The March 2018 issue of Food and Wine magazine featured Drew Kulsveen, the distiller at Willett, in one of their articles. Drew would be James Willett's nephew, son of James sister Martha.
A LINK to our many posts on James and Lauren Willett.
|Drew Kulsveen Master Distiller Willett Distillery|
At Willett Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky, fifth-generation master distiller Drew Kulsveen is making some of the world's most sought-after whiskeys.
Ask Drew Kulsveen whose bourbon, besides his own, he likes to drink, and he'll demur. "I don't want to go on the record," he says, "or people will start chasing after it." Kulsveen's opinion matters that much, because in the world of American whiskey, he's a bona fide celebrity.
Kulsveen grew up playing amid his grandfather's rickhouses in the "Bourbon Capital of the World,"
Bardstown, Kentucky. Today, Willett is among Kentucky's last significant family-owned distilleries, and Kulsveen, 36, is its master distiller. It's a huge responsibility because Willett is legendary, yet for 30 years, during a long downturn in the bourbon market, the family distilled nothing. Now, the stills are operative again, expectations among whiskey lovers are fierce, and demand couldn't be higher. "We're running 24 hours a day, making as much bourbon as we physically can," Kulsveen says during a recent visit. For operations like Jim Beam, which distills nearly 40 times as much, Willett's 1,000 barrels a month is "a drop in the bucket," says Kulsveen, "but it's a lot for us."
Kulsveen strikes a different profile than other Kentucky distillers. He is so charismatic, says Fred Minnick, author of Bourbon: The Rise, Fall and and Rebirth of an American Whiskey, that "when he started making public appearances, he ruined it for everybody else."
Still, Kulsveen stays humble. "Distilling's not rocket science," he says. "As long as you use the right ingredients and pay attention, you can have a good product."
We are in Willett's limestone-columned distillery watching the contents of a 10,000-gallon fermenter roil. Gorging on the sugars in a soup of grains and water, yeast sends foaming ripples across the oatmeal-colored liquid. It is transforming the mash into beer that later will be rendered into alcohol in two huge stills: a gnome-shaped copper pot still, antique-looking but new; and a stainless-steel column still with a colorful past. Manufactured for the old Kentucky brand Waterfill and Frazier, the still wound up in Mexico during Prohibition, where it was used to make contraband. Drew's father, Even Kulsveen, bought it for a steal.
The column-still purchase is one chapter in a storied history that has led Drew Kulsveen to this moment. It starts in the 17th century with Cognac-producing ancestors. The Willetts were French Protestants who escaped persecution from the Catholic church by moving to America. They settled in Kentucky, where they got into bourbon making in the late 19th century. Prohibition was a temporary setback. More significant was the blow dealt by vodka when James Bond's "shaken, not stirred" martini helped vodka top spirits sales by the 1970s. Seen as old-fashioned, bourbon lost popularity. By 1981, Kulsveen's grandfather had leased his stills to an ethanol producer that then went bankrupt, leaving only ruined equipment behind.
Drew's father Even took over a few years later. His son joined him in 2004. But it took them until 2012 to start distilling again. In the lull, Willett became a cult NDP, or Non-Distilling Producer.
"We were taking odd lots from Four Roses, Jim Beam"—forgotten casks and ones with flavors that couldn't be blended into standard labels. "Anything under a few hundred barrels, we'd scoop it up," Kulsveen recalls. Willett used the whiskey to make its own brands, including woodsy, spicy Johnny Drum; Rowan's Creek, named for a rivulet that runs through the property; and Noah's Mill, named after the gristmill that stands over it. To yield their lauded flavors, says Kulsveen, "We got really good at blending."
Minnick confirms it: "They purchased well-aged stocks, let them mature, and would mingle them in small batches, so for the past 10 or 15 years, they put out some of the best product on the market." The whiskeys were coveted by aficionados partly because the operation was so tiny. For a long time, says Minnick, it remained "kind of a secret."
That's changed. With the comeback of classic cocktails, demand for bourbon reignited. Today, American whiskey sales top $3 billion annually. But distillers can't just bottle on demand; whiskey must age. And the overstocks that Willett relied on had dwindled by the time they were able to reboot the stills. "We would have been in a world of hurt if we had not started back up," says Kulsveen.
|Rickhouse where the barrels of bourbon age|
Kulsveen takes a drill to a cask, capturing the stream in tulip-shaped glasses before stanching the flow with a wooden plug. "It's all about figuring out the different profiles of the barrels and how they meld together," says Kulsveen. "I want character. I want it to stand out."
We sniff, then sip. This is a five-year-old wheated bourbon and a new mash bill for Willett: 65 percent corn—the main grain in bourbon—plus 15 percent malted barley and 20 percent wheat. It is still young, the grain flavor not yet balanced by the wood, but it already tastes deliciously like orange marmalade on brioche toast.
Though the old family recipes are still in use, wheated bourbon, which is smoother and sweeter, drives Willett's distilling nowadays. There are more updates, too. In terms of distilling, Kulsveen is experimenting with stave curing and different barrel woods. At the new visitor center, overseen by Kulsveen's wife, Janelle, a bar will open this spring for cocktails, library pours, and small plates. And the gristmill and some cabins have been transformed into guesthouses.
New recipes, new hospitality—Kulsveen is balancing his heritage with innovation to create a Willett for the 21st century. I can already taste it in the glass: bourbon that's more approachable than in the past, yet deeply nuanced—handcrafted by a fifth-generation Kentucky distiller with the stomach to let each barrel sit until it hits its sweet spot. "Time is really the magical ingredient," he says, taking a sip. "You just have to wait, wait, wait."
|Lambert Willett, far right, James father, 1960|
The new distillery at Willett is already yielding some great bottles. Go to kentuckybourbonwhiskey.com for where to find them.
Willett Family Estate Bottled 3-Year Small Batch Rye ($45) The scent of this rye mixes maple with aromatic wood. Orangey and spicy with a touch of charcoal, it brings complexity to cocktails.
Willett Family Estate Bottled 5-Year Single Barrel Bourbon ($60) A crème brûlée palate mingles with mushroomy notes. It blooms with salted-caramel flavor when you add water.
Old Bardstown 90 Proof Bourbon ($20) Honey-roasted nuts on the nose yield to buttery flavor and notes of dried citrus in this smooth, easy (and affordable) sipper, ending in a lip-smacking finish.
Old Bardstown Bottled in Bond 100 Proof Bourbon ($22) A complex orange peel and ginger scent resolves into a caramel-corn sweetness here, with a balancing bitterness on the finish.
Old Bardstown Estate Bottled 101 Proof Bourbon ($28) A rich vanilla nose and an herbaceous midpalate—think of fresh-cut grass and soil—with bright endnotes of citrus zest in this potent drink.
James Willett is first, on the left, in the bottom row in this photo from 1965 when James was a student at the University of Kentucky/Lexington.
That was some good fucking bourbon btw
"That was some good fucking bourbon btw"
You finished it already ? ;-)
My paternal great-great-grandmother's maiden surname was Willet(t), born in the 1820's in Ohio near Cincinnati with family in N. Kentucky. I often wondered if I was blood related to James (and privately convinced I am a distant cousin, he being about 5 years older). I still to this day have relatives floating around back there with 'Willett' as their middle name in keeping with the traditions back then of using allied family surnames for middle names of the newborn in remembrance,
My dad's older sister married a guy who's family is blood related to the Eastern Kentucky mountain dwelling Scott's (Manson's real father's name ?). I did some brief genealogy checking - related by marriage, not blood. Whew. Need a hit of bourbon !!!
Hey, maybe I can make a claim on Manson's estate (wahoo, wahoo, wahoo [<--- Daffy Duck] )
I took a wonderful tour, and I had my picture taken with Drew. They are everything awesome.
Robert C said...
My paternal great-great-grandmother's maiden surname was Willet(t), born in the 1820's in Ohio near Cincinnati with family in N. Kentucky. I often wondered if I was blood related to James
An ancestry.com membership would be the easiest way to find out.
I shall be sure to soon be checking out some of that bourbon myself.
Patty- did you get some dirt from under the house where the body was?
I would love to dry that single barrel 5yr aged...
Now THAT merits an OOOOH-EEEEE-OOOOH!
No I pulled out a rosebush instead. Asshole.
why was there a rosebush in your asshole? Some Kinky Stoner shit I never heard about?
Don't make Patty laugh she's trying to hate you
Matt said: "An ancestry.com membership would be the easiest way to find out."
In that area of the country, even now let alone decades ago, there are numerous common surnames where if you have one in your family there's roughly a 95% guarantee you're related to the rest. It's the 5% I'm not sure about ;-)
Patty I don't hate you......I wish you the best in collecting
Ok she hates you again.
It puts the lotion in the basket or else it gets the hose
Off topic, but will anyone be reviewing the book ‘The Manson Women And Me’ by Nikki Meredith. Currently reading it now.
My name is Serena Barabas my uncle is Edward Barabas who was murdered in 1978 with a man by the name of James T Craig who is accused and then convicted in the the murder of James Willett and his wife as well as the kidnapping of their child in 1972. The woman that James T Craig was dating in 1972 was also his co-defendant and a Manson follower. The same woman is later said to have been who my uncle was staying with prior to his incarceration. During my uncle's incarceration he met James T Craig they were on the same yard or the same prison I am not sure. My uncle later paroled two weeks prior or two weeks after James T Craig did in 1978. They paroled and met up and committed a hellish spree of crimes in the area in which they were murdered. They were both shot my uncle with a small caliber gun execution Style in front of James T Craig he was placed into the trunk of a car and then James T Craig was shot with a shotgun in the jaw also placed in the trunk of this car. Both shot, one dead the car was then set on fire. The flames stood out in the dark of the night and a security guard went to the area finding this car in flames. The fire department was called to the scene moaning could be heard from inside the trunk. When the Flames were extinguished the trunk was opened two bodies were found inside, my uncle deceased James T Craig was still alive. He lived for two months after this and the only words that he spoke in that time were "she's dangerous". Prior to Manson's trial there was also another murder of a key Witness. Two women (both Manson followers) went to see this Witness before the trial. After their return to the Los Angeles area 'coincidence I think not', the witness was found deceased two guns we're found inside the burnt down wreckage of the vehicle that the witness had been murdered in a shotgun and a small caliber gun. They were discarded in both scenes both crimes both murders both have an m o or similarities that have gone unnoticed for somewhere around 40 years. I have not mentioned the people that I suspect as being the two that have ended the life of my uncle destroyed the life of my grandmother and my uncles Brothers as well as tormented my father until the day he died. But I know that one of them is still alive. This person that I speak of makes a comment to a newspaper reporter that stated my Uncle Eddie Barabas had nothing to do with the Manson's either good or bad. But this person happens to be involved in all three according to the information I have been able to obtain over the years and I would really like to know if anybody else has anything else that would contradict or prove me wrong before it is brought to light by me. You can contact me through this blog I'd appreciate your responses if directly related to any of the information I just Spokeo sincerely Serena Barabas
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