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Willett finally releases its own whiskey — and it’s fantastic!

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Willett’s first original product in decades, a Small Batch 2-Year-Old Rye, is certain to make several “best of” lists next year.
Photo: Sam Morris

It’s hard to estimate how much impact Willett has had in my life. I discovered the distillery’s line of bourbons and ryes four years ago, and consider two of its products to be the gold standard for their types: Willett’s Single Barrel, which varies in age anywhere from 4 to more than 25 years old (and is one of the hardest-to-find whiskeys in the country), and Willett Rye, which varies in age from 3 to 4 years old. Both offer consistent quality—whenever I see a bottle, I grab it.

But here’s the thing: Up until this year, all of Willett’s products were sourced—that is to say, Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (the umbrella company for Willett) bought their whiskey from other distilleries and bottled it under their various labels—Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek, Johnny Drum, Kentucky XO and others. Despite the level of quality, whiskey drinkers everywhere have always expressed a desire to taste an original Willett product.

Well, the wait is over. This year, Willett released its first original products in decades: Small Batch 2-Year-Old Rye.

A bit of background: The Willett Distillery was founded in the 1930s, but closed a few decades later because of the country’s waning interest in bourbon. In 1984, Even Kulsveen purchased the site and has worked the last 30 years getting it back up and producing. His timing is impeccable, as bourbon is more popular now than ever before in the country’s history, and bourbon geeks everywhere are drooling over the prospect of what Willett will be producing over the next few decades.

If this ultra-young rye is any indication, Willett is off to a very promising future.

The rye is either a 51 percent rye/34 percent corn, 74 percent rye/11 percent corn mash (or a combination of both), and clocks in at 109.4 proof, barrel strength. Its price point is $35-$45, depending on where you buy it (at Total Wine, it sells for around $40, about what Willett was charging for its 3- or 4-year-old rye.)

As you can imagine, my expectations for this whiskey were high (how could they not be?), and even so, I was highly impressed at how complex this young juice is.

The nose is perhaps the most stunning thing about it—vanilla, apples and mint all make an appearance, but what really surprised me was orange! I don’t think I’ve noticed that before in a rye of any age.

The strong apple character continues in the tasting, with the orange taking a bit of a back seat. There’s not much of the oily mouth feel I get with some of my favorite ryes, but I think that’s to be expected in something this young. It’s dry, but there’s also a nice lingering soft burn afterward.

Some will say Willett jumped the gun with this one, but I think this is a product that Willett will continue to sell far into the future. It’s a fantastic first step for arguably the country’s most exciting distillery. Sure, Rittenhouse and Knob Creek’s ryes are cheaper, and both are excellent, but for any serious whiskey drinker, Willett 2-Year-Old Rye is a no-brainer.

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Weekly's associate editor, having previously served as assistant features editor at the Las Vegas Sun ...

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