Willett has always been a tricky distillery for me to pin down. A host of people hold the brand in particularly high regards, largely thanks to their purple-top (Family Estate Bottled) bourbon. These coveted bottles can occasionally push the 30-year mark, but tend to land between 4 and 12 years when spotted. The source of a given bottle is undisclosed, yet it’s believed that the Bardstown distillery source from various neighboring distilleries. Chief among the rumored sources? Stitzel-Weller (pre-Buffalo Trace Pappy). Safe to say the ensuing halo effect speaks for itself.
Willett are currently producing their own whiskey, but it’s a fairly recent development, especially considering the distillery was founded in 1936. Likewise, the rather celebrated Family Estate Rye, labeled as a “rare release,” was only introduced in 2015 as a 2-year product. Today we’ll be looking at the Family Estate Rye in its more common form: 4 years old. 6-year versions can be found, but like the aforementioned purple tops, they’re hardly commonplace. Family Estate Rye is an undisclosed blend of Willett’s high rye (74% rye, 11% corn, 15% malted barley) and low rye (51% rye, 34% corn, 15% malted barley) mash bills, bottled at cask strength (mine is 55.2% ABV), and sells for around $55.
Nose: Herbal backbone (mint and basil) with a healthy dose of corn and anise. Some lime and vanilla with a little pepper. Hints of nutmeg. Sweet, freshly baked bread soon emerges. This is begging to go into a Manhattan.
Palate: Lime, licorice, and cinnamon dominate over a fairly full mouthfeel. Somewhat savory. Fresh mint throughout, granting the experience a little levity.
Finish: Quite lengthy. Billowing pepper spice that starts to tread red pepper flake territory. Dry, lingering lemon flavor with a bit of cilantro and cereal to round things out.
For me, Willett Family Estate 4-Year Rye is more fun to think about than it is to drink. The combination of lower rye and higher rye mash bills lends a fairly unique personality, further emphasized by the whiskey’s youth. I often find that young rye holds up better than young corn, so the proportions here still lean into the rye while providing corn-based notes as nice complement. The end result is an intriguing pour, one that feels both unique and familiar. I wasn’t expecting to be won over by this bottle until I got it past the halfway point. At that point I became slightly more fascinated, to the point that I regret not grabbing two bottles while in Kentucky. If I lived in a market where this product was readily available for MSRP, I’d likely make it a household staple for elevated cocktails.