En route from Lexington, where we had been for a friend's beautiful wedding, we took a turn off the highway with a last minute thought of visiting the heavily signposted Jim Beam distillery. Dimitris had wanted to rush to Nashville, our next stop, to set up camp in a bar and watch the England match - the Euros were on, and at this point England were still in it - but we decided we couldn't leave Kentucky without getting a bottle of bourbon from a local distillery, even if it was one technically part of a huge Japanese conglomerate.
On our way to Jim Beam we spotted some signs for Willett Distillery. This meant nothing to me, but Dimitris had apparently come across the name twice already in the course of our few days spent in Kentucky - once from the father of the bride, who said Willett had the smoothest bourbon, and again from another wedding guest, who recommended Willett as a little-known but quality bourbon. So we diverted, sailed past Jim Beam and up a smaller, tree-lined road, through beautiful Kentucky countryside, right up to the door of Willett Distillery.
We had originally planned only to have a snoop around the gift shop and maybe purchase a bottle or two, but when we enquired about the tour and were told it was only $7 per person and included two tastings, and that we would be the only ones on it, well, Dimitris waved goodbye to any plans of watching football that afternoon and we set about learning a little about Willett.
photos are just from my phone as i was unprepared! soz!
I've been on a couple of whisky distillery tours - I am Scottish after all - but never have I been on one which was so laid back, informative, and personal. We were allowed to get up close and personal with the different types of mash, and were even allowed to taste some!
Little tourist snap in front of the distinctive Willett pot still.
We watched them fill some barrels before getting the chance to hammer the bung into the bunghole, then watch as the barrels were rolled away across two elevated tracks, coming to rest outside the rickhouse. Despite the barrel's journey along the tracks seeming very precarious and more than a little wobbly, our tour guide assured us they had never lost a barrel in all their years of doing it. Sometimes the barrels might need a little nudge, but they never fall off the tracks!
He may be bigger than me, but I promise you, I did much better at hammering in the bung. You can' barely even see mine in the picture, it's so flush with the barrel. I win at bungholes.
Away it goes!
Arrived safe and sound outside the warehouse, ready to mature for a good few years.
Before heading up to the tasting room, we got to wander around one of the rickhouses, which are not only super cool to look at, but smell absolutely amazing. So much so, that they've started maturing hams inside the warehouses, letting the meat absorb all of that wonderful, smokey bourbon flavour. Unfortunately none of the hams were ready for eating yet, so we didn't get to try any, but I can imagine they would taste so damn good. Kentucky bourbon ham, doesn't that just sound like something you wanna eat like every day...
After our lovely, in depth, entertaining and essentially private tour of the grounds, distillery and warehouse, all for the bargain price of $7, we ere taken to the tasting room where we tried four bourbons between us and went away with two bottles of the classic pot still reserve, its beautiful bottle shaped just like the still we're posing away in front of up there. It is by far the smoothest, most palatable bourbon I've tried, and where others have tasted like little other than fire and ethanol to me, I actually get a little sweetness and flavour from this one, and it slips down a treat.
In fact, we liked it so much we couldn't help but crack it open later in our trip when we found ourselves with an hour spare and a balcony overlooking the Mississippi. We've still got some left, so if you pop round for a drink one evening, you may just get to try some, if you're lucky, but you better be quick...
(FYI, whilst it's not, so far as I'm aware, widely available in the UK, Selfridges do stock a rather large 1500ml bottle if my poor, unknowledgeable description has tempted you at all...)
Our little stop off at Willett was the nicest way to spend an afternoon, and the perfect way to say goodbye to our time in Kentucky before heading on to the rest of our trip. If you are in the area, I would suggest you forego the major name brands in favour of a smaller, local, family run distillery like Willett, for a more personal and authentic experience. We left feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, and whilst that may be due to the bourbons we'd had on empty stomachs, I prefer to think it was due to the fact we felt we'd experienced something local, personal and truly Kentucky.