Whiskey Nips: Willett Family Estates
The first time I saw a bottle of Willett Family Estate, it really caught my eye. It is the same tall and cylindrical shaped bottle as Eagle Rare, with vintage looking paper labels, some of the details handwritten, and their family crest displayed prominently. There was green foil that sealed the bottle (purple for bourbon) and the colors in the family crest matched it. It looked regal. I told the clerk that I wanted the Willett and he asked “are you a Willett collector?” A bit confused, I replied no, and took home the bottle. What I ended up with was a 3 year rye that they distilled themselves, and a question burning in my mind, about collecting Willett.
About 6 months later, I had a lot more knowledge about whiskey, and Willett was putting on some sort of tasting and talking event here in Seattle. Current Master Distiller Drew Kulsveen and his sister Britt Chavanne, now President of Willett, led a discussion about their family history and what makes their brand so special. Their parents, Even and Martha Kulsveen, took over the Willett brand in 1984. Martha was the daughter of the founder, Thompson Willett. Around this time, the company stopped distilling, and operated as a non distilling producer.
In 2012, the family started promoting the Willett name once again, and opened up their own distillery. In the meantime, they still had to source their product from other distilleries. The industry was not as popular as it is today, and Drew was buying up older whiskey that no one wanted. We’re talking 10, 15, even 20+ years old! The Willett Family Estate lineup was bottled as single barrels at full cask strength.
It used to sit on shelves until bourbon began to rise in popularity. People started discovering these single barrels, and learned that Drew had an amazing palate for picking out barrels that were bursting with full bodied flavor. I had recently tried a 21 year old Willett and was blown away. Now I understood why people collected these. These single barrels can be pretty hard to get and fetch hundreds to thousands of dollars on the secondary market. I was late to the party, so I have only been able to snag one of their older releases coming in at 12 years. With all the different single barrels, you can get a wide variance in flavor profiles, but they all seem to have a common full bodied flavor.
Throughout the evening, we tasted a 16 year old Willett Family Estate bourbon, Noah’s Mill bourbon, and an 8 year Willett Family Estate rye. All this was paired with bites of brownies and cakes, the best thing to pair with whiskey. Drew continued to stress that Willett is a family owned and operated business and will continue to be. With Drew leading the way as master distiller, and Britt’s new position as President, I expect that the quality will continue to shine, as they begin to produce more of their own whiskey. I have been able to acquire some of their 4 year rye and 5 and 6 year bourbons, and they are phenomenal.