Comparison: Willett Pot Still Reserve / Willett Family Estate Single Barrel Bourbon

WILLETT POT STILL RESERVE
standard small batch release

MASH BILL – Undisclosed

PROOF – 94

AGE – NAS

DISTILLERY – The Willett Distillery

PRICE – $10 for a 50ml bottle (typically ~$50 for a 750ml bottle)

WILLETT FAMILY ESTATE BOURBON
single barrel #2048 picked by K&L (2019)

MASH BILL – Undisclosed

PROOF – 125.2

AGE – 6 years

DISTILLERY – The Willett Distillery

PRICE – $130

Willett counts among the contemporary pseudo-craft legends. I say “pseudo-craft” because they hold a far more mainstream place now in the bourbon market than many more recent craft distilleries. (This term “craft” has no legal definition as of yet, though if the American Craft Spirits Association has its way it soon will.) Willett began like many small distilleries, sourcing excellent barrels from MGP in Indiana. Some of those old offerings are legendary. These established the brand’s reputation for classy bottlings of exceptional whiskeys.

Their own distillates are now more widely distributed, and have been widely received with more mixed reviews—though no variances in the releases nor varying critiques seem to have diminished the brand’s stature. The standard Pot Still Reserve doesn’t cause much stir at $50 on average, more noted for its unique bottle than its taste. But their 5-to-7-year single barrel releases sell fast, commanding prices from $130 on up to even $300.

This Pot Still Reserve 50ml bottle was freshly cracked for this comparison. The Single Barrel has been open for a few months. I noted the color and nose side by side. But given the 31.2 proof difference, for the taste and finish I took notes on the Pot Still Reserve first, moved on to the Single Barrel, then went back and forth between them for a bit. These brief notes summarize the results:

COLOR

POT STILL – a clear, yellowish burnt orange

SINGLE BARREL – a darker, but still clear burnt orange

NOSE

POT STILL – peanut, herbal rye spice, dusty oak, caramel, some orange rind, black pepper, milk chocolate, a mustiness passing through it like a slow fog

SINGLE BARREL – caramel, herbaceous rye grasses, a whiff of something like mineral or well water, peanut, some darker milk chocolate, a faint fruitiness I can’t pin down… maybe those big dried king apricots…?

TASTE

POT STILL – a thin watery texture, peanuts, herbal rye and some dark apricot, a bitterness on swallowing

SINGLE BARREL – right away the chocolate and herbs, then caramel, that mineral/well water aspect, some faint peanut

FINISH

POT STILL – a fine tingly pepperiness lingers most, with faint apricot and peanut…

SINGLE BARREL – tingly pepperiness, chocolate, faint but dark apricot compote, the mineral/well water thing…

OVERALL

POT STILL – pleasant but rather plain, unusual without being remarkable

SINGLE BARREL – surprisingly uneventful and lacking in complexity tonight, in sharp contrast to previous tastings of this bottle…!

BUY AGAIN?

POT STILL – I can imagine getting another bottle in a few years out of curiosity to revisit it.

SINGLE BARREL – Not possible, given it’s long since sold out. Future single barrels at this price? Mmmaybe, depending on the store doing the picking.

This was a surprising comparison. The Pot Still Reserve tasted thin and cheap like its 50ml container. The Single Barrel had previously wowed me and some coworkers when I uncorked it on a Friday at the office, just a few days prior to the Stay-at-Home mandate going into place. It was the hit of the tasting that day. Tonight it’s quite unimpressive. If this comparison were my introduction to Willett I can’t say I’d be eager to return—especially at their prices.

Looking back at past notes on a previous Pot Still Reserve bottle, I wrote: “Nougat and black pepper on the nose. The taste shows nougat and roasted peanut brittle. The nougat darkens on the finish, leaving high quality peanut butter. This is either the organic peanut butter of bourbons, or the organic circus peanuts of bourbons. I like it. It’s a plus for sure.” That was three years ago. My palate has continued to evolve since then. And this is a different small batch release. All potential factors in the stark shift of the experience.

When I uncorked this Single Barrel two months ago, I wrote in brief that it was “100% chocolate herbal goodness!” Those flavors are still there, and prominent, but no longer “100% goodness.” The cork is quite snug, yet there’s something oxidized about it—that mineral/well water aspect. As I continue to nose and sip at it, I can start to parse out the relationship between the chocolate notes and that mineral thing. They seem related, with the latter emerging from the former. That sounds strange. It’s the best way I can describe what I’m experiencing.

I’ve written already about other similar Willett products, their price and the experience of tasting them. Given my early experiences with both of this post’s subjects, I had higher hopes for this comparison. Maybe an addendum will be warranted down the line. I killed the 50ml Pot Still Reserve tonight, of course. But the Single Barrel will continue to take air and perhaps in time it will come around to its initial greatness again.

When you pay such a high price for a bottle you don’t want to have to deal with such wild inconsistency. With a Van Winkle or a Stagg, I know each time I go back to the bottle I’ll get what I went back to it for. This particular Willett Single Barrel, at least, is a chameleon. Others have not been so fickle. But from bottling to bottling, even of Willett’s exceptional 4-year small batch ryes, the differences can be striking. And since they’re not always striking in a good way…

It’s true that the old Willett Small Batch 3-Year Rye was the rye that made me love ryes. It was such a weirdo! I loved its brash blend of wild grassy herbs, chocolate, and caramel. Other of the 3-Year and 4-Year small batch releases have been similarly pleasing. The Single Barrels tend to be less consistent, and since they also tend to run two to four times the Small Batch’s price, there is little incentive to continue investing in them. It’s an expensive gamble, hoping you’ll land one of the herbal-chocolate masterpieces that Willett can sometimes be.

It’s worth noting that, tasting both again as I wrap up this post, they’re getting notably better—darker, chocolatier, richer. Still not great.

Ah well. There’s always next time!

Cheers!

Addendum

A few weeks on after this notes session, this Willett Single Barrel #2048 came to its end. In the final quarter of the bottle, there was another notable shift back to the impressive chocolate and herbal wonder it had been at its uncorking. The two final pours I even tried with a good amount of water added, and loved it. The water seemed to bring out even more chocolate, and tempered the spiciness without diluting it, creating a lovely balance of what I so appreciate about Willett whiskeys when they hit the mark—chocolatey, herbaceous, spicy, nicely balancing wildness with containment.

A chameleon to the end! R.I.P. Willett SiB…

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