Touring the Willett distillery

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Touring the Willett distillery

Unread postby bourbonv » Sun Apr 30, 2006 12:23 pm

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.

Mike Veach
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Unread postby Brewer » Mon May 01, 2006 9:49 am

Thanks for this info Mike. It sounds like this stop would have been a highlight of the Sampler. I like the idea of having the natural stone and wood in abundance in their planning for the grounds and the buildings. I'm sure it will look great when finished. I also think the idea of having a place within the distillery for folks to sit & relax as they watch what is happening is a great idea and one that is inviting for people.

Did Drew give any idea of a time frame for completion of the distillery. It sounds as though they've made a lot of progress, but also sounds like there is a LOT more to do. Also, did he elaborate on any of their potential plans for new products once they're up & running. Will capacity increase? I agree that Drew deserves a lot of credit and support for this endeavor. When I met him at LeNell's, I thought that his involvement in the bourbon world would be a real asset for maintaining the quality of bourbon. My hat's off to Drew!
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Unread postby bourbonv » Mon May 01, 2006 10:35 am

Actually Bob, I think Drew wants to keep it small for now. The 18 to 20 barrels per day seems to be his goal and he never talked bigger.

Yes there is quite a lot to do and they are not rushing anything. The emphasis is doing it right, not quickly. He hopes to start distilling by 2007 and I am not sure how long after that it will be before it is open to the public. Believe me, it will be worth the wait.

Mike Veach
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Unread postby gillmang » Mon May 01, 2006 12:29 pm

Sounds great Mike, thanks. Lenell kindly suggested I come along on this excursion but I just couldn't, I had other comittments related to SB and Sampler but I wish I could have seen what you described so well. It was nice to see you, John and Linda and I am (believe me) sorry it was for so short a time. There is so much going on at these events that it is impossible to spend very much time with any one person valued as they are. I hope to catch up with you and Mike "just the three of us" one day soon in Cinci or Louisville and really talk. Thanks again for your generous gift of the 1971 Canadian Club, it was a treat.

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Unread postby Art L » Mon May 01, 2006 2:13 pm

That sounds like an excellent tour Mike, I wish I could have been there.
It's wonderful to hear that they are taking their time and doing it up right.
Drew is a great guy and very generous with his whiskey at the Gazebo! :lol:
Willett's couldn't be in better hands than his.
I can hardly wait to taste the products. Please us posted on their progress.
Three cheers for the Kulsveens! :cheers:
- Art
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Unread postby cowdery » Mon May 01, 2006 5:08 pm

Maybe everyone here knows this, but the blue Norwegian granite threshold is because Drew's father, Even, is a native of Norway.
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Unread postby tlsmothers » Wed May 03, 2006 2:45 am

Thanks, Chuck, for pointing that out. I didn't know that.

Mike, you really described this visit beautifully. For those of you not already in the know, I was there the very next day with a few lucky souls who helped me pick out a barrel of rye for a private label I'm working on just for LeNell's. I don't know what was more exciting. Seeing the progress towards the distillery being up and running again or walking around Warehouse G, rolling barrels, and beating out bungs for my own label.

This family really is up to some great work that will top what they have been up to all these years already. And what y'all say? Drew's sister Brit sure would make a mighty sexy first female Kentucky Master Distiller! I think we've almost talked her into it! :lol:
"Drinking just to get drunk is like having sex just to get pregnant." --Robert Hess
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Unread postby bourbonv » Thu May 04, 2006 12:16 pm

I was one of the lucky ones with LeNell the next morning. It was worth going just to see LeNell pop the bung out of the barrel with a lead pipe! Quite Impressive!

It was a very interesting experience. The fact that they segregate all of their rye to a single warehouse was interesting. The way LeNell actually picked the barrels to be sampled was also impressive. Drew and the Kentucky Distillers are doing things right and I hope it catches on with the other companies.

For the record, LeNell has a good sense of taste for rye whiskey. I envy the members in New York who will be able to get this whiskey when it is bottled.

Mike Veach
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Unread postby gillmang » Thu May 04, 2006 1:27 pm

Lenell, any idea when the rye will be available, the abv and estimated price?

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Unread postby tlsmothers » Thu May 04, 2006 1:46 pm

It'll be several months while we work through legalities, label design, etc. It will be barrel strength, non-chill-filtered, 23 year old rye priced between $50-100. That's the best I can tell you right now. I can't even begin to tell you how complicated doing this is with layers and layers of fees, taxes, etc. Y'all will know details as I work through them, though.
"Drinking just to get drunk is like having sex just to get pregnant." --Robert Hess
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Unread postby Art L » Thu May 04, 2006 3:19 pm

tlsmothers wrote:It will be barrel strength, non-chill-filtered, 23 year old rye priced between $50-100.

If you can keep it in that price range it will be outstanding!
:urock:

Is there a waiting list for it? :D
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Unread postby tlsmothers » Thu May 04, 2006 4:49 pm

I'm gonna do my darndest to keep the price as reasonable as possible. I do have a waiting list, but y'all got first dibs anyway so no worry.
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Unread postby gillmang » Thu May 04, 2006 5:05 pm

Okay thanks Lenell.

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Unread postby Art L » Thu May 04, 2006 6:16 pm

tlsmothers wrote:I do have a waiting list, but y'all got first dibs anyway so no worry.

Sweet, we got first dibs! I hope that's a good thing. :D j/k
I can hardly wait... Best of luck with the bottling LeNell!
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Unread postby Brewer » Fri May 05, 2006 8:00 am

bourbonv wrote:The way LeNell actually picked the barrels to be sampled was also impressive. Mike Veach


Mike/LeNell,

Please elaborate on this point.
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