...where distraction is the main attraction.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Whisky #400: R.I.P. Willett 4 year old Family Estate Single Barrel MGP Rye

The bottle! It's disappearing!
If I had to pick my favorite American whiskey right off the top of my head it would be Willett's Single Barrel MGP-distilled rye.  It was the first rye I drank neatly, and it was luff at first sight.  It's also the only whisk(e)y that my wife requests by name; it's the only one that we drink together; it's the only one that we speak of when it's not around.

The last four year old Willett MGP rye I bought was found at a good source in Los Angeles.  One bottle remained (thank you to whomever bought the previous bottle and left one behind), I bought it not realizing it would be my last.  But before I delve into my thoughts on this brand, let me deliver the review for those who clicked over here for it.


BottlerKentucky Bourbon Distillers (also known as Willett Distilling Company)
Brand: Willett Family Estate Single Barrel
Type: Straight Rye Whiskey
Age4 years
MaturationNew American Oak
RegionBardstown, Kentucky (Distilled in Lawrenceburg, Indiana)
Barrel: 98
Bottle: 159/204
Alcohol by Volume55%

For today's review, I have special guest.  Kristen!  As mentioned above she is also a Willett fan, so please see her notes in italics.

The color is grade A maple syrup.  The nose leads with both cassia and ceylon cinnamon sticks.  Caramel sauce on vanilla ice cream.  Cumin, black pepper.  Cloves, vanilla, holiday baking.  It's as if someone went overboard with the spices in a carrot cake.  Maybe a hint of wood smoke.  Orange peel.  Ah she beat me to it, orange peel.  The palate, mmmmm.  Atomic fireball candy.  A balance of sweets and spices.  Lots of brown sugar.  Chili powder in limoncello.  Sticky cinnamon syrup, cloves.  Grilled pear.  Pumpkin pie.  The finish is all of the warming baking spices.  Okay, I'll try to list 'em...clove, pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg.  Cinnamon, oranges.  Something reminiscent of mulled wine, perhaps its the spices.  Rich toffee.

I wouldn't say it's the most complex of the Willetts we've had, but it's really really tasty.  We didn't find any of the dill (or pickle juice) notes here; it's just all sweets and spice.  It's a whiskey winter hug.  There are other very good MGP ryes out there, but something about the Kulsveen/Willett warehouses really pulls these Family Estaters up above the rest.

Availability - Here and there, but not really here anymore
Pricing - See the shpiel below
Rating - 89


For a number of years, the Willett Distilling Company was an NDP (non-distilling producer), thus bottling and releasing bourbons and ryes that had been distilled at other distilleries.  One of their highly esteemed brands was the "Family Estate" single barrels.  Some of these Family Estate whiskies were grand oldies from Stitzel-Weller or Old Bernheim, but many were younger whiskies from the Midwest Grain Products (formerly Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana) facility.  All the while, the Willett folks were building up revenue and investment capital in order to refurbish and reopen their own distillery which had closed in the '80s.  And, as of 2012, they were again distilling their own spirit.

While the Family Estate bourbons are very good, it's the Family Estate MGP rye that I adore.  There were some 3 year old bottlings floating around several years ago, and the occasional 5 and 6 year old.  But most of the Family Estate ryes were labelled as 4 years of age.  Though they were all from different individual barrels, the ryes were always of substantial quality.  By late 2013, these ryes were becoming more difficult to find and in 2014 they were almost gone.  The same year (2014), Willett began releasing the rye they had distilled themselves, a 2 year old, under the Family Estate label.  There were secondhand and thirdhand reports that their MGP rye's popularity had put a serious drain on that particular stock in the Willett warehouses, but at the same time the company had its own product (with a different mashbill and source), didn't want to create brand confusion, and likely wanted to avoid competing with itself.

While Willett's MGP rye holds a lot of sentimental value for me, I'm not going to pretend that I've been drinking it for my whole life.  It's really only been 3+ years.  But over those 3+ years I watched the price of the 4yo go from $35 to $40 to $45 to $50.  The few remaining bottles I've spied recently were $55.  And that was at the same retailer that had it at $35 three years ago (a 57% price jump).  Because the whiskey's quality is reliably high, I had no problem paying $40-$45 for 4 year old.  Then, I paused for a moment before paying $50.  When I saw a bunch for $55, I walked away with my wallet in my pocket.  Of course all of those ryes were gone a month later when I had reconsidered.  Now the Willett-distilled 2 year old can be found everywhere at the 4yo's $50ish pricetag.  Meanwhile, now there are 6, 7, and 8 year old Willett MGP ryes hitting the shelves at $80-$140.  Clearly these are earmarked as the higher end of the brand and at the lower segment of that price range, they are flying off the shelves.

So we, the consumers, have been paying the price the market has set.  We'll scramble after the $55 4yo until it's gone, and we'll pay twice that amount for a similar rye just a little older.  I bought one 6yo and two 7s when I found them at their lowest local prices.  The price I paid for the second 7yo was the most I've ever paid for an American whiskey.  While I love the product and am sure these will be lovely bottles, that's the last time I'm blindly dishing out that sort of money for an American whiskey.  Even a Willett.  The market says that's the price, thus once again I'm priced out of the market.

I might be convinced to buy one more 4yo at the current rate, if I find a bottle after my Whisky Freeze has ended.  But that'll be it for me.  The product I sought, the 4 year old, is scarce and now replaced.  It makes sense that Willett wants to sell Willett rye; hundreds of other NDPs would kill to be in their position.  For my own needs, I'll have to go elsewhere.