In the last blog, I discussed the career of Julian Van Winkle III. Today, I will discuss the career of Even Kulsveen. His path started similarly to that of Julian Van Winkle. Even, in contrast, was not born into the industry, but instead married Martha Willett. Martha is the daughter of Thompson Willett, who owned the Willett Distillery up to his death.
His family decided that they would quit distilling whiskey and turn the distillery into the production of gasohol. It was a time of fuel shortages and declining whiskey sales. It made sense to the family at the time, but it never came to fruition. The distillery closed and each member of the family retained a share of the property. The distillery fell into disrepair as the family did not know what they wanted to do. Enter Even. He and Martha took charge of the business in 1984. They formed a plan and began work.
They had some of the barrels of whiskey distilled earlier in the warehouses, but not enough to sustain the business in the long term. They began to purchase whiskey from the other distilleries and store them in the Willett Distillery warehouses. It was a time of declining sales and every distillery had barrels to sell.
Like the Van Winkles, Kulsveen started by selling ceramic decanters while he developed some brands. He got the bottling line at the distillery up and active to bottle these decanters. They had the Old Bardstown and Johnny Drum Brands, but they wanted something a little more upscale and different. Here is where the Kulsveens showed their genius – they created some new brands, but they were not just some whiskey placed in the bottle.
These brands, even though Even never labeled them as such, were small batch whiskeys. They had access to barrels from several different distilleries, so they created unique taste profiles by marrying together barrels from different distilleries. Despite what many people thought at the time, they were not just bottles of Heaven Hill or Barton whiskeys, they were a marriage of whiskeys from as many as three or four distilleries. They created brands like Rowan’s Creek, Noah’s Mill, and Pure Kentucky.
By the 1990s, the Willett brands were gaining a good reputation in the United States market, but they were excelling in the Japanese market. For a long time in the 90s, Johnny Drum was a Japan only brand and had age statements as old as 15 years old. These brands were bottled at the Willett Distillery. The money earned from these brands was used to make improvements to the distillery.
This included gaining ownership of the distillery from various family members. Kulsveen’s goal was to rebuild the distillery, but to pay for it as he earned profits from the business. He did not want to go deep into debt with bank loans to pay for the improvements. It was a slow process and many people did not think he was ever going to get the distillery up and running.
In 2012, they finally finished renovations on the distillery and started making their own whiskey. The distillery has a visitor’s center and tour, a modern pot still doubler with the original column still, landscaped grounds and a restaurant. It took almost forty years to complete these improvements, but they did it without a huge debt burden.
Even and Martha’s son and daughter joined the business as they reached a proper age after they finished their education. The family now own a modern distillery with aging whiskey and respected brands. They no longer need a rectifier’s license as they have a distillery and all of the proper licenses to make and sell alcohol. The future is bright for the Kulsveen family business.
Julian Van Winkle III and Even Kulsveen both started at a similar place in the 1980s with a rectifier’s license, a passion for whiskey, and a will to be in the whiskey industry. They both now have thriving and respected businesses with plans to pass the business on to the next generation. They took different paths to reach their goals and ended up with very different businesses, but both have made their mark on the history of the Kentucky distilling industry.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl and Willett Distillery