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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Sipp’n Corn Bourbon Review – Willett Family Estate Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (22 yr. wheated)

The Willett Distillery has gradually become a favorite of Bourbon enthusiasts, even creating some genuine fan boys of the distillery and Drew Kulsveen.  Unfortunately, the demand from Bourbon enthusiasts played right in to the existing secondary market where flippers (i.e., people who buy purely to profit on an immediate resale) buy as much Willett Family Estate as possible and then list it online for 2 or 3 times an already high retail price.  Willett has even had to take steps to counter this practice, such as limiting the number of bottles it releases at any given time.

Luckily, my timing was perfect at the Gift Shop on several occasions, and I was able to buy multiple bottles from two different 22-year old barrels, both with wheat as the secondary grain.  I tend to think that wheated Bourbons often take extra aging better, so I was very excited for these purchases, despite the retail price.  Were they worth it?

Details

Willett Family Estate 
Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Distillery:  Undisclosed
Age:  22 years
Proof:  139.2 proof
Cost:  $315.00 (gift shop)
Barrel No.:  C14D
Total Bottles:  108

Willett Family Estate 
Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Distillery:  Undisclosed
Age:  22 years
Proof:  141.8 proof
Cost:  $315.00 (gift shop)
Barrel No.:  C17D
Total Bottles:  112
Tasting Notes

Color:
Both are age-appropriately dark, and for both that means silky brown with rich reddish hues.  C17D might be slightly darker, but they’re essentially the same color.
 
Nose:
I could sit down and smell C14D all day long; it’s fantastic.  The high ABV is not distracting in the slightest, so you can enjoy polished wood, leather, old barn, dark chocolate, and dark plums.  It’s definitely oaky, but there’s also a rich sweetness (instead of candy sweetness, think about that triple-chocolate desert that is so rich you have to share it). 

C17D has more heat evident in the nose; don’t inhale aggressively with this one.  The nose has a sharper oakiness, so instead of polished wood and old barn, it’s more of a peppery oak.  It’s also a bit sweeter, but otherwise, it’s very similar to C14D.

Taste:
In previous Bourbons, I’ve certainly tasted flavors of cocoa, dark chocolate, and milk chocolate.  But with C14D, I was in for a surprise of an unmistakable specific cocoa flavor:  tootsie rolls.  It’s really incredible.  The tootsie roll flavor, along with other rich sweetness, adds a nice balance to the otherwise dominant oaky flavors.  There’s no discernable cherry (which I get in another older wheated Bourbon that shall remain nameless).  Water opens it nicely to lush caramel, buttery toffee, and increases the creaminess, although leather and oak are still the backbone.  Even neat, C14D is warm but not hot, never revealing that it’s 139.2 proof.  Still, after trying C14D neat, you need drink it with a splash or two of water, or better yet, a single large ice cube or ball in order to experience its progression with slow melt.

C17D doesn’t have as strong of cocoa notes when drank neat, but water brings out fantastic dark chocolate and rich salted caramel.  C17D also has plenty of oak, and even less dark fruit.  The oak reminds me of leather and an old library (mahogany walls and leather-bound books on hardwood shelves).  Additionally, whereas C14D masks its high ABV, the very slightly higher ABV of C17D slaps you in the face.  Proof this high is bound to make itself known, but it’s magical when it sooths instead of hits.  Air and adding a splash of water to C17D really helps tame the beast, so like C14D, take the proof down with water or ice, and be patient after a pour.

While oak characteristics should be expected in any extra-aged Bourbon, it’s rare after all these years to not have a one-dimensional “oak bomb” that causes a major drying pucker.  Those old barrels usually need the life filtered out of them before they can be concealed in a large batch.  So it’s unique here for Willett to have several barrels offered as non-chill filtered barrel strength single barrels; there’s absolutely no hiding here.

Finish:
C14D has a fantastic, long oaky, dry finish, with some nice remnants of the tootsie rolls and dark fruit.  Surprisingly, the finish seemed to last longer with a few drops of water.  C17D was long in a slightly different way, leaving a lasting impression of heat, while still delivering robust flavor (again, especially oak, but not overbearing).  A little water cut the oakiness of the finish in both, and helped bring out black tea, cinnamon, caramel apples, and dark chocolate, so again, take the proof down.

Bottom Line

A valid question here is “why review bottles that most people are unlikely to ever be able to try?”  As opposed to many of my reviews, which in the best case scenario might actually help people decide to try a new Bourbon, or might help people choose between two similarly-priced Bourbons, I hope that my occasional reviews of hard or impossible to find Bourbons can help narrow the hunt for some people, help others decide if they’re really tempted to spend this kind of time or money, or at least give credit where credit is due.

Additionally, tasting single barrels is fascinating to me.  I’ve had private barrels that were from the same distillation run and were aged literally right next to each other for the same amount of time, that turned out pretty different.  And now with Willett, some lucky people have been able to get C14D, C16D, C17D, and C18D, which have all been 22-year wheated Single Barrel Bourbons with typical similarities and differences. 

Buying and reviewing these types of Bourbons reminded me of another lesson:  price and hype won’t always give me a Bourbon that I subjectively believe was worth the cost.  That’s C17D for me; it’s a fantastic Bourbon that I’m excited to have, and which I don’t have any regrets for purchasing, but I would not pay $315 for a second bottle, much less the $650 I’ve seen demanded on the secondary market.  At north of $300, both C14D and C17D should get dinged on any “value” analysis, but these both have so much more character and depth when compared to many of the $100+ limited releases over the past few years, so it starts getting harder to argue with Willett’s pricing.

For me and my money, I expect any Bourbon over $100 to absolutely blow my socks off, and that’s what C14D did for me.  I know that all 108 bottles are long gone and that I’ll never have the chance to stock up, but this experience will keep me looking for the next outstanding Bourbon.  Even if I’m not quite as captivated with other single barrels along the way, I know that my perfect Bourbon is out there, so I’ll keep trying.  Visit the Willett Gift Shop and who knows, maybe Drew will have just set out a few bottles of magic.

Scores on The Sipp’n Corn Scale
Willett 22-year C14D:           4.5
Willett 22-year C17D:           4.0


The Sipp’n Corn Scale:
1 – Wouldn’t even accept a free drink of it.
2 – Would gladly drink it if someone else was buying.
3 – Glad to include this in my bar.
4 – Excellent Bourbon and even worth its high price.
5 – Wow.  I’ll search high and low to get another bottle of this.

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