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Willett Is for Diehards

Among collectors, the idiosyncratic brand has become the only modern whiskey to transcend the status of Pappy van Winkle.

willett whiskey

Had I bothered to walk just two miles from my apartment to LeNell’s, a local liquor store, I could have scored what is perhaps the biggest “unicorn” in American whiskey today.

Known as Red Hook Rye, the 23-year-old bottling quietly arrived in New York in 2006, and was priced at just $75 a bottle. Four different batches hit the shelves over the course of several years and were slowly bought up, typically only on the recommendation of LeNell’s owner, LeNell Camacho Santa Ana. In fact, when the store was forced to close in 2009, there were still bottles of batch no. 4 on the shelf.

Today, it’s considered perhaps the best rye whiskey ever released and sells for upwards of $30,000 on the secondary market. It’s also the most sought-after expression of Willett, the only modern brand that manages to transcend Pappy van Winkle amongst the cognoscenti, who furiously buy, sell and trade it via online forums.

Unlike, say, Van Winkle or Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection, Willett is not a name that neophyte whiskey drinkers even know they should know. Even if they did, Willett’s output is virtually impossible to parse for the uninitiated. The packaging looks largely the same across the entire product line; Cognac-style bottles with subdued white labels are differentiated only by small, handwritten details near the shoulder noting age, proof and barrel number. The latter is arguably the most critical detail, though it’s also the most esoteric. Cryptic bottle notations like B57 and C1B have necessitated the circulation of a Google spreadsheet, created by and for collectors, to keep track of the whiskey held within. (Ironically, the Willett bottle that is most unique in appearance—Willett Pot Still—is the most loathed amongst avid collectors due to its lower proof and milder flavor profile.)

Like many Kentucky brands, the roots of Willett go back to the 19th century, but the story of what separates it from its peers begins in 1984, when Even Kulsveen purchased the company from his father-in-law, Thompson Willett. Renamed Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD)—even though, at that time, they weren’t actually distilling anything—Kulsveen immediately began purchasing unwanted stock from nearby properties, which were glad to part with it as the public’s taste increasingly tilted toward clear spirits. When a renewed thirst for well-aged bourbon and rye arrived in the early aughts, KBD was well equipped to meet the demand, and their supply represented a cross section of some of the best whiskey produced in the heart of bourbon country.

“They were transparent, not trying to make up stories about labels, just honest that they were sourcing whiskey while they slowly built back a [functioning] distillery,” says Camacho Santa Ana, who had helped select Red Hook Rye from KBD’s warehouses. “The whiskey they sourced was great, but they were actively investing in relationships with people as a whole.”

Kulsveen’s son, Drew, joined the family business in 2003 and, in 2006, began releasing what he thought to be the best-tasting of its stock as cask-strength, non-chill-filtered single barrels (sometimes with private labels like Red Hook Rye) under the Willett Family Estate umbrella. While most bottles were allocated to bars, liquor stores and a few lucky individuals, occasionally they’d also hit the shelves at the distillery’s Bardstown gift shop, where they would sell for $10 per year of age statement. Enthusiasts and connoisseurs alike found many to be world-class. In fact, a 22-year-old rye release from 2006 garnered what was then the highest score in Whisky Advocate history and was deemed a “benchmark” for the category. It didn’t take long for in-the-know collectors to start lapping up anything they could find.

“There’s nothing out there like Willett,” says Danny Strongwater (not his real name), a Willett collector based in California, whose own blend, known as California Gold, was inspired by its distinctive cherries and pine flavor profile. Yet even connoisseurs struggle to detect where any individual Willett first gestated.

Unlike other non-distilling bottlers, who often source their stock from a single distillery (usually Indiana’s MGP), Willett acquired barrels from a vast array of producers: Bernheim, Heaven Hill, Four Roses, Jim Beam; some earlier releases were even said to be from the vaunted Stitzel-Weller Distillery. By actively sourcing during the 1980s whiskey “glut,” Kulsveen was able to acquire some truly one-of-a-kind stock that, in a more whiskey-friendly drinking era, might have been blended into less-notable releases.

Of course, the cult-like fanaticism surrounding Willett hinges on more than just great whiskey. As is often the case in the world of spirits, its rarity—each individual release consists of approximately 20 times fewer bottles than Pappy—contributes to its perceived cachet. Compounded with the high barrier for entry (it has its own language, after all), it creates an additional layer of exclusivity, only amplifying its desirability.

And it’s only becoming more desirable by the day. In 2017, Willett had to temporarily suspend its private barrel program due to overwhelming demand. Meanwhile, its equally sought-after “gift-shop-only” releases have appeared with greater infrequency and, when they do appear, necessitate standing in exceedingly long lines. As a stopgap measure, the company began bottling its own distillate in 2014, but it has yet to quell the frenzy.

As for Camacho Santa Ana, she has since moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where she opened LeNell’s Beverage Boutique last summer, a new outpost for her shuttered Red Hook liquor store. In December, she released her first Willett single barrel picks since Red Hook Rye—two traditionally labeled offerings called Light Side of the Moon and Dark Side of the Moon.

This time, nobody slept on them—the 334 bottles sold out the same day they hit the shelves.

The Most Sought-After Willett Bottlings

Since the release of Red Hook Rye in 2006, Willett’s output has garnered coveted status among whiskey collectors. Here, an introduction to the canon of Willett whiskey.

Red Hook Rye
One of the most iconic labels in modern American whiskey depicts a flexing arm with a cursive “LeNell” tattooed on the bicep. Red Hook Rye consists of four different releases between 2006 and 2008, only available at LeNell’s Brooklyn liquor store. All told, less than 1,000 bottles were ever produced; it’s so sought-after today that single-ounce samples currently sell on the secondary market for over $1,000.

Doug’s Green Ink
Willett’s first single barrel of rye, released in 2006, was a private barrel for collector Doug Phillips. Considered by some to be the ur“sticker” label, the 22-year-old rye was rumored to be distilled at Bernheim in 1984 and, in many drinkers’ estimation, is still Willett’s best release. The name refers to the fact that all 263 of the white waxed bottles had their barrel details accidentally written in green ink.

Velvet Glove/Iron Fist
These two “sister” barrels of 23-year-old Bernheim rye were selected by Bourbon DC, a Washington whiskey bar, in 2007. It’s a good example of how inscrutable Willett bottlings can be: The only way to identify each is by a small, handwritten note on the back label.

Speakeasy Select/Rathskeller Rye
Louisville’s “grand hotel,” the Seelbach, selected these privately labeled barrels of both bourbon and rye in 2007. Some escaped into the marketplace where the 24-year-old rye (distilled in 1983 at Bernheim) has since become legendary; it’s believed to be from the same stock as Red Hook Rye and Doug’s Green Ink.

The Bitter Truth
Another private label Willett, this one was selected by Munich bartenders Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck for the bitters company they run together. The 24-year-old rye is likewise 1984 Bernheim liquid, with only 240 700mL bottles hitting the German market in 2009.

In 2008, two 24-year-old ryes were released to the Japanese market by the eponymous liquor distributor Bonilli; one was bottled at 94 proof, the other 110. The importer is also responsible for releasing two 17-year-old Willett bourbons to the Japanese market that are likewise coveted the world over.

Wheated Patriot/Wheated Warrior
These 2014 releases for Massachusetts liquor store Julio’s—with barrel details written in red ink—are both 21-year-old wheated bourbons sold to benefit the Wounded Warrior Foundation. Many who’ve tasted it consider them to be every bit as good as comparably aged Pappy van Winkle.

Barrel #1404 (aka Ping Island Strike)
A 2017 collaboration “pick” between friends and Charleston residents Sean Brock and actor Bill Murray, pours of this 13-year-old bourbon are available at the HUSK restaurants for $45 a glass—while supplies last.

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