WILLETT FAMILY ESTATE SINGLE BARREL BOURBON
Barrel #4795 selected by Ledger’s Liquor (2020)
MASH BILL – Unstated
PROOF – 129.6
AGE – 6 years
DISTILLERY – Willett
PRICE – $142
If you’ve been following this blog then you likely already know I have a complicated past with Willett. The old standard Willett 3-year rye was the rye that made me love ryes. Its vibrant blend of herbal and chocolate flavors was wild and surprising. The 4-year release is even better—so good, in fact, that I find it impossible to justify to $150 to $300 asking price for the 5-7 year single barrel ryes Willett releases as store picks.
Willett’s bourbon, however, doesn’t come in a standard release like its rye cousin. There’s the non-age-stated Pot Still Reserve Small Batch bourbon, more known for its iconic bottle than its flavor profile. And there are other Willett bourbon products like Noah’s Mill and Rowan’s Creek. But as of yet, no standard bourbon release is available under the Willett name against which to compare the highly sought-after single barrel store picks. So when I heard Ledger’s Liquor in Berkeley had a bourbon store pick in, and that they were selling it at the “low” price (by Willett single barrel standards) of $142 tax and all, I took a deep breath and gave it a go.
Ed Ledger is famous in San Francisco Bay Area whiskey circles for the intensity of his barrel picks. If you’ve ever met Ed Ledger or been helped by him in his family-run store (in business since 1935), his steady, no-nonsense, even-keeled demeanor makes a kind of sense in relation to the solid, often wood-driven picks he selects—from an amazing oak tree of a Henry McKenna several years ago to a robust Old Potrero Rye and an intensely spiced Maker’s 46.
Actually, my very first purchase from Ledger’s Liquor back in 2015 was a bottle of Willett Pot Still Reserve. As Ed held it up to suggest it to me, with a characteristically understated glint in his eye he said, “You’re welcome.” Apparently Ledger’s Liquor was the first store in California to put the Willett Pot Still Reserve on its shelves. And so it was with a certain pride that he recommended the brand.
Given Ed Ledger’s fondness for Willett, the prospect of a single barrel bourbon picked by him was very enticing. So here we are.
I’m joined again by actor and fellow whiskey fan Michael Barret Austin, familiar to readers of this blog from our previous palate comparisons of the Elijah Craig 18 Year and a Sonoma Distilling Company single barrel rye.
Like many whiskey drinkers, we’ve been making the best of the current Stay-at-Home era by occasionally meeting virtually for tastings. Michael lives not far from Ledger’s Liquor and picked up this bottle for me, delivering it recently at an appropriate physical distance. We sampled a few other things together that afternoon, but didn’t yet crack the Willett. Now we have.
Here first are our respective notes in brief. We both used traditional Glencairns. Michael’s bottle was freshly uncorked and tonight was his first pour. I opened my bottle about a week ago and am on my third pour.
MICHAEL – dark wild honey with a lot of orange at the edges, almost yellow
MARK – a beautifully dark, russet, brown-orange
MICHAEL – Nose-hair singing ethanol kept me approaching it carefully; an aroma of burnt embers eventually gave way to burnt sugar, sweet like frosting, fresh cut lumber, unsweetened cocoa
MARK – fresh unpicked autumn herbs in rain, dark cherries in syrup, caramel on a sticky bun, some pecan pie
MICHAEL – the flavors are so big it’s a psychedelic experience—a great learning adventure but not entirely pleasant or to be taken lightly—but once I got over that and could breathe again, I’d say it’s thick, with artificial cherries and grape up front like a lollipop, then herbs, anise and fennel, and fresh red pepper skins
MARK – the caramel and fresh herbs right up front together, surrounded by the smell of rain, and then comes rich dark chocolate sauce, with a nice soft peppery flash at the end
MICHAEL – More experience than flavor, I could feel it lift on my palate like a hot air balloon, the heat rising into my head, the flavors more savory now than sweet, with the lingering flavor of NyQuil—not a flavor I dislike, actually.
MARK – the chocolate sauce, the caramel now on the pecan pie, that nice pepperiness very gradually fading, all very nicely balanced with the chocolate lingering longest
MICHAEL – It’s all about the experience: big, explosive, and may very well be stronger than I am. I’d like to add water and see if I can pick out more of the sweet notes. That it’s only six years throws me, given its power.
MARK – The flavor combo of chocolate and herbs stand out most for me; and also the realization that the erratic wildness of Willett is a part of what keeps me coming back but also what makes me wince at the price.
MICHAEL – I’m not sure yet, likely not. There are other things I get more pleasure out of for less money.
MARK – Can’t get this bottle again, of course. But other bottles at this price, and if I knew up front they’d be this good, once in a while I’d definitely go for it
Michael – This is a very unique experience, like nothing else I’ve had so far in bourbon. So I have no regrets. But I think this bottle will take me a while to get through. I like it better with water. It becomes easier. Though in a way the water takes away the part that makes it exciting to me, which is the huge experience.
Mark J – Try it again in a week and let me know what it’s like for you then. Your tasting notes tonight are reminiscent of what I might have said when I opened it a week ago.
What I’m finding myself fascinated with about Willett these days—given my mixed feelings about the experience versus the price, which hardly makes me unique among Willett fans—is this chameleonic quality it has within the parameters of its flavor profile. It never surprises me in terms of, “Where did THAT flavor note come from?!” But it does surprise me in how wildly it plays around in its flavor profile. One day it tilts entirely into the herbs, a week later its all wood, and the next week its the chocolate. When all those notes combine I love it. But when either the herbs or wood dominate, for example, I find it less appealing. It’s not a consistent whiskey over the course of the bottle. That’s why I wrestle with the price. Is that wildness worth the money?
That all makes sense. With the 4-year standard release rye, I’ve had some I like better than others. But I do always think it’s worth retail. It has tons of flavor and it’s really interesting. I’m a bit of an age snob. But I find it has so much going on for its age. And it is different from bottle to bottle, as you say. I like that about Willett Distillery, that they’re not always trying to go for the exact same balance.
Have you tried the Pot Still Reserve bourbon? That’s the closest thing they have to a standard release bourbon under the Willett name.
Yes. I don’t hate on the Pot Still Reserve like some people do. I’ve not had it in a while. But because the bottle is so fun, I’ve given it to other people. It’s a fun one to bring to a party, and not unreasonably priced for what it is. I don’t buy it regularly though because I tend to buy either higher end, exciting things, or else things I don’t mind mixing in cocktails, and the Pot Still Reserve falls somewhere in the middle. It’s nothing like what we’re tasting tonight. It’s a fine, basic bourbon.
In my memory the Pot Still is very peanutty. I did do a comparison between it and the previous single barrel bourbon I had. They were quite different animals. Tasted blind I might not have associated them with one another had I not known they both came out of Willett.
I don’t know what their method is. Obviously they’re watering the Pot Still down to whatever proof they believe is best, and a lot of different barrels are going into it. It’s interesting that it is so different, though.
Do you have a thought about the single barrel bourbon versus the single barrel rye?
I’ve only opened one single barrel rye from my shelf. I’ve tasted a couple elsewhere, but too long ago to have a good finger on distinct notes. I do remember falling in love with Willett over a 4-year standard rye release. And the single barrel rye I opened was the one I bought from you, “The Ringer” from PlumpJack and Maison Corbeaux. [Right side in the above photo.] You gave it to me at price. But I do remember thinking, yes, the 4-year is so good I don’t think I need to pay more than that again for one of the single barrel ryes.
I wish I had a single barrel rye open right now, to try it next to this bourbon.
My inclination is to say that the rye, no surprise, leans more into the herbal aspects, and the bourbon more into the chocolates and caramels. But they each have both. My understanding is the mash bills of each are “barely legal,” with something near the minimum amount of corn and rye to make them a bourbon and a rye, so it makes sense they are so similar.
I think that’s true. The last 4-year rye I had I remember thinking it had that chameleon thing you described, and that it was just so wacky! It had so much happening. It really seemed like a money’s-worth choice to me, one to keep around.
In terms of getting one’s money’s worth, for you is that about… Well, like tonight’s bottle: you described it as a psychedelic experience—something not necessarily pleasurable but worth having as an experience. Does that give you your money’s worth? Or is it more about something really hitting your flavor profile?
It’s both. As I said, I have no regrets about this bottle. It’s going to last me a long time because it’s not something I’ll be sipping at while I watch a movie or do other things. It’s going to be for when I’m ready to roll up my sleeves, really dig in and make a study of it.
A little bit of this does go a long way. It’s so intense.
Yes, and in that sense I’m definitely getting my money’s worth. And I think it’ll be interesting to pour this for other people who do like big, strong, good bourbons. It’s unique in that way. And that there are only 186 bottles gives it a rarity, which also makes it fun to share with people. So, because of the size of the experience, I have no problem with the price.
Now when I try to quantify a price, which is a silly and almost impossible thing to do in the bourbon world now, I do look at those 6 years and I think, well, that’s a bit young for the tab. But it came from a good local store, so, that also made it worth a try.
The Old Potrero single barrel ryes are around 6 and 7 years old now as well, and they go for about $100 on average, so, a bit cheaper than Willett. And they’re also cask strength, with a similar experience in terms of flavor intensity. That would be an interesting comparison: this Willett single barrel bourbon, with its high-rye mash bill, and an Old Potrero Rye with its 100% malted rye mash bill. I’m thinking about the Old Potrero Batch #13, which was quite explosive—psychedelic, as you would say. For me that is the best Old Potrero I’ve had so far, and similar to this Willett in that it had a great mix of herbal, spicy aspects with a lot of strong fruit and chocolate from the malt.
I meant to tell you, by the way, that a sample of Old Potrero I recently got from a guy in our bourbon group was that Batch #13.
Ah, what did you think of it?
Well! I had to split that two-ounce sample up into two or three different pours. It was so sweet and thick, just crazy! I would put it in the same class as this Willett, because it’s not something I would drink purely for pleasure or at all casually. I just thought it was unique, very good and interesting.
It is very demanding. Right now I have the Old Potrero Batch #12 open, and it’s a totally different experience than Batch #13. It’s all about the malt. It’s intense, and good, and does have the chocolate thing going on. But ultimately it’s just malt malt malt. Not something I would think to compare with this Willett bourbon.
…As I’m saying this, I’m realizing that I’m more open to the wildness of Old Potrero than I am with Willett. Maybe that’s because of the price difference, or that Old Potrero is a local distillery and I like to support local businesses.
In any case, this is the thing I’m most fascinated with when tasting these intense bourbons: the demands they make on your attention. They’re exceptionally charismatic. Whereas something like Shenk’s Homestead, for example, I quite like, but it doesn’t stop me in my tracks. This Willett stops me in my tracks.
You know, I’ve been recording these songs everyday, mostly just for myself, since Shelter-in-Place started. I’m up to 175 songs as of today.
Thinking about bourbon like music, there is a lot of music I love that’s pretty dark because of the subject matter. I don’t love those less than the songs that just make me smile every time I hear them. But they both have their place. Whiskey is like that for me as well. Whenever I pour Shenk’s I think, Yeah, I love bourbon. This stuff is just great. And I want to share it with someone. Whereas with this Willett I think, Bourbon is crazy! And I’m amazed by it.
Right. Similarly, maybe because yesterday we had the now famous orange day here in California, this Willett makes a kind of gothic sense with the crows and the orange light.
Our back stoop looks out over the various back yards that come together. And on a sunny day out there I want to drink a bourbon that feels like a sunny day. Yesterday I might have been very content to drink this dark, potent Willett. It might have brought some pleasure to the feeling of Armageddon brought on by the forest fire smoke and surreal orange light.
For me it was the opposite. I wanted to reach for something I knew would make me feel good about life. So I went for the Old Rip Van Winkle. Every sip of that one makes me so happy. It’s just right on for me, so good but not hard or challenging.
Oh, I don’t think I told you—your mentioning Old Potrero reminded me—I picked up an open bottle of the Parker’s Heritage Single Malt, from a few years ago, at a restaurant selling its open bottles. I find it very pleasant. And I was glad it was already open because otherwise I might have waited for some occasion to open it.
I’ve really been getting into the American Single Malts lately. That bottle of Westward I posted notes on recently? That was amazing. It was the first Westward I’d had and it really set a high bar. Similar age as this Willett, also cask strength, but about $60 cheaper. I do kind of regret not buying the last bottle they had. I wanted to leave it for someone else to find and enjoy. But now a part of me wishes I’d been selfish and nabbed it. It was so good, really rich, more like the experience I’m having tonight with this Willett than the experience you’ve described having. It had very strong Chai and Rooibos tea notes alongside very rich chocolate notes from the malt. And it was consistent from first pour to last.
That was from K&L?
I might have that, actually.
If you do, try it and let me know what you think. It didn’t sell well. I eventually picked it up on sale. I’m surprised by that, though, because it offered an experience that was so intense and unique and good. Weird, but good! It’s one of those whiskeys that demonstrates how the reasons something sells or not so often have to do with factors other than the actual tasting experience.
Any final thoughts on the Willett?
I hadn’t had anything from Willett in a little while. I’d forgot what a force to be reckoned with they are, making these whiskeys that are so young yet have so much going on. And it’s a curiosity to me that they make that Pot Still Reserve that’s so different. Are they just trying to get at different markets? Is there more than one person in charge? Did their distributer tell them, hey, you have to make a product that’s more accessible?
It would be interesting to line tonight’s bourbon up with the Pot Still, Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek, the variety of things they do. Some of the whiskeys they distill, some they source, and Edmond Kubein over at Bourbon County told me now they’re mixing their own stuff with sourced stuff to gradually transition everything over to their own make.
That would be an interesting flight.
And then we moved on from Willett to other things. The afore mentioned Shenk’s had served as our palate warmer earlier. I had some Smoke Wagon Uncut Unfiltered on the table. Michael had a Smoke Wagon 8-year single barrel. I eventually also uncorked a Bomberger’s to compare it to the Shenk’s—both being from Michter’s and reportedly akin.
All in all, a good tasting. These things are so much better in person, of course. Done online, our sampling is limited to what we each have on hand. And the possibility of spontaneously sharing a new or special bottle—something I love about whiskey tasting with friends—just can’t happen when you’re online. Yet like many things in the current Stay-at-Home era, even a virtual whiskey tasting can offer some semblance of normalcy.