Master Bottlers

The last time I strolled down the bourbon aisle at my friendly neighborhood liquor store, I thought it might be fun to try and count how how many different bourbons they had for sale. I gave up when I hit 50. There are an astonishing number of bourbons on the market. What’s even more astonishing is that 99% of those brands are being produced at 11 distilleries operated by just 8 companies.

Random Reader: Seriously? Eight companies running eleven distilleries? Ridiculous!

Dr. Bourbon: Yeah, seriously… Prohibition drove a lot of consolidation in the spirits industry.

There’s even one company, Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, that produces a dozen brands without even operating their own distillery.

Random Reader: How do they manage that?

Dr. Bourbon: They buy barrels of un-aged bourbon from nearby distilleries and then handle the aging and bottling themselves. Pretty smart, right?

Random Reader: I guess…

Kentucky Bourbon Distillers started out as the Willett Distilling Company. The Willett family had a long history in the bourbon industry, starting with John David Willett in the late 1800s. Soon after the repeal of of Prohibition, and after decades of making bourbon for companies they didn’t own, the family opened their own distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky. For nearly 40 years, they sold John David’s original recipe as Old Bardstown Bourbon.

Then, in the 1970s, two very important things happened. First, they decided that producing ethanol for use in gasohol fuel would make them more money than producing bourbon, so they converted the distillery. Second, Martha Harriet Willett (great grand daughter of John David Willett) married Even Kulsveen, of the Norway Kulsveens. When the energy crisis subsided and the bottom dropped out of the gasohol market in the early 80s, the Willett Distilling Company shut down their Distilling operation entirely. In 1984, Even bought the company and changed the name to Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd.

For a while, they continued to bottle and sell bourbon from the aging barrels that remained from their days as an active distillery. As time went on, they transitioned to barrels purchased from other distillers. And that’s been working for them for quite a while. Mr Kulsveen has been overseeing the maturation of their purchased barrels and selecting which barrels to dump when for each of their brands. And most of their brands are considered top shelf bourbons, so Even must be doing something right.

Over the last couple years, the fifth generation of the Willett family has joined the family business they’ve installed new stills at their Bardstown headquarters. Personally, I can’t wait to see what they Even can produce when he’s got control over the full bourbon making process. The first of those barrels should be coming of age in just a few years.

Until then, I’ll have to be content with KBD’s current offerings, which include Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek, Black Maple Hill, and – of course – Willett Pot Still Reserve. I haven’t yet gotten my hands on Rowan’s Creek or Black Maple Hill, but I do have Noah’s Mill and Willett Pot Still Reserve on my shelf.

Noah’s Mill comes out of the bottle at a hefty 114.3 proof. It has a golden honey color and a very oaky nose. Uncut, this is a hot dry bourbon. There’s an initial flavor of citrus fruit and vanilla that quickly gives way to caramel and toffee. The finish is long with notes of leather and spice. This is a good bourbon for a cold night.

Willett Pot Still Reserve I’ve discussed before. It came highly recommended by a number of my friends and deservedly so.


About Bourbon in Exile

Bourbon lover living in beer country
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