The Growing Willett Estate
“This will be the deck,” Willett distiller and head honcho Drew Kulsveen told me, opening up the sliding glass door of his soon-to-be bed and breakfast, and looking out across the pond towards Heaven Hill. “You’ve got a great view of our neighbor from here,” he added with a slight chuckle. We were on the top floor of a new construction site, one of many projects currently happening at the Willett estate outside of Bardstown. For those unfamiliar with the history of Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, there have always been warehouses filled with Bourbon here at the Kulsveen property, but for many years that's all there was. Drew and his father Evan once had one of the Bourbon industry’s most popular negotiant businesses, filling their rickhouses with whiskey purchased from other producers and blending them into various brands and flavor profiles. Today they continue to release the labels made popular during that era—Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek, Pure Kentucky, Johnny Drum, and Old Bardstown—but like many independent bottlers, they saw the writing on the wall. As stocks of aged whiskey continued to shrink, the market for surplus contracting got tighter. In 2012, the Kuslveens took the plunge, resurrecting the Willett distillery on the old estate grounds and finally distilling their own whiskey. Five years in, they're now transitioning their products into full-fledged Willett distillery editions. “We’re slowly blending in our Bourbon with the liquid we’ve purchased,” Drew mentioned when I asked him about the future of the company’s various brands; “Eventually they’ll all be 100% our own whiskey.”
If you’ve never seen the Willett distillery grounds before, it’s quite a secluded place compared to Kentucky’s other major facilities. Visiting Heaven Hill’s heritage center across the main road requires just a quick turn into the large parking lot, but you’ve gotta drive up a long dirt and gravel road before you begin to see the warehouses at Willett. Hidden behind the hills and trees that surround the property, a number of new buildings have sprung up since my last visit and I was taken aback by what I saw. There was construction going on everywhere, contractors busy with various tasks, and a number of barriers in place to separate the work sites from the visitors piling into the gift shop. I met Drew inside and we began our walking tour of the developing property as he gave me the rundown on what was happening. “This is Noah’s Mill,” he said pointing at the absolutely beautiful wooden structure perched above the running water below. “Eventually we’ll put the actual equipment in below and we’ll be able to do some of our own milling here.” While I knew the Kulsveen’s had begun building around the distillery itself, I had no idea just how expansive the scope of their vision truly was. “Let me show you where we’re going to build the plantation house,” Drew said.
Yes, a plantation house with a giant gazebo and working bed and breakfast next door. That’s in addition to the new coffee shop being installed in what’s currently the gift shop, as well as the planned restaurant, full bar, and education center going in next to that. Around the back of the property, deep into the woods behind the distillery, will be two private cabins where guests and industry vistors can stay when visiting. Behind the cabins, the Kulsveens are fortifying the side of the hill with a wall to support the incoming multi-acre lake that will eventually wrap around the property and provide the serenity guests expect from the finest vacation destinations. This build out is all part of Evan Kulsveen's grand vision—except the coffee part, which is Drew's. “Bardstown is a beautiful place,” Drew said, “But there aren’t a lot of places to eat and there’s no real good coffee. I wanted to remedy that.” For those of you who have been to Islay, Ardbeg’s hospitality wing has become quite the hang out on the south side of the island, especially for those wanting to eat lunch after visiting Laphroaig and Lagavulin. Whiskey tourists need food, shelter, and strong drink just like any other traveler, so why not provide them with that experience? Better yet, why not entice them to stay rather than watch them get back in the car and speed away to the next distillery tour? Why not create the memories that last a lifetime right here at the distillery, rather than send them along elsewhere? “Can’t you imagine sitting out here on the porch with a glass of Bourbon and taking in the view?” Drew asked as we looked at the deck outside the main bar. Absolutely. California’s wineries have long been travel destinations for thousands upon thousands of wine tourists who descend upon the Bay Area and head north towards their Napa vacation. With the Bourbon boom in full swing, why wouldn’t Kentucky follow suit?
Willett isn’t the only distillery site currently under construction. Just about every producer I visited this week had some sort of expansion underway to increase production, but at Willett that expansion is solely about the consumer experience rather than production volume. Drew seemed quite comfortable with his output when I asked. “Some people want to take over the world, “he said; “and that’s fine, but that’s not our model.” Producing about fifty barrels a day, there are no plans to move beyond that for the foreseeable future. We took a quick tour through the distillery with fermenters full of bubbling wheated mash, one of six different whiskey recipes that Willett currently produces. Back in the office, Drew produced an open bottle of Willett-distilled four year old cask strength wheated Bourbon for me to try. It was absolutely delicious, sweet on the finish with a bold kick from the higher proof. The Willett Estate bottles, while now younger in age and entirely self-produced at this point, still have a tremendous following in the collector market and people have been known to line-up at the gift shop from time to time just to get one. I can only imagine the frenzy that a wheated edition would stir up. In my conversations with Drew, both previously and during my visit, it's clear he has little appetite for driving that niche market, which is something we have in common. He’s much more interested in creating the perfect atmosphere for consuming Bourbon and his sister Britt—who's in charge of the design—has a real eye for detail when it comes to decor. Like any retailer, he’s aware that the bottle collector market is a only tiny fraction of Willett’s business—now and down the road. Like many others in the industry I’ve spoken to, he believes the future of the whiskey business will involve the curation of an entire experience and his family is investing heavily in that belief.
That’s not to say Drew, as Willett's master distiller, isn’t driving the whiskey itself forward with new innovation. He’s been particularly interested in cooperage as of late and he walked me over to one of the warehouses to show me some of the new barrels he’s been experimenting with. “Over in the distillery, that’s all science—it’s controlled. The real magic happens in the barrel,” he said with a grin. The maturation of Willett in virgin oak, re-used barrels, and larger volume vessels is currently underway within the estate rickhouses. While some won’t ever officially qualify as Bourbon, Drew wants to see what happens when a classic Bourbon mashbill is aged in larger casks. Much like wine matures more slowly in a larger bottle, the expanded volume should allow for longer term whiskey maturation without the intensely woody and oaky flavor profiles that one currently finds in 20+ year old editions. Of course, these are all experiments for the time being. Like any good artist, Drew is keen on pursuing his vision of whiskey, not necessarily the current market's. For those who are interested in the full Kentucky Bourbon experience and are willing to travel to Bardstown, the Kulsveen's are almost ready for you. By this time next year you'll probably be able to tour the distillery, grab a cocktail, eat dinner, and settle down for the night in your private Willett suite.
But Willett isn't the only distillery in Bardstown with an eye on Bourbon tourism. More on the second half of my day soon!