I’ve always had an interest in history. I love things that bleed antiquity. It’s been this way since I was able to get my own library card and stuff my book bag with oversized dusty copies filled to the brim with historical analysis of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, blueprints and schematics of steam powered ships and every piece of literature I could get my hands on having to do with primitive machinery. And I especially love history that you can see, touch and taste.
I grew up near an old settlement, actually more of a pioneer village called Spring Mill. It was a tiny town that cropped up in the middle of a small valley in the early 1800’s, swiss cheesed by caves that were cut out of the same limestone filtered water that feeds the springs used by our beloved distilleries of today. The beating heart of the town was a 3-story grist mill, powered by a 24 foot water wheel, which was fed by a massive Romanesque aqueduct system out of Hamer cave. It’s an outstanding piece of machinery, even by today’s standards. The mill’s primary function was grinding corn between two huge stone disc’s, pulverizing it into a fine powder used in everything from corn mean to sour mash in the old distillery behind the mill. Since it was so close to our house, just a country mile away, I spent as much time as I could there, marveling at the water wheel, studying the giant wooden gear mechanisms. It smelled like ancient oak and corn being abused and pulverized by the torque, friction and weight of the grinding wheels.
So how does that relate to Willett you ask? Please allow me to explain.
First off I must confess, I have a bit of an infatuation with bottles of Willett Family Estate bourbon. There is just something so classic about them, from the 10yr all the way to the 24. They never cease to amaze me, never cease to be an experience unto themselves. Always enjoyable. They are just so fantastic and mysterious. Every bottle is an individual, a person, with characteristics that you want to get to know better. You want to become best friends. For me, drinking a Willitt is like that conversation with the perfect girl (you know the one) that carries on into the early hours of a summer morning, as the sun is just starting to peak over the horizon and burn the haze out of the sky. You don’t want it to end, and look at your watch with slow blinks, trying to make the second hand slow down. You hang on every word, every facial expression, every laugh. You feel as if you are drowning, intoxicated by the moment. That’s how Willett’s are for me. Filled with nuance, class, exclusivity and excitement. Every bottle is an adventure into the unknown, but I always leave the glass empty, believing I have just experienced the best there is.
And so I went into my tasting of the 24yr in just the same mindset.
At 114.6 proof, this is by no means the strongest WFE I have ever had. Although I consider myself a high-proof guy (125 is a great proof for me), I was excited to see what kinds of flavors were in store. I poured a finger into the glass, swirled it, and let it sit a moment. But I couldn’t wait too long, the anticipation just wouldn’t allow it. So I gave it a good long snort, and to my immediate surprise I had to back my head up. This old girl seemed a lot stronger that 114 proof. In a blind test I would have guessed much higher, maybe even 135. I took the slightest sip, just to see if the intensity could match the nose, and it was no slouch. Heavy burn from the get go. My neighbors blood hound was yarlping in the background, but with my eyes squinted shut I could imagine it was actually a Dalmatian barking “Get out of the way!” while riding shot gun on an old horse drawn fire wagon, careening through the streets of San Francisco on the way to the blaze engulfing the Hard Luck Saloon.
I let the glass get a little more air and tried it some more, and it proved to be just as intense. I wondered for a moment if I’d put on bourbon goggles that exacerbated some form of primal dyslexia, and this was actually 141 proof. I checked the numbers again; Sure enough 114. So I filled the glass again.
Though it pained me to do it, this time I put a few small drops of real limestone spring water in the glencairn. Have you ever seen one of those old cartoons where a witch is cooking up some kind of brew in a cauldron for dinner or whatever, tossing together an odd mix of eye-of-newt, weasel toe nails and frog eyebrows…and then she drops in that one final ingredient and a huge *POOF* and a mushroom cloud follows. It was like that. Maybe not exactly like that, but that’s how I wanted it to be. I gave the water some time to settles in to its new surroundings, dissipating into the thick brown juice, and a couple of good swirls and minutes of air.
This time, the nose opened up completely.
I was immediately greeted by a wonderful heavy aroma of black walnuts. Specifically black walnuts. There is a difference. Contained within was a nice component of roasted coffee beans, a toasty char emanating from your favorite local coffee shop. As well, there was also one of my favorite standard bourbon nose components: syrup. Oh this doll was syrupy.
But there was something else, something so familiar that it was taking me back to a place in my youth. I was having these wonderful flashes of instant recall from some place in the past, far removed from the present but not from the forefront of my mind. I kept on smelling, determined to re-discover the source of this brilliant scent.
And then I got it.
With every pull, I was getting a good deep breath of the grinding room inside Spring Mill. The heavy old oak plank floors, creaking and pluming a century worth of hand hewn life all around us. The friction of the grinding wheels as they spin. The sweet ground corn dust hanging thick in the air like a cloud, getting deep into my lungs. All of these components coming together perfectly inside this glass, into my nose, taking me back to my youth. I can see the gears; I can hear the water in the flume, spilling over the sides into the creek that rushes past, the groans of the grand old water wheel as it turns at 60 RPM, toiling away proudly saying “hello again, old friend”.
The flavor also delivered the components that I love in a Willett experience, like a Crispy Cream donut, hot, sweet and delicious. Plenty of decadent cocoa in this pour, interspersed with rich burnt sugars. It was delightful, ever so.
And the finish? In my notes I wrote “Magnus Ver Magnusson”….he being one of that all-time great strong men, and “Nuclear Bomb.” The burn was intense, something I love in bourbon (don’t we all?), and it was sustained. On and on and on and on. And just like that great moment with the perfect girl, I found myself looking at my watch, trying to convince the second hand slow down, so I could draw out every last moment of the flavor and finish.
The post nose of the glencairn was a deliciously dreamy cocoa and roasted pecan. I could huff this all day.
So once again, Willett Family Estate does not disappoint. They continue to release epic bottle after epic bottle.
And that’s what Epic Bourbon is all about. Bravo, Drew…..