Revisiting: Willett Single Barrel Rye

Single Barrel #2253 (2019)

MASH BILL – Unstated (likely their high-rye rye mash bill: 74% rye, 11% corn, 15% barley)

PROOF – 111

AGE – 6 years


PRICE – $163

WORTH BUYING? – No, but…

Why “revisiting,” and not simply visiting, this recently uncorked bottle? Because it’s been some time since I’ve had a bottle of Willett Rye. I posted about the last bottle I went through here in August 2021. And I haven’t actually purchased a bottle of Willett Rye, in any of its incarnations, since 2019. I did pick up a Willett SiB Bourbon as recently as 2020, and though certain Willett SiB Bourbons taste virtually indistinguishable from the Ryes, nevertheless it’s bourbon.

Just as Booker’s was the bourbon that made me love bourbon, and which over time I fell gradually out of love with given price hikes and shifts in flavor profile, Willett was the rye that made me love rye—and eventually I fell out of love with it as well.

Specifically it was their standard 3-year small batch release that captured my heart back in 2016 or so. When it transitioned to a 4-year small batch, I was even more smitten! So when a slew of single barrel 5 and 6-year releases started to emerge as store picks around 2018/19, I was on it! I spent many hours with my fingers hovering over my keyboard hoping to snag online releases. I scanned many shelves for the tell-tale statuesque bottle with its pronounced green-foil cap. I traded various bottles in my bunker for Willett SiBs others had managed to nab. These Willett SiBs tended to be priced anywhere from $150 to $250 on average, depending on the shop. In my frenzy, I gathered a few at the lower end of that range, whether by purchase or trade. But when I found how similar they tasted to the standard 4-year release, my enthusiasm quickly waned. It was a key early lesson in my gradual recovery from FOMO.

Thus it is that this SiB #2253 has remained in my bunker since I found it loitering at random on the shelf of a local shop back in 2019. It did not appear to be a store pick, given there was no added labelling to that effect on the back. But a handy online compilation of Willett releases indicates it was a bottle intended for Vendome Wines & Spirits in the Los Angeles area. Somehow it had wandered its way up north to San Francisco. These things occasionally happen in the complex matrix of distribution warehouses and trucks.

In any case, it’s my second-to-last such bottle. I was on Zoom with an old friend whose father had recently passed away. My friend was drinking Willett, so I uncorked this bottle to share in raising a glass to his father—an ex-Marine who, like Willett Rye, could be a bit spicy. It made a fitting toast, and we had a good evening chatting and reminiscing as the sun went from setting to set. Good whiskey doing what good whiskey does well.

So here we are, just four days after uncorking and some full handful of pours into the bottle. These brief notes were taken using a Canadian Glencairn, a glass I’ve found particularly suited to rye whiskeys.

COLOR – copper, toasty orange, and brass

NOSE – those particular dark rich rye spices I only get from Willett, fresh dark rye bread, a sprig of dill, thick dry-cut caramel, moss on oak bark, gourmet Triscuit crackers (if those were a thing), a faint fruit note like cherry or apricot

TASTE – the medley of rye notes, oak, dark chocolate both syrupy and in chunks, a bright and bitter wave of oak tannins at the end

FINISH – the oak and oak tannins, a pleasant warmth, a bit of the chocolate notes lingering

OVERALL – bland in a pleasing and somehow even rich way

Interesting experience. The flavors are clear and defined, one might even say strong. And yet there is a blandness to the experience overall. And yet, it’s syrupy and has richness in the chocolate notes and layers of oak. Even the bitter tannins, which it seems should be off-putting, etch a nice, clear, comforting outline around things.

I poured some into a traditional Glencairn, narrower and more focused than the Canadian. Here the nose is both drier and more chocolatey. The oak and chocolate hold equal sway. On the taste it’s much the same as in the more open bowl of the Canadian glass, with a touch more emphasis on the syrupy chocolate aspect over the chocolate chunk aspect—a surprise given the drier nose. Then the finish lingers in quite the same way: warm, oaky, chocolatey.

And this is why when I do one day buy another bottle of Willett Rye, it will be the standard release 4-year small batch. The experience-to-price ratio of these single barrels still isn’t justified for me given the readily available standard release, which, though younger, is similarly rich and cask strength and can be found anywhere from $50 to $70.

None of this means I won’t enjoy this bottle. I will. The proof supports the flavors with a firm but gentle emphasis. The flavors are at once definite and relaxed. It’s a quality product. And anyway the money spent is long gone, so…

Plus, this particular bottle was uncorked to celebrate the life and to grieve the loss of a good old friend’s dad. That cause is now a part of the experience of this bottle for me. And so it will be a bottle I sip on to reflect, and not just about my friend or his father. But about life in general, in all its blandness, banality, depth, and richness.


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