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“What’s up Bourbon TikTok? … Today I want to tell you about my least favorite bottle in my collection,” says Chad Watson, a Lexington, Ky.-based bourbon enthusiast who goes by @mydailybourbon. Wearing a black tie with a zippered gray jacket, over the next 40 seconds Watson discusses how much he dislikes Willett Pot Still Reserve — “too malty, too earthy, too grassy” — which has become the bourbon that TikTokers most love to hate.
Spend any amount of time on so-called Bourbon TikTok and you can’t help but run across hundreds of reviews for Willett Pot Still Reserve. Some are professional, most are amateur, a few are earnest, many more are comical, bordering on cruel. And they’re nearly all negative, as though slamming this particular whiskey is a rite of passage in becoming a bourbon reviewer on the exceedingly popular platform.
So how did Willett Pot Still Reserve become the most dunked-on bourbon in all of TikTok?
“TikTokers are doing a service that others in the blogging, YouTube, Instagram, and even the podcast space can’t,” believes Kenny Coleman, host of the Bourbon Pursuit podcast. He says that once something like these Willett Pot Still slams take off via TikTok’s algorithm, more are certain to follow. “So now bourbon reviewers on TikTok are getting a message out to people who didn’t necessarily know there even are bourbon reviews,” he says.
Zero Point Zero
For connoisseurs, Willett holds a hallowed position in the American whiskey pantheon. The company humbly began in 1984 when Even Kulsveen purchased it from his father-in-law, Thompson Willett, and renamed it Kentucky Bourbon Distillers. But Kulsveen wasn’t actually distilling anything, instead sourcing unwanted stock from nearby distilleries like Bernheim, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, and the vaunted Stitzel-Weller.
As the modern American whiskey boom began to take shape in the early aughts, Kulsveen’s son Drew began releasing their most primo stock as cask-strength, non-chill-filtered single barrels under the umbrella Willett Family Estate. Some of these, with names like Red Hook Rye, Doug’s Green Ink, and Rathskeller Rye, became some of the most acclaimed releases in American whiskey history. Pretty much all Willett Family Estate bottlings released since 2006 now sell for hundreds if not thousands of dollars — and, if you lack knowledge and connections, you really have no chance to ever score any.
“Purple tops, green tops, that’s fun stuff, but when it comes to [Pot Still] … it’s just not for me,” says Watson.
Unfortunately, almost all Willett looks identical — Cognac-style bottles topped with, as Watson mentions, purple foil tops, green foil tops, or white wax. All are slapped with stark white labels featuring the Willett family crest, with the only identifying differences being tiny, handwritten details indicating each bottle’s age, proof, and sometimes an esoteric barrel number. (For a while, the whiskey internet circulated a Google spreadsheet to keep track of these barrel numbers.) All this is what makes the Willett portfolio, if you will, completely inscrutable to newcomers.
“Willett is a very notable brand and people love to chase their limited releases,” says Watson. “So Willett does what most brands would do in that case: creates a product that draws people with their eyes, is priced decently, and is pretty much always available.”
That product, of course, being Willett Pot Still Reserve, the only Willett whiskey ever released into the mainstream. And that’s where I suspect the cognitive dissonance sets in.
Newcomers to the bourbon hobby see the reverent tones Willett is spoken with online, then assume that all Willett is the great Willett that whiskey geeks have been stockpiling for years. The fact that Willett Pot Still Reserve comes in an eye-catching glass decanter — meant to look like a literal copper pot still — solidifies the fact they’ve stumbled upon a good score, which makes the ensuing disappointment once they finally taste it all the worse.
“What’s up guys and gals, this is Kent Davis, wanting to give you an honest bourbon review,” says @kentedavis33, speaking over a still image of the Pot Still bottle. His following nine-second TikTok is a succinct slam:
“Nice bottle, but zero point zero.”
Nicest Looking Bottle in My Collection
That “nice” bottle is exactly what leads to so much animus, claims Watson.
“Once people try the juice inside, they realize they have been duped,” says Watson. “For what seems like an amazing art piece, the liquid inside just doesn’t match the standard. It tastes young, earthy, and very green.”
Almost all Pot Still appearances on TikTok begin with the reviewer mentioning how much they like the bottle. In his review, Watson notes that the “bottle shape … is really cool.” “Pretty neat bottle…” says @glennflashwells. “Nicest looking bottle in my collection hands down,” says @mattybourbon. In many cases that will be the last wholly positive thing uttered by the reviewer.
Florida-based Andy Mauldin (@ronbourbondy) chose Willett Pot Still for his first-ever TikTok review earlier this year, claiming he’s never tried it before. Though even that doesn’t stop him from comically coughing after his first sip.
“Whahoooooaa, that is hot!” he exclaims as he struggles to clear his throat. He eventually calls Willett Pot Still Reserve “trash,” noting that the bottle is its “only redeeming quality.” Josh Grundemann (@bassinandbourbon) also coughs, nearly choking after sipping his first-ever Pot Still pour.
“That might be the worst bourbon I’ve ever tasted,” states the Louisiana man.
In a way, you could say a TikToker’s first sip of Willett Pot Still is the baptism by firewater that catapults them to the next level of connoisseurship. Maybe they’ll now be ready to get more serious with their bourbon reviewing. Or, maybe they’ll just want to milk the “Pot Still sucks” joke even further — by now it’s started to become a sort of TikTok meme.
Maudlin, for his part, did a follow-up TikTok where he dumps his remaining Pot Still into a fancy crystal decanter, jokingly hoping his wife will now assume it’s the “good stuff,” and thus drink it after running out of her preferred rosé.
If many Pot Still bashers go for the laughs regarding how awful it is compared to the luxe accommodations of the bottle it is housed in, there are a scant few TikTokers who are more earnest in their reviews. Steve Higdon (@60secondbourbonreview) finds Pot Still “pretty mellow” and “easy to drink.” Casey Warr thinks it’s “okay stuff.” While @mattybourbon calls it “not a great bourbon,” though admits it has a nice nose with notes of buttered popcorn, scoring it a decent 5 out of 10.
Those reviews might not elicit laughs or a viral view count, but they’re more accurate in their assessments. Pot Still Reserve is certainly not good — and I would never keep a bottle of it in my house — but it’s not as bad as TikTok would have you believe. Distiller rates it an 88 (out of 100), while Drink Hacker scores it a B+. That feels about right to me. Rumors abound that the spirit has gotten worse over the years, changing from a rye-flavored single-barrel bourbon to a wheated “small batch” blend of undisclosed origins. Whatever the case, it is almost certainly not 100 percent distilled via pot still, which makes the name and bottle design even more amusing.
That’s why the online anger continues to flow, with neophytes thinking they scored the world-famous Willett, seeing the fancy bottle suitable for displaying on the back bar, resting their iPhones facing them in selfie mode, firing up TikTok, taking a big sip, and then realizing (on video) that they just threw 50 bucks down the drain.
And, comical though these may be, maybe Willett should start paying more attention to them.
“Whiskey appeals differently to everyone. So there will be camps that like or dislike a certain whiskey,” says Coleman. “But when a majority of people are consistently giving the same message, the brand should take note and adjust.”
Or maybe not, as there continues to be a seemingly endless stream of fresh-faced TikTokers very excited about their recent Pot Still scores. Like @whiskeymorning, who enters his house clutching two bottles of Pot Still by their necks as he dances to Saweetie’s “My Time.”
We’ll wait for his TikTok review once he finally cracks it. My guess is that it will almost certainly involve coughing.