Willett Distillery's 12 Core Whiskeys, Ranked

Willett Distillery’s 12 Core Whiskeys, Ranked

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Willett Distillery is a bit of a mystery. The brand is technically called Kentucky Bourbon Distillers or KBD for short, but that’s more an industry term — “Willett” is what consumers use to refer to the brand. The company is a privately-owned family operation, run by the Kulsveen family. They revived the dormant shingle back in 2012 and returned it to lofty heights in less than a decade. They did so by building a craft distillery in bourbon’s capital, Bardstown, and operating in both sourcing and contract distilling while simultaneously producing their own bourbons and ryes.

We’re going to focus on the 12 labels Willett advertises on their website as “the whiskeys” they make. Instead of just telling you about them, I’ll be ranking them by taste. Note that this isn’t a ranking of every Willett Family Estate Bourbon ever released because there are an almost endless amount of those (which I’ll explain below) — I’m focusing on the core bottles.

Before we dive into the 12 bottles from Willett and how I’d rank them, it’s also important to know that the Kulsveen family keeps their cards very close to their chest. They don’t publish mash bills or batch sizes on their website (though you can dig around and find them). The whiskey in the bottle is what they want us to focus on, so I’m going just that.

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12. Johnny Drum Black Label

Johnny Drum
Kentucky Bourbon Distillers

ABV: 43%

Average Price: $17

The Whiskey:

This is an entry point whiskey from KBD. The juice is a bourbon blend that’s a minimum of four years old. It’s then cut down to a very accessible 86 proof with that local limestone water.

Tasting Notes:

The nose is a complex mix of yellow masa, damp cedar moss, wildflowers, and a hint of vanilla extract next to fresh mint leaves. The palate is fairly thin but carries a fair amount of buttery caramel, a dash of black pepper, a hint of cinnamon, and more of that soft cedar. The finish is pretty much what you’d expect for a bottle under $20 with a quick, watery fade, leaving you with notes of caramel, masa, and sweet oak.

Bottom Line:

This is a solid cheap bourbon with no bells or whistles. It’s not worth the effort to hunt down. If you do come across it, it’s worth giving a shot to try against Evan Williams and Jim Beam, but that’s about it.

11. Old Bardstown 90 Proof

Old Bardstown
Kentucky Bourbon Distillers

ABV: 45%

Average Price: $20

The Whiskey:

This is another entry-point bourbon. The main difference here is that it’s proofed slightly higher than the Johnny Drum above and bottled under a different brand name.

Tasting Notes:

There’s a clear sense of classic bourbon notes on the nose with rich vanilla, butter caramel, soft oak, and a hint of fresh flowers. The palate lets those notes shine through with a bit of that yellow masa lingering in the background alongside more vanilla extract, caramel, and cinnamon by way of the oak. The finish is, again, pretty short and thin with the oak and caramel sweetness lasting the longest.

Bottom Line:

This is another bottle you shouldn’t go out of your way to track down. It’s fine for what it is — good for shots and whiskey and Cokes — but not much more.

10. Kentucky Vintage

Kentucky Vintage
Kentucky Bourbon Distillers

ABV: 45%

Average Price: $32

The Whiskey:

Interestingly, this is a sourced bourbon from the KBD team. Unlike the other brands that state “Distilled at Willett” or “Made in Bardstown,” this simply states it’s made in Kentucky (likely down the road at Heaven Hill).

Tasting Notes:

The nose is a classic bourbon medley of vanilla, caramel, woody spice with a hint of charred oak in the background that still feels a little warm. The palate really leans into the woody spice (think cinnamon sticks, allspice berries, and whole cloves) while the vanilla and caramel mellow things out a bit, and you’re left with a dry apple stem/core vibe. The finish holds onto that dryness with an applewood tobacco note that fades out pretty quickly — leaving you with more of a watery sensation than anything else.

Bottom Line:

This is perfectly fine for what it is. There’s nothing here that’ll wow you but this does work well in a cheap cocktail or highball.

9. Johnny Drum Private Stock

Kentucky Bourbon Distillers

ABV: 50.5%

Average Price: $35

The Whiskey:

The juice in this bottle is a marrying of varying KBD barrels that are cut to 101 proof.

Tasting Notes:

This starts out with an apple pie filling with a lot of cinnamon leading towards salted caramel. The taste has this mild orange feel with more cinnamon candy. The end has a lightness that feels like Dr. Pepper with a hint of cherry but, ultimately, this fades pretty quickly with thinness as the only thing that you’re left with.

Bottom Line:

This is fine. There’s nothing offensive about it. I have a bottle on my shelf that I don’t really touch unless I need to for work. That says it all.

8. Old Bardstown Bottled in Bond

Old Bardstown
Kentucky Bourbon Distillers

ABV: 50%

Average Price: $20

The Whiskey:

Like the other Old Bardstown above, this is a standard bourbon. The difference here is that it’s proofed far less and from barrels inside KBD’s bonded warehouses. That lack of an overabundance of water lets those barrels shine a lot more.

Tasting Notes:

This opens with a nice mix of woody vanilla next to cherry hard candies that mellow towards cherry cotton candy lace with echoes of oak and toffee in the background. The palate leans into the cherry but layers in wintry spices with vanilla sugar cookies and caramel apples straight from the fairgrounds. The finish isn’t long but doesn’t disappear either, as that cherry and spice merge into cherry cough drops.

Bottom Line:

This is miles ahead of the previous three bourbons. It’s still not a “blow your socks off” whiskey by any stretch but it feels a bit more defined. It’s great for a good/ cheap cocktail, thanks to the higher ABVs as well.

7. Old Bardstown Estate Bottled 101

Old Bardstown Estate Bourbon
Kentucky Bourbon Distillers

ABV: 50.5%

Average Price: $28

The Whiskey:

We know that this is a “small batch” and from barrels that are a minimum of four years old (some say as old as ten). But that’s about it.

Tasting Notes:

The whiskey opens with a note of wintry plum pudding next to oatmeal cookie, a hint of worn leather, and dried mint leaves. The palate luxuriates in vanilla-laced pancakes dripping with real maple syrup, a touch of orange zest, and a little more of that leather next to a mild spicy tobacco leaf. That tobacco leaf attaches to a woodiness that’s almost wet like cordwood as the vanilla smoothes out the finish and leaves you with a smooth menthol tobacco vibe.

Bottom Line:

This is another big step up again. There’s some serious depth at play for a bottle that’s less than $30 (generally). This feels like something that deserves the “Willett” moniker, in that it is imparting a serious flavor profile with real accessibility. That’s especially true if you’re looking for a new, inexpensive cocktail base.

6. Willett Pot Still Reserve

Willet Pot Still
Kentucky Bourbon Distillers

ABV: 47%

Average Price: $54

The Whiskey:

This is another of Willet’s small-batch bourbons, though this is part of their named line. That means its flavor profile is more nuanced and leans towards the bigger Willett bottles that come next in the line.

Tasting Notes:

This bursts with citrus on the nose with a rush of lemon oils tied to a vanilla cake that gives off a shortbread vibe with toasted sugars, plenty of butter, and spicy wood. The palate layers in worn leather and more distinct winter spices (nutmeg, clove, allspice, cinnamon) that lead towards whispers of dried florals, black pepper, and vanilla-laced toffee pudding. The finish doesn’t overstay its welcome but leaves you with more of that sweet and butter toffee and a dry apple tobacco note.

Bottom Line:

This is where we really start to get into the “good” stuff when it comes to Willett. This is a very drinkable bourbon. Did I knock it down in the rankings because of its dumb obtuse bottle that’s a pain in the ass to pour from? You can decide that for yourself.

5. Pure Kentucky XO

Pure Kentucky
Kentucky Bourbon Distillers

ABV: 53.5%

Average Price: $40

The Whiskey:

This is yet another of Willett’s “small batch” bourbons. This, however, is a 12-year-old (!) bourbon that’s barely proofed down, making it one of Kentucky’s best-kept secrets.

Tasting Notes:

The nose opens with rich and buttery toffee syrup drizzled over a vanilla sponge cake with hints of smoky cherrywood, dry potpourri, and menthol tobacco. The palate leans into the toffee and cherrywood and layers in notes of wintry spices, green peppercorns, nougat, and old library leather. That toffee and cherry sweeten the mid-palate as the peppery spice, old leather, and cherry tobacco merge on the finish.

Bottom Line:

This is pretty damn good stuff. You likely won’t see it outside of Kentucky though. If you do, grab one and give it a shot as an on the rocks sipper or cocktail base.

4. Rowan’s Creek

Rowan's Creek
Kentucky Bourbon Distillers

ABV: 50.05%

Average Price: $44

The Whiskey:

This whiskey used to be a 12-year small batch offering named after the creek that runs through the distillery. It’s still named after the creek, but the 12-year age statement is gone. The whiskey is cut down to a very specific 100.1 proof with that Kentucky limestone water before bottling.

Tasting Notes:

The nose draws you in with notes of salted caramel, woody cherry tobacco, a touch of leather, and vanilla wafers countered by savory herbs (think rosemary and maybe sage) next to light but fresh roses. The taste goes hard with the cherry tobacco to the point that it’s nearly sticky on the palate as the roses dry out and the vanilla and caramel almost feel dried out and attached to a dry cedar bark. A hint of winter spice comes in late as the finish leans back into the dry roses and singed cherry tobacco leaves.

Bottom Line:

This is pretty damn easy drinking with some real depth, which makes it a great bargain at this price point. Given how parallel a lot of the notes are between this and the Pure Kentucky bottle above, it’s safe to say that there’s still a fair amount of that 12-year-old juice at play.

3. Noah’s Mill

Screen-Shot-2021-06-02-at-10.12.59-AM.jpg
Kentucky Bourbon Distillers

ABV: 57.15%

Average Price: $60

The Whiskey:

This is the bigger and bolder sibling of Rowan’s Creek bourbon. It’s the same juice that’s not proofed down as much.

Tasting Notes:

Maple syrup-covered walnuts greet you with a sense of dark dried cherries and a hint of rose water next to old leather books and holiday spices. The taste holds onto those notes while adding in a stewed plum depth with a whisper of caramel apple and orange oils. The vanilla and sweet oak kick in late with a rich depth and well-rounded lightness to the sip fades towards lush cherry tobacco, soft leather, and winter spice matrix tied to prunes and dates.

Bottom Line:

While Rowan’s Creek is truly a good sipping/mixing bourbon. This is just straight-up better — by a lot. It’s deeper yet more engaging. It’s a great sipper on the rocks or neat. Plus, it makes one hell of a Manhattan.

2. Willett Family Estate Bourbon

Screen-Shot-2021-04-26-at-1.35.32-PM.jpg
Willett Distillery

ABV: Varies

Average Price: $90 (Varies)

The Whiskey:

This is probably the most recognizable bottle from Willett. That’s because these are the labels for their Private Barrel Selection program. That means distributors, restaurants, bars, and liquor stores order these by the barrel/release — meaning you have to look at the label to know what you’re getting when it comes to age, ABV, barrel, etc.

That also means that there are a lot of different versions of this bottle out there.

Tasting Notes:

Based on a six-year-old bourbon release, expect very distinct notes of orange oils, sweet cedar planks, sticky cherry tobacco, light suede, and maybe some apricot pits. The palate will follow a lot of those notes while layering in Willett floral notes, some light nuttiness, a hint of dark chocolate, and maybe some savory herbs like sage. The finish will crescendo with cherry tobacco layering over dark chocolate bitterness with a nutty edge, more of those rosy florals, and a touch of orange-infused vanilla cake.

Bottom Line:

This is the one bourbon on the list that’s worth hunting down. These tend to be well-hewn while being a little bit different and, well, cool each time you find a different one.

Start off by pouring this one as a taster and really dig in with drops of water or a rock. From there, try a few different cocktail applications, or just enjoy it as a sipper. Either way, you’ll be in a good place.

1. Willett Family Estate 4-Year Rye

Willett 4 year Rye
Kentucky Bourbon Distillers

ABV: 55%

Average Price: $70

The Whiskey:

This fleeting whiskey from Willett is a fascinating rye. The whiskey is a blend of Willet’s high rye with their low rye mash. That juice is then aged for four years before blending and bottling at cask strength, which is pretty low, all things considered.

Tasting Notes:

This opens with a rush of florals from a cherry orchard that leads towards salted caramel danish with a hint of dry oak, soft cinnamon, and floral honey on the nose. The palate luxuriates in stewed and syrupy cherry with plenty of holiday spice and vanilla cream. That cherry spice leads the mid-palate towards a finish full of cherry tobacco, anise, singed vanilla husks, more caramel, and a final hint of Tellicherry black peppercorns all stuffed into an old cedar box.

Bottom Line:

This is just phenomenal for a four-year-old whiskey, rye or not. This punches so high above both its age and price point that it’s almost a magic trick. When you find a bottle, take your time and let it bloom in the glass with a little water as you drink it. Then make the best Manhattan or Sazerac on earth with it.

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