Adam and I had just finished our pours of 1985 Van Winkle Family Estate Rye. A quick splash of water in the glencairn, 13 swirls, slosh and gulp the water, shake out the glass, and on to the next pour.
Willett Family Estate – 16yr Bonili “The Lord of Dankness”
“OK, see what you think of this one” he said, handing me another Boston round. I held up the bottle and read the label. It hit all the right trait markers for something I would enjoy. A 16yr Bonili, barrel 470. 64.75%!
The Bonili picks of higher age are spoken about in hushed tones now, the same way people whisper about celebrities they see sitting next to them at a restaurant. “Look over there, that’s Jennifer Aniston. Don’t look!!” You tell everyone for days that you had dinner with Jennifer.
I poured out the Willett and inhaled deeply. “This stuff is DANK.” I exclaimed. “If Astor C12A was the Darkness, this one should be the Dankness. The Lord of Dankness.” The nose was deep with oaks, vanilla and honey nuttiness. But underpinning everything was the pungent aroma of a variety I’d never smelled in a bourbon before. Yet it was familiar. I nosed it for a while and said, “It’s like I’m in the rickhouse, and the barrel is rotten and leaking. It’s covered with that thick, pillowy, muddy and musty mold. It’s eking through the staves and sucking into the liquid.” It was ultra earthy. No, that doesn’t even describe it. Let me be completely honest: I had a couple of indoor cats for 12 years, and my initial thought was the nose of this bourbon had a component that was similar to the mustiness of a litter box two days past its prime. There I said it.
God, I actually felt guilty saying that. As if the 16yr Bonili deserved better, or that the odd scent was my fault, or that I should overlook it. I was picking apart a vaunted private selection of one of my all-time favorite labels.
But here is the amazing thing: After a moment, it worked. I don’t know why it worked, but it did. The longer I nosed it, the more it made sense. The more I realized I was smelling something special that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but it was classic in the way that vinyl sounds better than digital.
Adam summed it up perfectly, laughing “I’m not sure what it is. Maybe funky corks. Maybe just the right cat pissed on the barrel in just the right spot. Who knows?”
“Yeah right, probably Noah. Grinning like the Cheshire.” I exclaimed, thinking of the fat tom cat that plods around the property.
“Whatever it is, it’s pefect.” was Adam’s final summation. Always trust the chef.
Dankness. It was almost a quality that you find in wine that has been casked in a cave forever; you can taste the age and history. The age of the ground. The age of the room and musk of the huge log structure that cradled the barrel lovingly for 16 years. Monstrously damp and dank. Adam’s belief that the cork was probably moldy seemed like strong hypothesis. (Note to self: When my 4 year old eventually forgets to tell me he has a science project due until 5 minutes before the bus arrives, whip out the moldy cork hypothesis, and pictures of dad passed out in the living room floor, performing the lab work.) I couldn’t venture a guess, so I just took his word for it.
Now that I’d come to an understanding with the nose, I had to go straight into the sip. The intensity of the flavors made me immediately happy. It was just so powerful and expressive, but tender too. I picked up sweet, candy plums. Thick molasses, boiling in a copper pot over an open flame. The logs in the fire are freshly cut, still damp, cracking, popping, fizzing, whistling, smoking. Juicy pipe tobacco brings in a pointed element of spice, a punch right in your mouth that’s equally sweet. Willett is just such great bourbon. It really is.
The finish was explosive. I let it ride on the back of my palate, and damn if it didn’t bring me to tears. Literally tears. I tried to speak, but I’d taken the finish too far back and was completely choked up. I let the thought pass. Minutes were slipping by, and there was more to drink.
“Oh Lord of Dankness,” I said with a guttural cough, head shaking and one eye squinted, “that is the essence of epic bourbon.”
Willett Family Estate – 12yr Barrel 743
Now we were going from the 16yr Bonili to the 12yr barrel 743. It was the “Chocolate Atom Bomb”.
Immediately out of the bottle, this bourbon billowed forth with copious amounts of cocoa. A special, chocolatey goodness. Bakery aromas. The oak in the profile was refined, giving off a scent of aging walnut shells. Nutty. I was reminded of the way I felt the first time I tried WFE 826, how you just knew it was a special pour in comparison to the numerous others you’ve had. Literally I closed my eyes and I was transported to the Toll House, where some sweet old lady was baking up batch after batch of delicious homemade chocolate chip cookies. There is a soft oak log fire crackling in the hearth across the room, and you can smell the logs charring up and caramelizing under the heat. There is a snaggle toof kid in the corner, grinning ear to ear, tearing the cookie in half, the chocolate chips exploding from the sugary fissure, stringing apart in gobs of hot stickiness. Warm, soft, ooey gooey deliciousness.
The flavor gushed with vanilla and more of the cocoa. God, that oak flavor drives me crazy. It was so chocolate forward, but at the same time very balanced. It also gave up broad hints of syrupy caramel, what I always equate to flat cola. But more than anything, it was a cocoa show.
I stared at the glass for a long time, nosing, tasting, nosing, tasting. Adam impressed me with his analysis of this bottle. He really went into the ins and outs, his opinions about the source of the juice. He expounded on the differences and nuances between Wild Turkey distillate versus Brown and Forman, talking in detail about the classic, easily detectable notes of each brand. It was fascinating to listen to him, because while I’d respected his knowledge about bourbon, it was so much greater than I’d realized. I was a student.
After listening to him, I felt like I was reverting back into the bourbon blogger version of the Chris Farley show on Saturday Night Live. “Hey. Do you, do you, you, um… Do you remember that time that we, um….that, um, we…we drank that scot, um whisk…no, bourbon. God, I’m so stupid! It’s bourbon! C’mon! I’m sorry. We drank that bourbon from Willett. Do you remember that? Sha, that was awesome!”
The finish was long, and really bit me on the mid palate, gaining strength as it rounded the back. What a delightful burn, with a mild kiss of molasses tailing off.
So yeah. Barrel 743. It’s special. It’s a nutty, cocoa, chocolate chip cookie bomb of flavor.
On to the final pour…….
Willett 25yr Barrel 2876
This would be the last bourbon we would taste, and in fact the oldest I have ever tasted. At 25 years, this old man had stories to tell. I was ready to listen.
The Boston round was that standard dark brown translucent color, but when I poured the bourbon out, you’d have thought the Boston round was clear. The juice was that dark. “Man, that is seriously dark!” I said, and at the same time Adam also says, “Can you believe how dark this is?”
I really settled back into the chair for this one, though the three glasses of bourbon I’d just consumed also deflated my posture. Both Adam and I were swirling the liquid in the glencairns, marveling at how thick and viscous it was. Adam piped up “Look at this. This bourbon has serious legs.” With every swirl, the bourbon would round the bulb of the glass and rise, leaving a thick coating that slinked and slurried back to the bottom when you stopped the motion, similar to fresh Valvoline 10W40, save for the fact it was the same opaque color as Brent Crude.
The nose was toasty and woody. The smell of Paul Bunyun’s axe after a day of gnashing away at tall oaks, the friction of the steel and wood burnishing the blade with scents and scars. Campfire. I’m pretty sensitive to over-oaked bourbon. With certain exceptions (almost any near-quarter century Willett, for example), once it gets ultra-aged, there is just too much mulch in the water for me to fully enjoy. But sometimes, it’s just right.
I found the flavor to be more spicy than sweet. Mild anise, mixed with a seasoned wood spiciness that came off hot, like ghost pepper. The age was evident. I used to have a jogging route in Chicago that took me past a leather processing facility on Ashland Avenue. The place was ancient and decrepit, a crooked, cracked old brick structure built on rotting pilings driven into the mud of the Chicago River. The windows were always hanging wide open, and peering in, it was easy to see stacks of fresh leather awaiting the curing process. On a humid August night, when there was no breeze, you could taste the leather in the air a mile away. I picked up this same component in the 2876. Leathery. I have a feeling they dumped it at the very last second, any longer and it would have gone off the rails.
The finish is exactly how you expect a 25yr old, 127.2 proof bottle to be. A stick of dynamite.
This was not my favorite Willett I’d ever had, nor my favorite of the three we tried. But I did enjoy it a lot.
So that was that. Time was up, Adam had places to go and so did I. The best part about the tasting was the time spent with a kindred, sharing stories, talking about life over exquisite bourbon.