by Willett at the Bardstown distillery.
Once you turn off the main road, the drive to the Willett distillery is very picturesque. You know you’re close when you see numerous white rickhouses in a giant grassy field along with a man-made pond with a fountain in the middle. Parking by the visitor’s center – a small, two story house–you’ll see another pond, and beyond that, numerous rickhouses in the distance that almost certainly belong to nearby Heaven Hill.
Heaven Hill rickhouses, seen from Willett Distillery
After gathering at the visitor’s center, we met our tour guide – a relatively young, personable chap who actually works in the distillery when he’s not doing tours. A short walk takes you to the mostly self-contained distillery building. As distilleries go, it’s fairly small but postcard pretty, looking like you’d imagine a distillery should look, with a grain hopper and a square tower encompassing the column still. The main structure has recently completed stone and wooden siding, making the building appear even more like a palace of wonder rather than just another industrial factory.
Willett Distillery mash cooker
Willett Distillery spirit safes
Upon entering, you’re in a large room with photos of the distillery operations. A short ramp leads to the main distillation space. First stop is the mash cookers — we didn’t get up close and personal with them, unfortunately.
Willett Distillery fermentation tanks
Next was a stop at the two spirit safes atop collecting tanks. Although we could spy the oh-so-intriguing vision of a gorgeous pot still a room away, it wasn’t time to visit it just yet. Instead we climbed the stairs to visit the fermentation tanks — at least seven that I counted. Some were being cleaned while others bubbled away with fermenting mash. Sampling of the mash is encouraged! Our guide spent a lot of time at the mash tanks explaining the fermentation process and also took advantage of the great views out the second floor window to point out where future distillery expansions are planned, including a small bed and breakfast and event space. (Mrs. Wonk is ready to book her future visit now.)
Willett Distillery pot still
We then descended the stairs and gathered in a large room dedicated to the pot still –and a very unusual pot still at that. With its squat base and a thin, long neck, it looks almost like a musical instrument. If you’re a Willett aficionado you’ve probably noticed the very distinctive Willett bottles – they’re a representation of this exact still. The pot still gets all the love on this tour. We didn’t see the column still (or stills) even though they’re just a few feet away from the fermentation tanks. This is the only meaningful deduction I can give the Willett tour—but not likely a major downside for the casual tourist or non-wonky visitor.
A short walk from the distillation building takes you to another building where (among other things) the casks are filled. Willett and Heaven Hill were the only tours were we saw cask filling – Willett’s filling is very home-spun and quaint. It doesn’t look like it’s changed since 1935. A highlight of this room was the metal barrel labeling template with cutouts. After a barrel is filled it’s placed on the end of the barrel and spray painted to create the standard parts of a barrel label. The individual barrel number is then added by hand.
Willett Distillery – rivet indentations
After filling the (very heavy) barrels, they’re rolled a few feet to an elevated series of barrel-width steel beams that run between the filling building and a rickhouse, allowing the barrels to be rolled to the rickhouse with relative ease. We could see indentation marks on the wooden floor left by the rivets of the rolling barrels, some with a ‘K’, others with a ‘Y’, giving a clue who made the barrels. We walked alongside the beams to the nearest rickhouse and entered for a spell to learn about aging. The sunny, clear day and the angle of the sun through the windows made the rickhouse interior the most picture pretty of any we saw on the trip.
Willett Distillery rickhouse
From the rickhouse it’s a short walk back to the visitor’s center. The tasting room is upstairs, and it’s a generous tasting! We went through at least five of the generally available Kentucky Bourbon Distiller offerings, followed by our individual choice of one of the of their higher-end bottlings. Our guide sensed my enthusiasm, so several more samples were forthcoming–always a good thing.
Willett Distillery tasting room
The gift shop has the decent selection of Willett branded goodies and cocktail paraphernalia. More important, the gift shop sells a number of bottles that aren’t readily available on store shelves everywhere. Of particular interest was the Willett Family Reserve, of which three different ages (2, 9 and 21 years) were available. Knowing that the older vintages weren’t made on-site, I purchased the delightful Family Estate Bottled two-year rye for $35 in addition to a bottle of the Pure Kentucky XO twelve-year bourbon.
The Willett Distillery is a photographer’s dream, including no restrictions on the areas where you can snap photos. If you have time before or after the tour, do walk around the rest of the grounds including the numerous rickhouses. On a beautiful fall day like we had, you can’t imagine a prettier place.