Monday, January 20, 2014

Whiskey Review: Willett Single Barrel Rye Barrel #38

One of the biggest trends in the American whiskey world over the last few years has been sourced whiskies. And by far the biggest supplier of sourced whiskies has been MGP (previously known as LDI), the Indiana-based former Seagram's plant that was quietly churning out whiskey on contract for many years before it was discovered to be the last remaining source of aged bulk whiskey for sale in America. Most importantly, they produced whiskey with a unique 95% rye mash bill, originally designed for flavoring blended whiskeys, that could fill some of the unmet demand for rye whiskey.

Despite the name, Kentucky Bourbon Distillers did not have an operating still from 1984 until 2012, so all of the whiskey they have released over the last few decades has been sourced from elsewhere. While much of it has been from the closely located Heaven Hill Distillery, they have also sourced bourbon and rye whiskey from MGP.

KBD puts out single barrel whiskeys from various distilleries under the Willett label. The ryes are mostly from MGP, which can be determined by looking for the phrase 'Distilled in Indiana' on the back label. All are relatively young, ranging from three to six years old, and bottled at 55% ABV. This one is from Indiana and was bottled at 5 years old.

Also, be sure to check out Michael Kravitz's review of the same whisky. I'll also be reviewing a sample I got from his bottle soon.

Willett Single Barrel Rye Barrel #38

Nose: alcohol is a noticeable overtone, fresh oak is dominant, sweet grain, pine, berries, caramel/burnt sugar, cinnamon. After adding a few drops of water, some hints of chocolate come out, the pine leans towards a more generically vegetal note, but doesn't change all that much.

Taste: briefly dry/creamy grain, then thick, sweet wood, pepper/alcohol heat, cinnamon, berries, and even more oak. After dilution, the mouthfeel becomes thicker and it's sweeter overall, with slightly less assertive wood, but possibly even more aggressive alcoholic heat.

Finish: dry wood, slightly grainy and piney, pepper, pleasantly bitter, hints of berries

Honestly, this isn't a particularly complex whiskey. It's dominated by the barrel, though the young rye pine is also pretty noticeable, leading me to initially describe it as 'a Pacific Northwest lumber yard'. The alcoholic heat is also fairly strong at full strength, which I think covers up a lot of the nuances in the spirit. This means it's also probably good to have a glass of water on hand. That's not to knock this whiskey, since I find it enjoyable, but it is what it is - relatively young rye.

Because I've been curious for some time about how high proof spirits change with dilution, I watered samples down to 50% and 45% ABV and let them integrate for a number of weeks. The results were fairly striking.

Willett Rye 50%

Nose: toasted oak, grain, a touch of honey, fresh herbs/grass, solvent overtones, cinnamon caramel undertones

Taste: kind of boring - not particularly sweet, bitter wood and integrated grain, hints of pine/herbs at the back, a little cardboard, more barrel notes come out with time

Finish: uninspiring - a little residual wood and grain

As you can tell from the tasting notes, I didn't like the whiskey very much at this strength. It didn't seem to have much going for it - the flavors weren't intense enough to work with the simplicity, but it wasn't mellow enough to be pleasant. Not recommended.

Willett Rye 45%

Nose: pine and grassy notes dominate, vegetables (carrots?), a touch of cinnamon, very light grain, nutmeg, a hint of chocolate/cacao powder, some woody caramel finally shows up with time

Taste: thin mouthfeel, rather dry, mild graininess, hot new wood and pepper mid-palate, fading into green pine and caraway savoriness with hints of citrus and berries, a thin layer of caramel throughout

Finish: pine, very mild grain, a touch of new wood

If the whiskey is mostly about the barrel at full strength, at 45% it's all about the spirit. The high rye recipe is fully in evidence, with lots of pine and herbal notes. I'm not sure that I necessarily like this strength better, but it does have a lot more going on. I think this is part of why MGP's ryes do so well in cocktails - with water a lot of complexity comes out that plays well with other ingredients.

It's unlikely that you'll find a bottle from this particular barrel - it was given to me as a Christmas present  a couple of years ago. But I'm going to hazard a guess that most of them are going to be pretty similar. There's only so much you can do with 95% rye distillate in a handful of years. Would I recommend buying a bottle? Maybe. If you already like Bulleit or Templeton rye (which are sourced from the same distillery), I'd say that this is worth your while if it's not too much more than $30. At that point the extra alcohol should pay for itself. Much more (it's over $45 here in Oregon) and I'd give it a pass. There are other rye whiskeys on the market with more refinement (Sazerac 6 Year) and better price (Rittenhouse BiB) that I would grab first. But Willett is, to put it mildly, an experience.


  1. Dilution was a good idea. I probably should have attempted that for my reviews. I'm looking forward to your thoughts on the 6yo.

    1. I've decided to make a habit of putting together and tasting dilutions for spirits that are much above 50%. The shifting emphases in smells and flavors can be quite informative. In a decent number of cases I'm coming to guess that certain casks are bottled at higher proof specifically because they don't taste good at lower strengths.

    2. I agree. I also think some "barrel/cask strength" whiskies are bottled at ABVs lower than their actual dumping strength for 1) taste purposes; 2) to stretch the whisk(e)y out into more bottles; and 3) to deliver a nice round number like Willett's 55% or Knob Creek's 60%.