On Friday at 12:00, Several of us met up at the Jailer's Inn and drove up to the Willet distillery for a tour guided by Drew Kulsveen. I had talked to Hunter earlier in the week and arranged for John, Linda and myself to make this tour, and on Wednesday Drew confirmed the date and allowed several others to come along with only one condition -NO CAMERAS. There is good reason for this last restriction - The distillery is looking much like a construction site and the Kulsveens do not want pictures of the messy floors and stacked bricks and wood to be the first image the public gets of thier pride and joy. JD,his wife Kirsta, Chuck, Brenda joined John, Linda and myself for the tour.
We drove up to the distillery and noticed the new sign at the driveway for Kentucky Distillers and this gave us a hint of the things to come. It is very attractive and eye-catching. A great improvement over what has been there for the decade before. The gravel drive up the hill to the distillery was about a half mile and you really do not get to see the distillery until you are near the top of the hill. We pulled up to the office and got out of the cars. We could see the distillery building at about 100 yards distance and the stone work and western cedar woodwork looked impressive. We went into the building and up the stairs to meet with Drew, who was busy catching up on some paperwork. The office was typical of a small business office except the things on the shelves and walls were distillery orientated and of very much of interest to us. There is a sample bottle for a special release that I will not describe, but will say I am confident it will impress everybody as much as it did us.
After a few minutes talking and in the office and seeing some of the new bottles and projects, Drew took us down to see the distillery. The weather was perfect and we walked towards the distillery under clear blue skies and bright sunshine. I commented upon the impressive stonework and Drew explained it was all cut and laid by a single master stonework (who was working that day) and has been going on for about 2 years. The stones are an impressive mixture of natural grey's, whites and gold that it looks pleasing to the eye and yet has an air stability that gives the impression it has been there forever. Unfortunately at this time the the closer you got the more distracted you were by the pallets of stone and stacks of wood that you find at every construction site. At that point I not only understood Drew's prohibition of camera's, but Frankly I agree with him. It will be a very impressive and attractive site when finished but nobody really needs pictures of the mess leading up to the finished product. Does an artist let people see his painting before it is finished? Make no mistake, this site is a work of art and the Kulsveen's are the artist.
As we walked into the building through what will be the distillery office, but is now a workshop/storeroom, the hazards of the construction site were apparent. Walking across ditches on boards and floorsthat were dirt and broken concrete from the old foundation. Drew explained that the new site was being built on the old foundations of the distillery built just after prohibition. He explained they were trying to use as much of the old as they could in rebuilding the new. The old column still will be put back the next week after having been removed and pressure teasted at Vendome and given a clean bill of health. Other buildings around the distillery which are structurally sound will be fixted up and used for a Visiter's center and other purposes. It is important to the Kulsveen's to keep that heritage alive.
The rough edges of the distillery office now workshop created quite a contrast as we entered the distillery itself. The floors of the distillery are laid brick, not concrete. The area will be open and airy for a distillery and once again woodwork and stone work is all top notch. The front entranceway will be decked out with French Oak as a tribute the French heritage of the Willett family, but the threshold will be blue Norwegian granite. Even the small details are being done with style and tradtion.
Drew showed us the cooker and pointed up to where the grain hoppers are located. They are the hoppers from the original distillery. He did mention that they have made provision to have 4 storage areas so they can use not only the traditional grains of Corn, Rye and Malt, but also wheat or any other grain they wish to experiment with in their mashbills. He then led us up some stairs and there we saw IT! The copper pot still that is a wonderful work of art. i will not try to describe it for you out of respect for Drew. I think he would rather have you come see it in person so he can experience your pleasure at seeing it for the first time.
The top of these steps will be a landing where Drew hopes to place some chairs and allow tourist / bourbon fans to come and simply sit and enjoy watching the operations of the distillery. He pointed out the two fermenters that are already in place and explained that two more will soon follow them allowing for a four days of mashing. We then walked down and took a closer look at the pot still. Drew discussed some orf its attributes (capacity etc...) and I think JD's lip prints are still on the copper. We left this building and walked out a back door. We examined the boiler building, walked into the cistern room that will need to be cleaned of its old ceramic decanters and such, but still has the original scale tanks and smells of bourbon even after 25 years. Drew then talked a little about their warehouses and we headed back toward the office area.
The tour ended with a quick trip into their small bottling line and storage area. We discussed some of the products they are bottling for themselves and others and then ended the tour so Drew could get ready for a tasting in Louisville.
When this distillery is opened. it will be an impressive operation. Drew's vision of what can be done with a distillery set up to make both column and and pot still products gives me hope for the future of bourbon whiskey. This is going to be a true small batch, craft distillery with only about 18 to 20 barrels per day. Drew is open to experimentation, yet has a strong sense of tradtion. The family formulas and yeast will be used to make whiskey. He is also open to experimenting with a wheated bourbon and bourbons distilled at low proof and put into the barrel at 100 proof. The Kulsveens deserve a great deal of praise and moral support for their vision. They are reaching for the sky and I hope they touch the moon.
"Our people live almost exclusively on whiskey" - E H Taylor, Jr. 25 April 1873