Note: As I wrote this review, I had the Eagles song “New Kid In Town” on my mind. It seemed pretty appropriate, specifically the opening line:
There’s talk on the street; it sounds so familiar.
Great expectations, everybody’s watching you.
People you meet, they all seem to know you.
Even your old friends treat you like you’re something new.
On a recent jaunt to Bardstown, I was finally presented with the opportunity to taste barrel #69, of Willett’s own distillate. From their mash. Through their still. Aged four years, in their houses on the hill. Approved by Drew Kulsveen. It’s the first release of Willett’s homemade, barrel proof Family Estate bourbon, with the family crest right there on the front for the world to see. No stress there, right? I won’t get too deeply into the specifics of the surroundings as that’s a much, much longer story which deserves every bit of its own telling. But I’ll give you a general overview. After meeting up with some friends at Willett and doing the tour, we found ourselves back in Bardstown, drinking on the patio outside of the Harrison Smith House. The sky was overcast, typical of April in Kentucky, that gray cloud covered haze, stuck somewhere in the ether between winter and spring. It was cold, of a mild deep-diving Canadian bluster variety; what we call jacket weather. The drizzle fell on and off. No one noticed. We had been drinking all manner of bourbon and rye for the better part of 4 hours…..
That’s when a bottle of Barrel #69 appeared, slammed down on the head of an old aging barrel being used as a parking lot implement. We all stood there and looked at it. At this point, I’d read almost nothing about Willett’s 4yr release, at least in terms of a proper tasting and evaluation. It seems most people either guzzled them quickly, or more likely stashed them away in the bunker along with bottles of 2014 George T Stagg, Parker’s Heritage 27yr, Four Roses 17yr Barrel #9, dusty bottles of mid-1980’s bonded Old Fitzgerald, and basically any other bottle that I wish I had open right now.
Now, Willett has become synonymous with mind numbing 22yr old wheaters and sassy, proofy teenagers that offer big doses of tobacco, caramel and campfire char still smoldering the morning after an all-night rager with your best friends. The best part is that even as consistent as they are, every one is unique in its personality. Some showcase sweetness, some are brown sugar and oaken butter, some are proof and flavor bombs. But on the whole, they are all pretty damn good bottles. High age, high proof, and utmost quality, even if the source of the juice is still a mystery.
So with that, I like a lot of others were impatiently anticipating Drew’s thumbs-up to finally release the first examples of his own bourbon on the world. I have to imagine this was a stressful experience. Everyone gets stage fright. Artists, whether painters or poets, musicians or play writes are subordinates to their mental fears about what people will say of their work. Criticism, even when constructive, can constrain the process. The word was “Drew didn’t sleep for three days” after releasing his first barrels (four in all).
For my own taste, I can’t say I’ve ever found a four year old bourbon appealing. I’m pretty much transparent in my praise of the higher ages and barrel proofs. For me the kids are just too unrefined. Too wild. The flavor profiles are usually absurdly heavy on oily corn with little much else to offer in the way of complexity. Sometimes they try to overcome the lack of flavor by upping the proof in a coy attempt to substitute burn for piquancy. Sometimes they don’t even go that far, instead struggling to overcome the absence of any quality with clever packaging, heavily waxed neck and absurd story about the juice within being crafted based on a recipe reputed to be recovered from under the seat of John Dillinger’s car by Al Capone himself. It never works, at least not for me. No matter how high they aspire to go, they always come crashing back down to the ground in spectacular fashion.
But that’s where Drew Kulsveen has managed to defy gravity and all laws that we knows to be good and just and true. Four year olds shouldn’t be good, or at least not as good as this one.
I’m sipping it now, and it’s just as tasty as it was that afternoon in Bardstown. I was so enamored I actually contacted Drew at that moment. He had to know he’d done well.
This is not the Willett that you know; it’s a completely new animal. No one will ever call this one “The Darkness”. The color is like that of golden, sugary sourwood honey, and seems lighter that almost everything I put it next to.
The nose is just a full on candy rush and heavy on berries and wildflowers. I was actually shocked at how much the candy and flowers component dominated up front. It’s an intoxicatingly alluring scent that seems so pure. The first time I sniffed at it, standing on the side of the round-about in Bardstown’s center, I looked up, smiled and said “Wow. Life Savers. It’s Life Savers.” The candy element was not what I expected at all. But more than that, this new species of Willett can best be described as a super floral. So floral infact, it’s as if Willett perfected a sort of bourbon cold fusion, taking some of the best recipe’s Four Roses has, and applying Fleischmann-Pons theory of cold fusion and smashing them down into a compacted, concentrated shot of scent and flavor that diddles every switch in your olfactory nerve center. Red and green lights are flashing, buzzers and Klaxon sirens are going off. I nosed it and nosed it for longer than I probably should have, so much that my buddy asked if I was drinking it, or if just wanted to look like I was drinking. But the nose was just so mysterious and appealing, I wanted to get deeper into it, with more analysis, letting it reveal all of its rosy red berry and candy-gram nuance. But I had to get to the flavor.
My initial thought was “balance”. This bourbon just has such good balance, especially for a four year old, for all the reasons I listed above. It’s playful but not overly wild, and the flavor is right there for your enjoyment. There is a juicy abundance of sweet red currants and wild cherries mingled with light, light caramel. The berries stay forward in the profile and dominate through the duration. There is a mild oak pattern underneath, sweet and smoky. I also pulled out a component of mint. I found the flavor reveals its maximum peak when you sip it, hold your breath, let it swirl mid-tongue and then exhaling as you swallow. At 60.5%, the burn is right where you want it to be. It’s doesn’t overpower, neither does it leave you wanting something stronger. For a different experience, take a tiny sip and let it sit on the back of your palate leaving your mouth open while holding the glencairn right off the front of your nose, then alternate inhaling quickly between your mouth and nostrils. I coughed a couple of times, but it’s so damn smoky and sweet.
The finish coats the top of the tongue and the back of the palate in smooth waves of minty smokiness that sustains for longer than I thought it would. It’s light and fresh, and refreshing. The berry flavor really hangs over in the aftertaste, well after the burn has dissipated. How pleasant. The post nose gave me flavors of cocoa and honey.
I’m really looking forward to what this bourbon will be like when it hits 8 years old, 12 years old, etc. Its great now and it’s only going to get better. Willett is on to something special, but did we expect anything less?
Get some sleep Drew. You deserve it.