Some of you may know that I took my first trip to Kentucky this past summer to do a little distillery trek (by little I mean 12, 13 if we include Chattanooga Whiskey). I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, mostly that I wanted to find out what bourbon country was like. One surprising endorsement I heard during my planning stage was that Willett (specifically their bar/restaurant) was a must-visit, so I scheduled a tour and lunch reservation while in Bardstown. I say Willett was a surprise because they seem to draw inconsistent praise as far as their bottlings go. That and the only bottles I’ve had somewhat easy access to in Florida are Rowan’s Creek and Noah’s Mill. Let’s just say the selection in Bardstown for Willett products was something of an eye-opener when compared to stores back home.
Despite the strong recommendation, I still found the overall experience at Willett to be a big surprise. All of the employees were fantastically friendly, the country hams hanging in the rickhouses were an interesting touch, the open kitchen was appreciated, and the food was top-notch. Then there was the whiskey on offer throughout the tour, which included Old Bardstown, Pure Kentucky, Willett Family Estate 4-Year Rye, and the infamous Willett Pot Still Reserve.
I say infamous because this decorative bottling has something of a reputation online. Individual commenters and channels alike might lead you to believe that this is one of the worst whiskeys on the market. This type publicity only made me even more curious.
However, it’s worth pointing out that Willett Pot Still started out as a single barrel expression and, more recently, went through a mash bill change. Where the previous bourbon mash bill wasn’t Willett’s own distillate, the current one making use of wheat is. More recent bottlings should reflect this with the words “distilled, aged, and bottled by Willett Distillery Bardstown, KY” and a golden UPC. To the best of my knowledge, this makes Pot Still Reserve Willett’s only wheated bourbon. Time to see if the bottled product lives up (or down) to its reputation.
Nose: Lemon upfront quickly followed by a strong yeast essence common in Willett bourbons. The two seem to pair together to create a mellow orange note. Faintly floral amidst a cream of corn backbone. Eventually get a light approximation of nut cookies (either almond or macadamia), along with mild clove and perhaps star anise. Becomes more enjoyable the more you nose it, but still has a young personality.
Palate: Light with sweet corn mash flavors. Brings a bit of orange and vanilla with a touch of honey on the back. Pepper spice kicks in shortly after sipping, culminating with some effervescence.
Finish: Rather lengthy. Mild pepper offsets a faint, lingering sweetness amidst the residual effervescence. Like the nose, the mash shines way more than the oak here. Vague impressions of vanilla and sweet nuttiness. A bit drying as it sits.
If I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I wish there were more available wheated bourbons and wheat whiskeys out there. Most of my exposure to this category has been through Maker’s Mark, so my perspective on wheat’s impact has grown out of a fairly limited point of view. Willett Pot Still Reserve challenges many my preconceived notions about wheaters, to the point that many of the notes I got reminded me more of rye whiskey. The young and floral qualities I get from other Willett products are on full display here, qualities that definitely won’t gel with some folks. In the case of Pot Still Reserve, I actually think the whiskey is too docile to be considered remotely offensive. It’s an expression that I really need to dig in order to pull out the notes that I got, which might make for an interesting challenge, but it doesn’t make for a particularly enjoyable pour. I believe it’s best suited for cocktails, or simply pulling out as a discussion piece before you inevitably reuse it for decanter duty.