American craft distilling has been booming over the last decade, but very few independent brands have figured out the blueprint for longevity. Willett Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky has experienced success and failure, and now stands as an example of how to build, reset and rebuild when necessary.
Across a diverse array of products, the family-owned company has demonstrated how much can be achieved when the ultimate goal is to put quality products on the shelf. While others have bought in, or sold out, Willett's maintained its autonomy and become increasingly self-reliant, by successfully transitioning from an “NDP” (non-distiller producer) to making their own award-winning whiskeys in-house.
The History of Willett Bourbon
Willett bourbon traces its roots back to the 1800s, when John David Willett worked as a Master Distiller in Kentucky. His descendants remained in the whiskey business, and in 1936 opened the Willett Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky, on land that once served as the family farm. Over the following decades, the distillery weathered countless storms. As bourbon fell out of favor, the distillery unsuccessfully tried to switch to ethanol production, and by the late 1980s was no longer distilling whiskey.
In 1984, John Willett's great-granddaughter Martha Kulsveen (nee Willett) and her husband Even Kulsveen took over leadership of the company and purchased the distillery. It was Kulsveen’s idea to source whiskey from producers such as Heaven Hill, and MGP Ingredients to age on site. Operating as an NDP under the name Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, they began releasing small batch whiskeys in the 1990s, including Noah’s Mill and Rowan’s Creek.
In the early 2000s, the next generation of Willetts began to make their mark, as Even and Martha's children joined the family business. One of their priorities was reviving the Willett Distillery and making it operational again. In the meantime, the Willett Family Estate line of allocated bourbon and ryes was introduced in 2008. The bourbons, affectionately known as "Purple Tops," due to their purple seal, became collectible bottles, selling for way above their MSRP on the secondary market; an early indicator of the bourbon boom to come.
The Willett Distillery underwent major renovations in 2011 and, by 2012, was distilling and aging its own whiskey. The 2015 Willett Family Estate Rye was the first release to feature whiskey made at the distillery. Since then, Willett has increasingly, if not exclusively, come to rely on its own distillate.
Willett Develops a Whiskey Portfolio
While Willett Family Estate bourbon and ryes continue to be the feather in their cap, their current portfolio includes a variety of bottles at different price points that consistently deliver a quality pour. Their most distinctive bottle is Willett Pot Still Reserve bourbon, which is housed in a collectible glass decanter that gets its shape from the distillery's copper pot still.
Noah’s Mill bourbon is, in many ways, Willett’s flagship brand. At 114.3 proof and aged for at least 4 years, it’s essentially the same liquid as a "Purple Top" without breaking the bank. Unlike the Family Estate bottles, it's readily available at an approachable price point
Another quality everyday sipper is Rowan’s Creek bourbon. At 101.1 proof, it's a solid option for those who prefer a lower ABV.
Willett also produces a number of more modestly-priced options, which go head-to-head with such middle-shelf mainstays as Elijah Craig and Buffalo Trace. These include Johnny Drum 'Private Stock' Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, Kentucky Vintage bourbon, and various releases under the Old Bardstown moniker.
A Commitment to Independence
Besides their own products, Willett also acts as a contract distiller for a select group of brands. Though you won’t find their name anywhere on the label, it’s commonly believed that Hirsch “The Cask Strength” bourbon was made at the Willett Distillery using the same liquid as the most sought-after Willett Family Estate releases.
Thanks to their success, Willett has been courted by bigger distilleries and larger conglomerate's yet remains committed to keeping ownership within the Kulsveen family. Even and Martha's son Drew Kulsveen is the current Master Distiller, his wife Janelle runs the gift shop and tasting rooms, his sister Brett Kulsveen Chavanne manages the day to day operations, and her husband Hunter works in sales and marketing.
Besides their whiskeys, the Willett Distillery has become a tourist attraction with guided tours and its own bar. In a landscape dominated by trends and corporations, Willett remains grounded in family tradition and resolutely independent, proving that a commitment to craftsmanship and quality can transcend the whims of the market.
PHOTOS COURTESY WILLETT DISTILLERY