Comparison: Willett 5 Year Single Barrel Bourbon / Willett 4 Year Small Batch Rye

WILLETT FAMILY ESTATE BOTTLED SINGLE BARREL BOURBON
Barrel #4747

MASH BILL – 52% corn, 38% rye, 10% barley

PROOF – 124.2

AGE – 5 years

DISTILLERY – The Willett Distillery

PRICE – $217 (That’s right.)

WILLETT FAMILY ESTATE BOTTLED SMALL BATCH RYE

MASH BILL – Unknown (rumored a “barely legal” rye, meaning near the 51% minimum rye content.)

PROOF – 113.8 (2019)

AGE – 4 years

DISTILLERY – The Willett Distillery

PRICE – $64

This Willett Single Barrel Bourbon, picked jointly by San Francisco’s Plumpjack Wines & Spirits and Maison Corbeaux, is my first experience with Willet’s single barrel bourbon line. Whereas the Willett Small Batch Rye has been an old standby for me since back when it was a 3-year batch. That 3-year Willett was the rye that made me love rye. The 4-year is even better. The single barrel bourbon, however, is a more complicated question…

First, some notes in brief:

COLOR

Bourbon – rich, dark, russet orange

Rye – same, but oh so slightly lighter

 

NOSE

Bourbon – grassy, autumn-spicy, faint dark fruits and chocolate

Rye – brighter, grassy and autumn-spicy, with rich cooked prune

 

TASTE

Bourbon – silky, rich, slightly drying up front, caramel front to back, a juicy peppery burst at the end

Rye – oily, spicy, chocolatey, rich, with a zingy caramel

Both – swallow with care early in the tasting. That’s when the pepper bites!

 

FINISH

Bourbon – warm, peppery, lingering softly but does indeed stick around

Rye – warm, loooooong, flavorful, juicy and tingly

 

OVERALL

Bourbon – rich, confident, relaxed, very nice.

Rye – decadent, lively, superb.

 

BUY AGAIN?

Bourbon – No.

Rye – Not this batch. But only because I enjoy trying different Willett Small Batch Ryes to experience the variations.

So why after such luscious descriptors would I not buy these again? The bourbon is excellent. But $217 is at least twice too much for a 5-year single barrel of anything. Even at closer to $100 I would (now) pause before purchasing.

I suspect my reaction is in no small part due to the fact that the 4-year small batch rye itself is already pricey at $65, and, in this 113.8 proof batch at least, is a slightly better experience overall than this 5-year single barrel bourbon. (That’s a very nitpicky statement. They’re both exceptional.) The bourbon’s mash bill is “barely legal,” meaning at 52% corn it’s just a breath above the 51% minimum to be bourbon. The small batch rye’s mash bill is likewise rumored to feature a “barely legal” rye percentage. This means the two mash bills are more similar than bourbons and ryes typically tend to be. Based on the taste, if you told me the bourbon was a rye I’d believe you. So why pay over triple the price for the bourbon when the rye is so good?

For years The Willett Distillery earned its reputation on exceptional barrels sourced from other distilleries. It’s only in the past year or so that they’ve started to release single barrel bourbons and ryes made from their own distillate out into the national wilds. This has created a kind of mad frenzy among aficionados. To get the bourbon reviewed here, for example, I showed up in person at the store before the doors had opened, having caught their transient Instagram-story post announcing the release the day before. I was soon joined by others. The bottles sold out before the day was done.

Similarly, a few months later I spent far too much time online desperately clicking to nab a 6-year single barrel bourbon from another local shop. These went in minutes for $130 a pop. Two weeks after that I paid $160 for a 6-year single barrel rye, and the next week traded two older Elijah Craig bottles (roughly a $100 value) for another 6-year single barrel rye. And way back in December 2018 I had already picked up a 2014 8-year single barrel rye (Barrel #63), with distillate sourced from MGP in Indiana, for $270 from an estate sale. So I’ve invested a lot in Willett single barrels! I will enjoy each bottle, for sure, but with far more than a tinge of regret for having $uccumbed to the mad frenzy.

My journey with Willett has turned out to be one on the theme of wild, unthinking passion. I followed Willett around like a starry-eyed puppy and they had me wrapped around their finger. It was an expensive lesson in what can happen when one gets swept up by the whiskey craze. It becomes about getting the prize, not the whiskey. For me this sours the taste.

The Family Estate Bottled Small Batch Rye does not play hard to get. It’s readily available. And though not cheap at $65 (it can also be found for a bit less or more) it’s an attainable high-end rye. Whereas the Family Estate Bottled Single Barrel Bourbons and Ryes, just a year or two older these days but anywhere from twice to even five times the price, are a pain to obtain and yet not significantly greater an experience to warrant the cost of effort or income.

So I’m done chasing the single barrel Willetts. They’re really good. Just not good enough to be a regular buy at the price. And when the bourbons among those I have are gone, if ever I am hankering for Willett bourbon there’s always the imminently available and elegantly bottled Willett Pot Still Reserve. It’s readily found for around $50 or so, and features a nice flavor profile of creamy nougat and roasted peanuts. The bottle alone is a conversation starter:

I may pick one up and try it next to the single barrel bourbon. That could prove interesting.

Otherwise I’ll be sticking to the 4-year small batch rye. It’s indeed very unique. And as it’s my first true rye love, I’m still a pushover for it. Whether 107 proof, 113.8, 126, or somewhere in between, the 4-year small batch always pleases and inevitably surprises.

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