WILLETT SiB RYE
Barrel #980 selected by K&L (2019)
MASH BILL – unstated
PROOF – 114.2
AGE – 6 years
DISTILLERY – Willett
PRICE – $100 (in trade not cash; msrp was $152)
WORTH BUYING? – At $100 in trade, yes. At the regular price (or more!) in cash…?
I came into this bottle via a trade (two older Elijah Craig Barrel Proofs) back in the days when I was still obsessed with these Willett single barrel rye and bourbon releases. Considering they normally sold for $150 to $250 on average, I considered myself lucky to have swung a mere $100 in trade.
Today I’d likely hang on to the older Elijah Craig Barrel Proofs. (They’re so good!) As I’ve continued to make my way through the Willett single barrels I collected, when I’ve compared them to the standard release Willett Small Batch Rye, itself aged 4 years and always bottled at cask strength, it’s given me perspective. And as the Willett rye and bourbon mash bills are very similar, it’s not a matter of the rye versus the bourbon for me either. The standard 4-year rye release is of such high quality that paying anywhere from double to quadruple the cost for just an additional year or two makes zero sense.
Which means I was senseless during the height of my 2019 Willett buying frenzy. By the time I came to my senses the money was long gone. So now I’m enjoying these Willetts one by one until they too are gone…
Late one recent night toward the end of a long movie, I cracked open this bottle. Right out of the gate it was all chocolate, mint, and those wild Willett herbs. Very subdued, but rich and strong. Better than the movie!
As an accompaniment to a late night flick, the Willett didn’t have my full attention. Two nights later I shared it with a friend in town from New York. We’d not seen one another in person for quite some time, though we’ve been playing chess on Zoom throughout the pandemic. The Willett was great again, but this night it also didn’t have my full attention.
So now, about a week on and only a few pours into the bottle, I’m giving it my full attention.
I actually haven’t had a Willett SiB rye open for a long time. The last Willett SiB I went through was the Ledger’s Liquors bourbon pick from 2020, which was incredible. Taste-wise, it could just as well have been a rye. The SiB bourbons tend to cost more because they’re less common, and there is no standard small batch bourbon release to compare them to in the way there is the standard small batch rye. But the rye and bourbon’s mash bills must not be too many grains off from one another. They taste remarkably similar.
In any case, as the Willett Family Estate Small Batch Rye was the rye that made me love ryes, I’m keen to return now to a proper Willett rye and give it my undivided. Here are some notes in brief, taken in both a Canadian and traditional Glencairn—and without any movies or friends to distract me…
COLOR – a range of toasted oranges and burnt reds, from bright and brassy to deep and dusky
NOSE – those quintessential Willett grassy rye notes, only less wild here and somehow more stately, with malt, fresh crusty walnut bread loaves not yet broken, chocolate, fresh cut aged oak, a faint current of rich caramel, quite faint fruit like apricot and cherry
TASTE – the grassy rye, chocolate and caramel, the walnut bread notes now richer, a nice syrupy texture
FINISH – a tingly pepperiness around the edges that stops just short of biting, with the syrupy chocolate-caramel lingering in the field of dry rye grasses…
OVERALL – a rich and refined Willett rye
I’ve missed Willett. The prices on these single barrels sadden me all the more now that I’m tasting one again after so long. If only these 6-year barrels were two to four times as good as the standard 4-year release, like the price is two to four times as high. But they are good, for sure.
For me, what distinguishes Willett is the particular grassiness of its rye grain. It’s very recognizable. It conjures fields of long stemmed grasses waving en masse in the breeze, dark green almost to the point of charcoal black. The surprise in this barrel #980 is how uncharacteristically refined those grasses are. My dominant association with Willett rye notes is of a kind of wildness. But here the mood is steadier, calmer, less wind-tossed, still recognizably Willett. There’s a rustic regality to it.
I’ve bemoaned the pricing here and in previous posts enough, I think. I’ll stop now. This bottle doesn’t change my overall perspective in that regard. But I’m ready to let that aspect go and get on with enjoying what I have in front of me.
And what’s here is a very good rye whiskey that balances its rustic and refined aspects exceptionally well. If it were a cabin in the woods it would be very minimalist and moderne in design. If it were a building downtown it would be dignified and made of granite and wood, not concrete and glass. It’s not a background sipper. It commands attention. But it’s not pushy or bombastic either. It’s confident, definite, and calm. Nice for sharing with fans of complex whiskeys, who don’t mind conversations broken up by contemplative silences. Nice for a long unhurried sit with a view. Nice all around.