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Kentucky Bourbon Distillers opened the Willett Distillery six years ago but it was not a new distillery in many ways. The distillery was remodeled and refurbished but it was the same distillery as the one the Willett family built back in the 1930s. The pot still doubler was new but the column still was original to the distillery. The building was mostly new but the old building was incorporated into the structure. It really is an old distillery rebuilt by the same family.
The Willett family had been distilling for a century now. Lambert Willett was a distiller for Max Selliger at the Belmont and Astor Distilleries in Louisville before Prohibition. When the great mistake of Prohibition was repealed, Lambert decided to enter the business on his own and started to build the Willett Distillery on the family farm just outside of Bardstown, Kentucky. Soon other family members, including his son Thompson, joined the company the company and the business grew. Their flagship brand was Old Bardstown Bourbon and they are best known for creating the “Fiddle” bottle. This unique bottle was shaped like a violin and empty examples are often found in antique stores today.
The distillery thrived until the 1970s when, like many other distilleries, the declining Bourbon sales where making it hard to earn a profit. In the late 1970s the idea was to convert the distillery to make industrial alcohol for fuel. The oil embargo created willing to investors in such businesses and it was thought that this would be more profitable than Bourbon distilling. Then the embargo ended, fuel prices dropped and the company went into bankruptcy. The distillery conversion was never finished.
This is when Even Kulsveen entered the picture. He had married Thompson Willett’s daughter Martha Harriet Willett in 1972. In 1984 Kulsveen created Kentucky Bourbon Distillers and purchased the distillery site with its warehouses and other buildings. He had been in the business of selling decanters to distilleries and wanted to enter the business with his own whiskey. For the next several decades he purchased whiskey from other distilleries, aged the barrels in the warehouses at the Willett distillery and bottled the aged whiskey. He created many new brands such as Noah’s Mill, Pure Kentucky XO and Rowan’s Creek, but he also revived the Old Bardstown brand. Kulsveen was creating small batch Bourbons before Jim Beam came up with category. The brands were profitable and Kulsveen used the profits to rebuild the distillery. He never sought outside investors or took huge bank loans to finance the construction. This meant that it took a long time to rebuild the distillery but it also meant he did not have a ton of debt or other people he had to answer to – the distillery was as he wanted it to be and he could do business as he wanted without outside interference.
The brands he created grew in reputation. Kulsveen purchased whiskey from many different distilleries and this allowed him to create his own flavor profiles for the brands. He was not just bottling whiskey from another distillery, he was creating his own. He became a master at the art of aging whiskey and the art of marrying these whiskeys into new flavor profiles. They were never huge brands. No million case sales were ever recorded because Kulsveen was limited in the amount of whiskey he had at any one time. The warehouses were never full. His goal was to change that when the distillery was rebuilt and he would produce his own whiskey. In the meantime his children grew up and joined the business.
In the 21st century the Bourbon business went through a radical change from when Even had started in the 1980s. Bourbon tourism became part of the business. Bourbon sales started to increase and finally exploded to the booming market of today. This also meant that Kulsveen had to alter his plans. The distillery had to be more than just a distillery, it had to attract tourism. He embraced this idea and built a beautiful building to house the distillery and visitor’s center, and as a man of vision, he has planned a bed and breakfast on site as well as a tour ism experience. The additional landscaping and other beautification projects slowed down his plans and they are still working on them today. However what they have done is very attractive and tourist friendly.
It was the year 2012 when they finally started distilling at the Willett distillery. Even’s son Drew became the distiller and makes excellent whiskey. I remember my first taste of his new make back in 2012: I told him that if he was doing this well now, I could not wait to taste the new make ten years from now when he really has learned to use the stills and the skills of the craft. They are beginning to use this whiskey in their products and there is some flavor drift but always in a good way. Their whiskeys were excellent as a rectified product but I think it is better as their own distilled and aged product. They make a traditional Bourbon, a wheat recipe Bourbon and two different rye recipes.
The Willett distillery is now open to the public and many consider it a new distillery on the Kentucky Bourbon Craft Distillery Trail, but it is more than that. The Willett distillery has a long and rich heritage that experienced an interruption of production, but has come back better than ever. If you are in Bardstown, it is well worth a trip out to visit the Kentucky Bourbon Distillers Willett Distillery.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller