Far off in the middle of a place that’s impossible to tell you how to get to is a fantastic yet basically unknown monument to the ingenuity of man. Along the banks of the White River, set way back off the roads, bored into a hill of solid Indiana limestone is the Big Tunnel. A massive structure of charred brick, with spring water that drip drip drips through the ceiling, filtered out by the limestone, wetting down the thick, sooty residue that’s covered the inside of the tunnel since before the Civil War. The Big Tunnel is something to behold, dark, mysterious, foreboding. It’s also an experience in the natural flavors and scents of the landscape. Depending on what time of year you can see it, you could be standing in the presence of the greatest bourbon tasting facility the world has ever known. More on that in a moment…..
Recently, Willett Distillery started rolling out a line of Willett Family Estate bottles that became instant covets for me. The 14yr old single barrels. From the time I heard about them, I knew I had to have one. In my time I’ve had the great fortune to have procured the 10 through 13 year variants, and a couple of 22’s, all of which are long gone from this world, or quickly disappearing. I’m no snob when it comes to Willett Family Estate bourbon; I want them all, but that’s just not realistic. Living in NC, coming across a rare bottle of WFE doesn’t come easy, so I have to pick and choose the ones I really want, and then go about tracking them down. Anymore, I try to make the thrill of the hunt half of the fun. Talk to this guy, talk to that guy, maybe so-and-so knows where one is or has an extra. In this case, I had set my mind on sourcing the 14yr, and literally lucked out in procuring this delicious bottle of barrel 2372, which is #66 out of a run of 132 bottles. It’s not a “short barrel”, but think about that for a second….132 bottles, for the whole world. That’s pretty amazing.
Tasting it, I was brought immediately back to the Big Tunnel. Standing in front of that man made cavern in mid-summer is quite the experience. The corn is coming into full maturity at that point, and the fields spend all day simmering in the summer sun. They wear a thick cloud of humidity, which hovers barely above the tassles, rich with the sweet perspiration of the sugary kernels expressing themselves. The White River runs through a natural valley on it’s way down to the Ohio river basin. Near the Big Tunnel, there is a bottleneck between the hills that builds pressure in the air, causing it to accelerate into a breeze. The Big Tunnel itself is built on a curve almost a half mile long, which is why you can’t see the light on the other end, shielding it’s center from the heat, keeping it vastly cooler in summer than the exterior temperature. If its 100 outside, you need a jacket to walk through the tunnel. As such, where the air mingles, there is a constant level of condensations dripping off the bark of the old oak trees that line the hill side, leaving a fresh, woody aroma in the air. As the wind accelerates through the corn fields, it hits the back entrance of the tunnel, and forces itself inside, causing even more acceleration. Like a child blowing through a straw. The wind up the condensation from the oaks that has dripped down onto the limestone below. The spring water dripping through the roof mixes with the bricks, which wear the char of a thousand trains that passed through in the steam era, sprinkling down like a hydro-curtain of perfume that the wind travels through.
Standing at the main opening of the tunnel, you are blasted by a perpetual 15mph wind. It hits you in the face with scents of oak, corn, antiquated char and living history.
Try a tasting in front of that sometime. You might as well be sitting in a glencairn.
When I cracked the 2372 open, I felt like it was a different animal from the other WFE teens I’d tried. It’s still sharp, but with softer edges than the 12’s and 13’s. More syrupy. At 120 proof, it’s right in my bracket for what my taste buds desire in a bourbon.
Upon opening, I was immediately greeted by those happy elements of oak and vanilla. I poured into the glencairn and without waiting a moment I huffed hard. Mistake. This is still 120 proof, and it caused me to cough and chortle. I let it sit for a minute and I went off to get the mail (Indy 500 tickets come any day now!) After 15 minutes or so of air, I was ready to taste.
The nose, again, vanilla and oak. It’s just straightforward, no games. It’s the locomotive barreling through the tunnel at high speed, pouring everything it’s got into that curve. The oak is not subtle but it’s also not overpowering. It’s right in the powerband.
I sipped it, full bore, big sip. I wasn’t waiting around. The caramel and proof were at the forefront. Swishing and swirling. Sometimes I want more oak. When I tasted the C4D I remember thinking I could use another shot of oak. Not here. The 2372 hit me just right. It’s sweet but not desserty, not cloying, not candy. There was a body there too that set it apart from many of the younger releases. It made me think of a camping trip with my grandpa along the river. Amish butter in a seasoned skillet over a smoky, morning campfire, when the wood has sat out overnight and the bark is a little damp. So too is the ground. It’s chilly out, overcast and gray, but its not going to rain. You keep warm by vigorously stirring at an old metal bowl filled with pancake mix, ready to pour it out over the red hot griddle. Winter isn’t quite over yet, and spring isn’t quite here. Grandpa knows you are cold, calls you over, says leave the bowl. He hands you the old metal flask, the contents shrill and screaming in your nostrils. Silently and with a nod of approval, his old eyes say, “Drink up, this will warm your bones.”
The finish was everything you expect or could ask for in a Willett Family Estate. Burn. Starting from dissipation of flavor and holding on for minutes. The vanilla holds true through the finish.
Make sure to keep the glencairn around until the next morning, and give it a huff upon waking up. You will be so pleasantly surprised by the warm, toasty oak and caramel scents that await you. Package that scent into a slick decorative candle and you’ll make a fortune.
This spring, when I’m back in Indiana for the 500, I fully plan on bringing a sample of this bottle with me and dragging it up to the Big Tunnel, just to see how it is.