We all know Pappy and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection can fetch a fortune at the auction block, but there’s another purveyor of grailed whiskeys worth studying: Willett Distillery.

Located in Bardstown, Ky. — the bourbon capital of the world — the Willett Distillery has been going strong since 1936. Even when the brand ceased production for nearly 30 years, it trudged forward and gained considerable fame as an independent bottler that packaged and released other distilleries’ products under the Willett name. Nowadays, the distillery is back to making its own distillate again. The distillery also owns a few brands that don’t cite Willett as the producer, and instead go by pseudonyms like Old Bardstown Distilling Company and Noah’s Mill Distilling Company. The company works in mysterious ways, but that’s only added to its allure.

There are some secrets that only employees know the answers to, but to shed some light where we can, here are eight facts to help you get better acquainted with the Willett family and its championed distillery.

Get the latest in beer, wine, and cocktail culture sent straight to your inbox.
  1. The Willett family has been in Kentucky since it acquired statehood.

    The Willett distillery’s story begins with Edward Willett, who moved from England to Maryland at a young age with his uncle Charles. He moved back to London in 1674 to learn to be a pewter, returning to Maryland roughly 10 years later. About 100 years went by before Edward’s grandson, William Willett Jr., picked up and moved down to Nelson County, Ky., in 1792 — the same year that Kentucky became a state. It would be another 60 or so years, however, before the family would get into the whiskey business.

  2. The distillery has always been a family affair.

    Even before the distillery was founded, John David Willett became the first in the family to work in whiskey. He rose to the role of master distiller at five local distilleries in the late 1800s, developing mash bills along the way that would eventually shape some of the family distillery’s first recipes, particularly those of Willett’s Old Bardstown brand. John’s son Lambert was born in 1883 and started working in the whiskey industry at just 15 years old. He continued in his father’s footsteps and eventually became a partial owner of the Max Selliger & Co. Distillery. Lambert’s son, Thompson Willett, later joined in as the distillery’s assistant superintendent, until Lambert bought a farm and built the Willett Distilling Company in 1936 with the help of Thompson and his other son Johnny. They produced their first batch of Willett whiskey on March 17, 1937.

    Thirty-five years later, Thompson’s daughter Martha married a Norwegian man named Evan Kulsveen, and the couple would go on to purchase the distillery in 1984. As of 2012, Evan is still in charge. He and Martha’s son Drew, along with Drew’s wife Janelle, their daughter Britt, and Britt’s husband Hunter all hold high positions at the distillery to this day.

  3. For nearly 30 years, the Willett Distillery changed its name and stopped distilling, but continued to build its reputation.

    During the midst of a nationwide energy crisis in the ‘70s, the Willett Distillery switched from whiskey production to ethanol for use in gasohol fuel. But fuel prices eventually stabilized, causing the Willett distilling facilities to shut down by the early ‘80s.

    By 1984, company president Thompson had retired, and Martha and Evan purchased the distillery the same year, renaming it Kentucky Bourbon Distillers Ltd (KBD). For a while, they were able to continue releasing bourbon from their stocks produced prior to the production halt. But when the barrels ran dry, the company began buying bourbon from other Kentucky producers and continued on as an independent bottling company.

    The late ‘80s and early ‘90s brought a glut to the bourbon industry; producers were making far more whiskey than they were selling. Luckily for KBD, they had the pick of the litter when it came to sourcing barrels, which they would purchase and store in their rickhouses for further aging. The distillery’s fame continued to rise, and it developed a strong reputation for its keen selection.

    The company continued to build a few other brands, both for itself and other producers that don’t distill their own spirits. Some of those brands bottled by Willett include Rowan’s Creek, Noah’s Mill, and Johnny Drum. The bottles would often have “Bottled by KBD for …” printed on their backs, and sometimes KBD would even slap fake distillery names on its labels.

  4. 2008 saw the launch of three Willett-brand whiskeys, though none were produced in-house.

    Willett Family Estate Bottled Bourbon, Rye, and Pot Still Reserve (famous for its iconic pot still-shaped bottle) all launched in 2008, but since the distillery wasn’t distilling at the time, the liquid in these bottles was initially produced elsewhere. These bourbons each have a purple foil casing around the top, which is now the hallmark signature of the Willett Distillery.

    These ”purple tops,” particularly the expressions from the distillery’s sourcing days, have developed a major following in the bourbon community. And since the distillery would pull from many different barrels for a single year’s worth of releases, unless you nabbed two bottles from the same barrel, you’re likely holding two highly different bourbons.

    It’s widely believed (but not confirmed) that Willett has sourced most of its distillate from Heaven Hill, located about a half a mile down the road. Heaven Hill experienced a devastating fire in 1996 that destroyed a lot of its bourbon stock, making its pre-fire product all the more coveted. Due to the superstitions around Willett’s sourcing, many bourbon fanatics believe that Willett once possessed a substantial stock of pre-fire Heaven Hill distillate and has continued to bottle and release it over the years. Willett has never confirmed or denied the rumor, so we may never know for sure.

  5. The distillery recently started releasing its own distillate again.

    In 2012, KBD took back the Willett Distillery title, and began on-premise distillation once again. Under the leadership of master distiller Drew, the company operates three stills: a column still, a doubler, and a pot still. However, since multi-year aging is required, the first Willet-distilled whiskeys didn’t hit the market until 2015.

    The first whiskey released that came off the Willett copper pot still was the two-year-old Willett Family Estate Bottled Rye Whiskey. In 2016, the first bourbon from the pot still was released in the form of the four-year-old Willett Family Estate Bottled Bourbon Whiskey.

    At the moment, all the Family Estate Rye bottlings are released at 4 years old and bottled at 110 proof. The current Willett house mash bill is 72 percent corn, 13 percent rye, and 15 percent barley.

  6. In 2015, the Kentucky Distillers Association awarded Willett Distillery a Proof-level membership.

    The Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA) is a non-profit organization that promotes and protects the state’s spirits industry. The Willett Distillery and KBD dropped out of the association for several decades, but rejoined in late 2012 shortly after it resumed on-premise whiskey production. That same year, the KDA added a Craft Tour to its Kentucky Bourbon Trail program featuring seven distilleries, including Willett. Three years later, Willett Distillery was promoted from Craft to Proof level under KDA guidelines, indicating that the distillery’s inventory surpassed 10,000 barrels. This is the second-highest ranking of membership in the KDA behind the Heritage level.

  7. Willett recently teamed up with Kings of Leon to launch a line of whiskeys.

    Years ago, Drew and members of Tennessee-based rock band Kings of Leon met while frequenting whiskey bars in Nashville. After a few drinks and conversations, they all became friends and decided to collaborate on a whiskey collection. Like the Willett Distillery, Kings of Leon is a family affair: The band is made up of three brothers and a cousin, all with the last name Followill. To honor their relatives, the band named the collection Kiamichi after the Kiamichi River where the Followills would often gather for family reunions. Released in 2021, the collection consisted of a 19-year-old bourbon and two blended ryes — one aged for five years, and the other for eight. That same year, Willett also teamed up with Blackened (Metallica’s whiskey brand) to release a rye finished in Madeira casks.

  8. The Willett Distillery has an experimental side, too.

    On top of rockstar collabs, the Willett distillery also has an ongoing series called XFC Exploratory Cask Finish, for which its distillers age whiskeys in unconventional barrels. Its first release, launched on Halloween 2014, was a small-batch, 7-year-old rye sourced from Indiana’s MGPI and then finished in French Grand Marnier casks at Willett.

    Nine years later, the second XFC installment was released, but this time with Willett’s own whiskey: the 9-year-old rye was aged in Lagunitas “Willettized” Stout Barrels, and only 796 bottles were produced.