Kentucky Bourbon Distillers
|Founder(s)||A. Lambert Willett and sons
(esp. A. L. "Thompson" Willett)
|Key people||Even G. Kulsveen
Martha H. Kulsveen (née Willett)
E. A. "Drew" Kuslveen
K. M.-B. "Britt" Chavanne (née Kulsveen)
Willett Distilling Company, also known as Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD), Ltd., is a private family-owned and -operated company that produces various brands of bourbon and rye whiskey. Most brands produced by the company are in the premium category and range from 6 to 17 years of aging maturity, with some of its bottlings being aged as long as 23 years.
The company is located on the outskirts of Bardstown, Kentucky on a site that began as a farm owned by the family. Primarily operating as a relatively large independent bottling company, KBD has been called "the big daddy of bourbon and rye bottling". The company has remained under family ownership and operation at the same location since it was created in 1935 as the Willett Distilling Company. The company started doing business as KBD in the mid-1980s, but continued to also use the Willett Distillery name. In 2012, it began promoting the Willett name again as its primary business name. As of October 2011, the company employs about 14 people – four family members and 8–12 line workers.
In addition to marketing a number of its own brands, KBD also operates as a contract bottler for various brands that are owned and marketed by others.
Most (perhaps all) of the brands that are owned by KBD do not actually identify KBD as the producing company on their labels. Instead the company does business under various fictitious company names. These other business names often correspond to the bottling brand names (such as the Old Bardstown Distilling Company for the Old Bardstown bourbon brand and the Noah's Mill Distilling Company for the Noah's Mill bourbon brand).
KBD was not actually operating as a distillery during the period between the early 1980s and January 2012, although the company had the word distillers in its name (and similarly used "distilling company" and "distillery" in the various company names that it printed on labels). However, KBD has been refurbishing and enhancing its prior distillery plant, and began limited test distilling on January 21, 2012. The company does not identify specifically where in Kentucky its products are actually distilled, although it has been suggested that most of their products have been distilled by the Heaven Hill Distillery, which has its company headquarters located close to KBD. The two companies are located about a half mile from each other along the same road in Bardstown, Kentucky.
For its new distilling operation, the company has three operating stills – a column still, a "doubler", and a pot still. The company has eight warehouses on site – each of which holds 5000–6000 barrels of whiskey for aging. Master Distiller Drew Kulsveen said that the warehouses are about a quarter of the size of those found at other distilleries.
The company was founded as the Willett Distilling Company in 1935.
John David Willett (born in 1841) had been the master distiller for the Moore, Willett & Frenke Distillery, which he had formed with his brother-in-law Thomas S. Moore of Bardstown, and a Mr. Frenke of Louisville. In 1876, Willett fell ill and sold his interest in the company. The resulting company became the Mattingly Moore Distillery. John David Willett would, however, live on for another 38 years after this transaction. He died in 1914. The Mattingly Moore Distillery would itself go forward to become an important part in the history of other significant bourbon brands, such as the Tom Moore bourbon brand and other brands of the Barton Brands distillery (sometimes known as the Tom Moore distillery).
Starting at the age of 15 with a five-year stint at the Mattingly Moore Distillery, his son A. Lambert Willett (born in 1883) picked up his father's profession. Lambert Willett then worked for the Max Selliger & Co. Distillery for twenty years – eventually becoming one-third owner and superintendent of the plant. A. L. "Thompson" Willett, Lambert’s son (born in 1909), also joined him at the plant as assistant superintendent. Lambert Willett later purchased a farm and, together with his sons and especially led by Thompson Willett, founded the Willett Distilling Company on the site. Thompson and Lambert Willett used John David Willett's bourbon recipes as the basis of the whiskey that they would distill there and brand as Old Bardstown.
The construction of the Willett Distilling Company began in the Spring of 1935 (soon after the 1933 repeal of alcohol prohibition in the United States), and the company produced its first batch of 300 bushels (about 30 barrels) on March 17, 1936. Five years after founding the Willett Distilling Company, Lambert Willett left Max Selliger & Co. to pursue the family business full-time. Lambert Willett and at least four of his sons held substantial positions of responsibility at the company. Lambert Willett died in 1970.
A. L. "Thompson" Willett, the son of Lambert Willett, was the president of the company until 1984. At one time, he was also the president of the Kentucky Distillers Association, and he also held a number of other positions of prominence in the community. He was a member of the Nelson County Historical Society, where his interests included the early history of whiskey-making in Kentucky. Thompson Willett's legal name was actually the same as his fathers, but he became known as "Thompson", using the maiden surname of his mother (née Mary Catherine Thompson) to distinguish him from his father.
Thompson Willett's daughter Martha Harriet Willett and some other members of her generation of the family worked for the company as well, and in 1972 she married Even (pronounced Evan) G. Kulsveen of Hamar, Norway, who would later purchase the company.
During the 1970s energy crisis, the company switched from producing whiskey to producing ethanol for gasohol fuel. This strategy soon failed when fuel prices returned to lower levels, and the distilling facilities were completely shut down in the early 1980s.
Kulsveen purchased the company and the property on July 1, 1984, and renamed the company to Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD), Ltd., registered distillery number DSP-KY-78. For some time, KBD continued to produce bourbon from the aging barrels that the Willett distillery had produced before they had stopped distilling. As time moved on, KBD increasingly began to purchase its bourbon from other distilleries and operate as an independent bottling company and to restock its barrel aging facilities with purchased barrels. Kulsveen and his wife continue to operate the facility to this day, and the next generation of the family, including their son E. A. "Drew" Kuslveen and his wife Janelle, their daughter K. M.-B. "Britt" Chavanne and her husband Hunter Chavanne, are also now involved in the company. Drew Kulsveen is the current Master Distiller and manages production, Janelle Kulsveen runs the gift shop and tasting room, Britt Chavanne runs day-to-day operations, and Hunter Chavanne covers sales and marketing.
After having dropped out of the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA) for decades, the company rejoined in October, 2012. Also in October 2012, the KDA announced that it would expand its Kentucky Bourbon Trail program to include a new "Craft Tour" of seven artisan distilleries, including the Willett Distillery.
The brands owned and marketed by KBD include the following:
- General market brands:
- Johnny Drum bourbon
- Old Bardstown bourbon
- Vintage bourbon and rye (47% abv, various ages including 17, 21, and 23 years)
- Single barrel brands:
- Willett Family Estate bourbon and rye (barrel proof, varying abv and aging, limited distribution)
- Willett Pot Still Reserve bourbon (47% abv, 6-7 year aging) – introduced 2008; bottled in a decorative decanter that received a double gold award for packaging design at the 2008 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
(Although the product has the term pot still in its name, it has been reported that part of the distillation process for the product was performed using the more common column still distillation method — with a pot still used only for the doubler stage.)
- Small batch (at most 12 barrels per batch) collection:
- Limited availability brands:
- Contract Brands: KBD also bottles and ages a number of brands under contract, including the bottling for such brands as:
- Black Maple Hill small batch bourbon and rye (46.6% abv, 14 year aging, for CVI Brands)
- Classic Cask small batch bourbon and rye (17-21 year aging, for Spirit Imports)
- Conecuh Ridge small batch whiskey "distilled from bourbon mash" (45% abv, approximately 4 year aging, for Spirits Acquisition Corp.) – Note that under U.S. regulations a whiskey "distilled from bourbon mash" is similar to a bourbon, but is aged in used oak barrels rather than in new ones.
- Michter's small batch and single barrel bourbon, rye, and bourbon-like unblended American whiskey
(various abv and ages, for Chatham Imports)
- Old Pogue small batch bourbon (45.5% abv, 9 year aging, for the Pogue family)
Many of the company's brands have received awards at the annual San Francisco World Spirits Competition. These include Willett Pot Still Reserve (gold medal and double gold medal for packaging, 2009), Old Bardstown Gold, Black and Estate Bottled labels (each receiving a silver medal in 2012), Johnny Drum Private Stock (double gold medal, 2010), Johnny Drum Green and Black labels (each receiving a silver medal in 2012), Kentucky Vintage (double gold medal, 2005, silver medal, 2012), Noah's Mill (gold medal, 2005; double gold medal, 2011), Pure Kentucky XO (double gold medal, 2005, silver medal, 2012), and Rowan's Creek (gold medal, 2005; gold medal, 2011).
The Beverage Testing Institute rated Corner Creek bourbon at 92 in a 2010 tasting and Black Maple Hill rye at 95 in a 2008 tasting. Both of these ratings are in the range of 90-95, which the Institute refers to as "exceptional".
Malt Advocate Magazine rated Willett Family Reserve 22 year old rye at 96 "a classic" (Vol. 18, #1), Willett Family Reserve 25 year old bourbon at 95 "a classic" (Vol. 18, #1), Willett Family Reserve 23 year old rye at 94 "outstanding" (Vol. 17, #2), Vintage 17 year old bourbon at 92 "outstanding" (Vol. 15, #2), Rowan's Creek 12 year old bourbon at 92 "outstanding" (Vol. 14, #2), Vintage 21 year old rye at 91 "outstanding" (Vol. 15, #4), and Willett Pot Still Reserve at 90 "outstanding" (Vol. 17, #2).
- Willett distillery joins Kentucky Distillers' Association, Kentucky Distillers Association, October 4, 2102.
- Willett Distillery company web site.
- Whiskey Wednesday: American Independent Bottlers, Sku's Recent Eats: Eating Adventures in the Los Angeles Area and Beyond (and Whiskey on Wednesday!), April 28, 2009. (Access date December 11, 2010.)
- Willett Family Reserve: All Expressions, StraightBourbon.com, June 5, 2008 (and previous). (Access date December 11, 2010.)
- Ken Miller, In a Willett state of mind at the Freakin’ Frog, Las Vegas Weekly, October 8, 2011.
- American Whiskey: We Visit Bardstown's Secret Master Whiskeyman... sort of, February 22, 2001, updated April 29, 2006. (Access date December 10, 2010.)
- Whiskey Wednesday: The Distiller That Doesn't Distill - Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD), Sku's Recent Eats: Eating Adventures in the Los Angeles Area and Beyond (and Whiskey on Wednesday!), May 5, 2009. (Access date December 11, 2010.)
- Jay Erisman and John Hansell, Willett's Making Whiskey. Again., Whisky Advocate Blog, March 30, 2012.
- Review: Willett Family Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon – 8 Year (Barrel 305), Sour Mash Manifesto, March 27, 2012.
- Drew Kulsveen, Last batch of Bourbon for the day. Distilling Rye tomorrow, KBD on Twitter, January 21, 2012.
- Bourbon Distilleries: Willett Distillery, The Party Source. (Access date December 11, 2010.)
- Willett Distillery, Post Prohibition web site.
- Old Bardstown 4 Year Old, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, D & M.
- Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Angel's Share Magazine, Oct. 2, 2011.
- June's American Whiskey Club, D & M, May 30, 2009.
- Henry G. Crowgey, Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years of Whiskeymaking, University of Kentucky Press, 1971 (p. ix Acknowledgements).
- Video: Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Bardstown, Kentucky, Bourbonblog.com, September 28th, 2010. (Access date December 11, 2010.)
- Willett distillery joins Kentucky spirits group, Louisville Courier-Journal, October 4, 2012.
- Bourbon Trail launches new tour of artisan distilleries, Lexington Herald-Leader, October 12, 2012.
- Craft distilleries across the state added to Kentucky Bourbon Trail experience, The Lane Report, October 12, 2012.
- John Hansell, Friday’s Pick: Willett Single Barrel Estate Reserve Bourbon, What Does John Know? News and Views from John Hansell, Malt Advocate Publisher and Editor, January 18, 2008 (and reply comment by Drew Kulsveen, January 22, 2008, and replies by others). (Access date December 11, 2010.)
- The newest Willett family estate Rye, StraightBourbon.com. (Access date January 2011).
- Parker’s Heritage Named Best-in-show Bourbon; Baker’s Wins Double Gold; Basil Hayden’s and Knob Creek Win Gold; Willett Pot Still Gets Double Gold for Packaging, BBQ and Bourbon: Celebrating Great Kentucky Barbeque and Great Kentucky Bourbon, April 4, 2009. (Access date December 11, 2010.)
- Pork And Whiskey review of Rowan's Creek
- The Complete List of American Whiskey Distilleries & Brands, Sku's Recent Eats: Eating Adventures in the Los Angeles Area and Beyond (and Whiskey on Wednesday!), May 5, 2009, last updated December 1, 2010. (Access date December 11, 2010.)
- Corner Creek Bourbon review, StogieGuys.com, September 26, 2011.
- Jason Pyle, Michter's Unblended Small Batch American Whiskey, Sour Mash Manifesto, 23 Feb. 2011.
- CVI Brands official web site.
- Clyde May's Conecuh Ridge Whiskey, official web site. (Access date January 4, 2011.)
- Chatham Imports official web site.
- Charles K. Cowdery, Non-Distiller Producers; Make The Brands, But Buy The Whiskey, American Distiller #89, Reprinted with permission from The Bourbon Country Reader, Volume 10 Number 5 (September 2007). (Access date December 13, 2010.)
- Charles K. Cowdery, Who Made That Whiskey?, The Chuck Cowdery Blog: American Whiskey & Other Stuff, February 19, 2008. (Access date December 13, 2010.)
- Willett Family Pot Still Reserve, StraightBourbon.com, February 17, 2008 (and previous). (Access date December 11, 2010.)
- Pot Stills Versus Column Stills, The Chuck Cowdery Blog: American Whiskey & Other Stuff, February 26, 2008. (Access date December 11, 2010.)
- San Francisco World Spirits Competition web site (Access date December 11, 2010.)
- Beverage Testing Institute site. (Accessed January 2010.)
- Malt Advocate. (Accessed January 2011).
- Whiskey Bible 2011 Awards site. (Accessed January 2011).
- Willett Distillery official web site