Willett Master Distiller Drew Kulsveen doesn’t have time for bullshit. It’s not something he has to tell anyone. The message shoots from his eyes like a railgun. Even at a relatively young age, it’s clear he’s heard it all before. He talks like someone who’s lost years listening to others dribble on, and worked hard to eradicate the behavior in himself; his speech is terse, verging on curt. You can’t blame him for him ignoring the noise. A lot rides on his shoulders. He and his family worked for years to rebuild the family distillery, which reopened in 2012, and now he’s determined to prove a point.
Distilling in his family stretches back over 120 years. The original Willett distillery, as it’s thought of today, began in 1936, though Willetts manned stills long before that. Today, select bottles of the Willett Family Estate Bourbon and Rye are compared to the ultra-hyped
Pappy Van Winkle line and are nearly as hard to find. The trouble is, his distillery didn’t technically make those bourbons: a gradual downturn in the bourbon market stopped production on the property starting in 1976 and was only just restarted in 2012. The family’s next move is where the controversy started. NDP is whiskey speak for “non-distiller producer”. It refers to whiskey bottled by a company that didn’t actually make it. The term carries baggage with many bourbon enthusiasts, and their position is understandable. Bottles offered by NDPs carry an inherent risk: the liquid inside could be the exact bourbon made by another major distillery, rebranded and marked up. It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but the concern is genuine; it’s not unreasonable to want to know exactly what you’re paying for. And the general lack of transparency from many NDPs hasn’t eased the suspicion.
Drew’s dad Even married his mom Martha Harriet Willett in 1972. In 1984, the native Norwegian purchased the old distillery property from his father-in-law and founded Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd., (KBD) the parent company of Willett today.
Making bourbon there was out of the question then, but the warehousing on site and the remaining Willett-produced bourbon stocks were just fine. The market for bourbon had bottomed out in the states; however, international interest in Japan and Europe was growing. Even saw the NDP strategy as a rung on the climb back to distilling. He began blending the remaining family whiskey with reserves sourced from other distillers and bottled it under vintage-sounding names like Johnny Drum and Old Bardstown. His business acumen kept KBD afloat and primed to return from the dead. It also shrouded the company in mystery.
Many of NDP’s critics fail to account for is that distilling and bottling simply bookend the process for making most whiskeys. All bourbons outside of single-barrel offerings are blends of different aged whiskeys, in some cases made from different recipes. Creating the right flavor profile hinges on identifying good barrels and knowing what to mix together. Even excelled at barrel selection, and creating flavor profiles through blending was a serious asset. It’s a skill he’s passed on to Drew.
Various KBD whiskeys — including the Old Bardstown series, Johnny Drum Private Stock, Kentucky Vintage, Noah’s Mill, Pure Kentucky XO and Rowan’s Creek — have won recognition at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition since the early ‘00s. The same goes for Black Maple Hill, a so-called private-label offering once contracted to KBD by another company. A 17-year-old-offering of their flagship brand,
Willett Family Estate, was named “World Whiskey of the Year” in the 10-17 year single barrel category by Jim Murray of Whisky Bible fame. Collectors love it. Some horde it, presumably to sell it later, or blackout through the coming apocalypse on some damn fine bourbon. All of these award-winning whiskies are NDPs.
The accolades fueled curiosity around the company. Mainly: where were they getting their stuff? The grounds sit in the shadow of the second largest holder of aged American whiskey barrels in the world, Heaven Hill. Many surmised it was trumped-up Elijah Craig juice. The family was forthcoming where they could be: the words “distilled in Indiana” are clearly written on the back of older Willett Family Estate Rye bottles, referencing where they were distilled, just across the Ohio River from Willet. Some relationships just
“…we are people of our word and you know, that’s where we stand. Because you really don’t have anything else other than your word. Nothing else really matters.”
couldn’t be discussed. It’s a sore topic for Drew — one’s he’s bludgeoned his head against for most of his adult life.
“We didn’t have just one straight source. Everybody thinks we did but we didn’t”, he says. “One of the things that I can’t wrap my head around to this day is the disclosure aspect. We’ve always respected the fact that if someone asked not to do something, or if we, you know, sign a disclosure agreement, we are people of our word, and that’s where we stand. Because you really don’t have anything else other than your word. Nothing else really matters.” Frustration never mutes his practical side though. “It helped us rebuild the distillery and rebuild our family name. I think it’s a bittersweet story, it’s good to be a part of it.” The stigma of being an NDP will soon no longer be an issue if things continue to go
as planned. In 2012, stills started back up on the Bardstown, KY property. The first Willet-made bourbon in over 30 years was barreled and rolled into warehouses to begin aging on the 103rd birthday of Drew’s grandfather, Thompson Willett. Even’s plan had worked with the help of his children.
“I think it was always a goal of my father’s. It just required a lot of capital investment and a lot of time. I don’t think he would have made that investment unless he couldn’t pass it along to me and my sister, the next generation. We definitely helped push it along. It was always in the back of his mind that he wanted to do it the second he got out here. But you know, time just seems to get away from you. I was fairly young, straight out of college. Came here in 2004 and I was eager to do something and I think it helped push that
along. And my sister and her husband came along in 2007 and kind of breathed new life into the company. It’s not like it was dying or anything. It was just a new direction.”
Their first bottling, released just this year, is the 2 Year Old Willet Family Estate Rye, a blend of both of their mash bills bottled at barrel proof. It’s an early sign that the family can distill as well as they blend.
Like other Willet Family Estates in the past, the fresh bottle has been well-received by critics and made our 2014 GP100. Like Drew, its maturity belies its youth. Strong notes of green apple and pear mix with cinnamon. But Kulsveen acknowledges that it’s only the first step in the family’s larger plan. “For a young whiskey, it’s very approachable, very drinkable. Is it fully matured? Absolutely not — we all know
that. But given the age, there’s not a whole lot to compare it to.” In his eyes, releasing the rye so young presents an opportunity for fans to follow the spirits evolution in the barrel through later releases and learn from the process.
While their own barrels supplies continue to build, Drew and his father will continue to lean on the blending and barrel selections skills that have brought them this far. “I don’t know how much longer we’re going to keep those relationships or those agreements. But it’s turned us into a pretty interesting company.”
Drew glanced at his watch. He had spent 45 minutes taking us through his family’s life work, and other matters required his attention. We thanked him for the time and shook hands. He had just made three new believers.