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Tasting Willett at Jack Rose

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” – Jorge Luis Borges

Bill Thomas, the owner of Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington D.C., is fond of calling his establishment’s monumental collection of whiskey “a library.” For those that don’t know, Jack Rose is famed for being among the largest collections of publicly available whiskey in the Western Hemisphere, and they don’t just make their bones on owning a voluminous stock. They’ve achieved renown among the greatest whiskey bars in the world due to a curated assortment of limited and vintage expressions, a penchant for securing even the hardest-to-find contemporary releases, and Bill Thomas’ two decades in the whiskey world resulting in a number of key relationships.

Among those key relationships is the one he forged with Willett’s Master Distiller, Drew Kulsveen. Drew is the Willett family scion most frequently credited with making the brand what it is today: one of the most sought after whiskeys in America. In turn, Bill Thomas is perhaps the man most responsible for turning D.C. into the epicenter of Willett’s consumer base. He achieved this by being one of the first accounts to select single barrels with the brand, generously supplying some of his neighboring bars and restaurants with plenty of those early bottlings. I’m talking here about selections that have gone on to reach a mythic status among the American whiskey cognoscenti including “The Iron Fist” and its sister barrel “The Velvet Glove,” two 23 year old ryes that currently have an average price of $28,000.

Fast forward to today and, thanks to that fortuitous relationship, Jack Rose Dining Saloon has become the premier place for whiskey enthusiasts to taste Willett whiskey outside of Kentucky. On several occasions I’ve made the trek down to D.C. for the sole purpose of experiencing these pours, as Bill semi-regularly hosts tasting events to educate patrons and share his stellar single barrel selections.

On this occasion I had the pleasure of enjoying a flight of Willett whiskeys selected by local distributor Prestige-Ledroit at the legendary dining saloon. It should be noted that these are not “Jack Rose picks,” but rather picks done in collaboration with Bill that were selected for the D.C., Delaware, and Maryland markets. Joining Bill in hosting the tasting event was John Dynan, the Spirits Specialist for Prestige-Ledroit with over 14 years of experience selecting barrels, and Chris Leung, Whisk(e)y Advisor for Jack Rose.

Upon arrival guests were greeted by Chris and given a choice of seating where our whiskeys were already waiting, having been poured about 20 minutes prior. My mother always insisted that I sit in the front row of a class, and because I fully intended to learn, I opted for a spot at the bar directly in front of our hosts ―and right next to the bottles we would be trying.

As the tasting got underway, Bill and John took turns sharing insights into their selection process, while Chris peppered us with additional facts and tactfully kept the two on track. It’s during this time we were informed that each of the day’s selections were done blind and all were distilled by Willett, whose stock of their own whiskey is now reaching 10 years of maturity.

Brand New Bag (cask 718)

Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 9 year, 102.2 proof, 72% corn, 13% rye 15% malted barley.

We began with the Maryland selection of bourbon “Brand New Bag” which was so-named because much like the song that inspired it, this one had a little bit of funk. It was an immediately impressive pour that held notes of subtle leather and date syrup in addition to toasted walnuts with a silky milk chocolate finish. It also had a slight maltiness and the aforementioned funk that felt reminiscent of a high end rum.

Because price was not a factor in this tasting, I was forced to toss out Malt’s typical grading system, and scored this an 8/10 for its sensory factors alone. I knew from this initial selection that we would all be in for a fun time. Regarding the proof point (curiously low for Willett’s 125 entry proof on their OG bourbon mash bill) I wondered whether this might instead be Willett’s high corn recipe, which has a 103 entry proof. When I reached out to John Dynan for comment he reiterated that indeed this was the “OG mash bill” but that the barrel entry proofs for three of the barrels, including this one, weren’t recorded. That leads me to believe that this barrel was likely close to a window or on a lower floor of Willett’s rickhouse.

Window Seat (cask 4238)

Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 9 year, 127.8 proof, 72% corn, 13% rye, 15% malted barley, 125 barrel entry proof.

Next in the group of bourbons we have Delaware’s selection “Window Seat” which earned its name because John told us it evoked the feeling of sitting a chair outside the window of a rickhouse. To him, that meant you picked up aromas of well aged wood and undisturbed dirt, which isn’t quite as lofty an allusion as the one I imagined from the name: admiring clouds from the inner row of a plane, but it proved to be spot-on for the aromas of this one.

That wood-and-dustiness aroma was joined by bright cherry and a cookie dough or oatmeal-like flavor on the palate that made my mouth water. Those notes were undergirded by a burnt caramel richness and carried by a noticeably prominent ethanol sizzle that made each sip effervescent though not overwhelming. For me, the muted nose contrasted with the big palate resulting in a slightly disjointed tasting experience but I enjoyed it all the same and felt moved to award it a half-score in continuing with my departure from Malt norms for a 7.5/10.

The Professor (cask 4293)

Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 9 year, 132.2 proof, 72% corn, 13% rye, 15% malted barley.
Closing out the bourbons we ended with a 132.2 proof monster which was selected for the D.C. market: “The Professor.” The aromas from this one were the most expressive of the bunch, rewarding repeat nosings with aromas of Butterscotch Krimpets, barrel char, a bit of lotion (and even celery), with hints of cacao as well. Those notes all translated on the palate as this pour was very dark and rich and took the Barbadian rum-like flavors from “Brand New Bag” to dizzying new heights.

We were told by John this was dubbed “The Professor” because “you have to think three steps ahead to get this” and I must admit I still don’t know what he meant by that. His second descriptor on the other hand ― “this is the bourbon for rum drinkers who don’t like to drink bourbon” ― was one I can totally get on board with. Simmering brown sugar and some truly tasty spice on the back end contribute to the many layers of this pour making it my favorite bourbon of the flight. I awarded this an 8.5/10.

It’s at this point that the entire room seemed to be intoxicated by the experience, if not on their way to being simply intoxicated, and so discussions abounded. John and Bill shared more stories about their time at Willett (which produced the revelation that Drew Kulsveen is experimenting with several exotic casks, including Mizunara) and I began chatting with my fellow guests about the merits of the whiskey we tried thus far. True to form, it was Chris whose decorous tact quieted the room and turned our attention to the rye flight in front of us. May we all know a friend (read: whiskey tasting host) like Chris.

Don’t Talk, Listen (cask 2093)

Kentucky Straight Rye, 7 year, 114.8 proof, 74% rye, 11% corn, 15% malted barley, 110 barrel entry proof.
For the first of our rye samples we sampled a bottle called “Don’t Talk, Listen” intended for the D.C. market. It was at this point that my notes became increasingly scattershot as my phone ―which I was recording my notes on― was nearing 1% and the effects of tasty tipples and spirited conversation took their toll. Due to this, I don’t recall the reason behind the name but John was kind enough to inform me via email “It did not need practice, it was ready to go. Don’t talk about it, just dive right in and listen to all the herbaceousness and spice.”

For my part I was immediately struck by the fact that this one had a classic rye sweet mint aroma that was dialed up to 10. It was almost as if those mint leaves were swirling in a jar of honey and then joined by a sprinkle of freshly cracked black pepper. It eschews some of the more biting notes found in many ryes and opted instead for a softer, and yet richer experience overall. With my phone near death but my joy swelling I wrote “this is a simple symphony and I will gladly listen” before scoring it an 8.5/10.

In need of a solution for modern man’s most harrowing concern, the death of an iPhone, I turned to the wisdom of whiskey writers of yore. That is to say, I asked Chris for a pen, and proceeded to record my notes on the handy placemat in front of me for the final two selections of the evening.

Macintosh (cask 2106)

Kentucky Straight Rye, 7 year, 118.6 proof, 74% rye, 11% corn, 15% malted barley, 110 barrel entry proof.

Second among the rye single barrels was the Maryland market’s “Macintosh,” which earned its nickname thanks to the evocative green apple aroma on the nose. Again, John’s moniker was spot-on as it immediately reminded me of my time spent in apple orchards as a child. Each nosing reminded me of plucking those juicy treats from the tree and hungrily biting into ones that looked particularly lip-smacking before I had even finished filling my basket.
This one also contained a fair bit of the typical Willett house profile, which for me comes across as a bit vegetal with a touch of strawberry tossed in. That said, however, this proved to be the most prototypical rye of the bunch and despite the addition of some great green apple and calvados-like notes I found it to be the least interesting. In the end I gave this a 7/10.

After five glasses, an untimely passing, and the slight disappointment of the previous pour I was a bit beleaguered heading into the final glass of the night. To be sure, I hadn’t over-imbibed and my palate still seemed to be in fine shape, but I just didn’t know what to expect. Suffice it to say that mental fatigue had begun to set in prior to the final rye sample of the event, but John and Bill still had one last surprise up their sleeves.

Cherpumple (cask 2483)

Kentucky Straight Rye, 8 year, 117.4 proof, 74% rye, 11% corn, 15% malted barley.

The final pour of the tasting belongs to the Delaware market and was the curiously named “Cherpumple” which is a holiday novelty dessert inspired by the Turducken. The word is a portmanteau of cherry, pumpkin, and apple, which are the three pies that are in turn baked into three different cakes and combined with tarts to create the dish.

According to John, the reason for this name was that “the rich notes of this rye seem to be layered very similarly” and went on to say “not being dominated by the traditional spice of rye allows this whiskey to show off all these sweeter more candied flavor notes that ryes can produce.” My notes included: figgy pudding, a silky texture, and sneaky sweet mint flavor before remarking that it was the most unique of the bunch. For myself and those around me, this was unmistakably the finest of the ryes and perhaps the finest expression of the evening. I awarded this a 9/10.

What an amazing event! With our tasting completed Bill, John, and Chris proceeded to make their way around the room, settling into one conversation after the next and generously answering questions or sharing still more stories. I want to sincerely thank the three of them for their time at the event and their generosity in supplying me with additional details for this article. I have to say, the allure of trying Prestige-Ledroit single barrel Willett offerings is what drew me to D.C. this time around but, in truth, I relish every opportunity to visit Jack Rose Dining Saloon.

I hope the above account inspires you to visit as well because Jack Rose Dining Saloon is truly one of the premier whiskey locations in the entire country. With nearly 2,700 bottles on the shelf they have some of the most coveted bottles available from practically every distillery imaginable, with the exception of “The Iron Fist” and “The Velvet Glove” because as Bill told me, “of course it’s all gone now”. Luckily there are plenty of other things to check out in the library.

CategoriesAmerican
Frank

Calling New Jersey “home” isn’t just reserved for Frank’s less handsome contemporary, Michael B. Jordan. Born and raised in the Garden State, he developed an enthusiasm for bourbon, a respect for wood, and a penchant for proclaiming things are “pretty, pretty, good.”

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