“What a heavy burden is a name that has become too famous.” – Voltaire
The Willett Family Estate bourbons occupy rare air in today’s whiskey world. Hard to find, high priced, and frequently cited as some of the best bourbon on the market; these expressions, varied though they may be, have achieved a cult-like status. That is largely due to their now legendary releases of well-aged, sourced distillate which has been slowly depleted by savvy barrel buyers across the country.
I’m talking here about the likes of LeNell Camacho Santa Ana whose “Red Hook Rye” single barrel selections from Willett are among the most famed contemporary ryes in existence. Or consider bottles from Jack Rose Dining Saloon’s owner Bill Thomas like “The Iron Fist” and “Velvet Glove,” twin 23 year old offerings that are also highly regarded among the Willett cognoscenti.
The list goes on to include the Rathskeller Rye and Speakeasy Select Bourbon from the Seelbach hotel along with Doug Phillips’ legendary Green Ink (believed to be the very first Willett single barrel) – these transcendent one-off expressions, released early on from Willett’s sourced barrel stock, formed the backbone of the favorable reputation they currently enjoy.
While the days of finding 20+ year old Willett single barrels at a reasonable price are long gone, the brand has been hard at work distilling their own whiskey, much of which is now nine years old. Though the quality hasn’t yet ascended to the heights of those early releases, it seems no one has told those who sell whiskey on the secondary market; like I said, Willett Family Estate single barrels remain high priced to this day.
Part of it is due to their unique flavor profile, but I would argue much of the intrigue stems from their mystique. Many bourbon enthusiasts hunt “purple tops” purely for the fact they’ve heard the legend of those early releases, or because due to their rarity and exorbitant price tag they feel safe assuming the juice is worth the squeeze. The difficulty, even for experienced bourbon enthusiasts, in deciphering the barrel numbers hand written on the front of Willett Family Estate bottles only adds to that patina of exclusivity and serves to increase its allure.
For my part, I’ve enjoyed several superlative pours of Willett Family Estate bourbons but I can also attest to their inconsistency; to be expected from single barrel releases, doubly so when you source from a variety of distilleries and couple that with your own distillate. Some of the sources said to make up Willett’s early stock of barrels include such varied distilleries as Bernheim, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, and even Stitzel-Weller. Because of this diversity there are definitely many Willett Family Estate expressions that are of exceptional quality, though there are others that are no better than Willett’s everyday offerings like Rowan’s Creek or Noah’s Mill. So where will the subject of today’s review fall on that spectrum? We will soon find out.
Today I will be reviewing the Willett Wheated 8 Year Bourbon, a brand new release from the distillery which comes complete with a brand new black obsidian bottle and, of course, a purple top. Despite the inclusion of a purple top it’s clear that Willett wanted this bottle to stand out from the rest of their lineup and they’ve certainly succeeded in that.
It should also be said that their wheated mashbill is perhaps their most sought-after and has long been one of their most limited offerings. In this helpful mash bill breakdown from Blake on Bourbonr we can see that, at least at one time, their wheated mash bill was 65% corn, 20% wheat, and 15% malted barley, with a barrel entry proof of 115. Assuming the information is accurate; we can also see they’ve only released 3 series of barrels with their wheated or experimental wheated mash bills.
Though Willett has not released the mash bill for this particular release, we do have the following from the brand’s website: “The first release of Willett Wheated Bourbon was distilled in the early Spring of 2013 and bottled in the Summer of 2022. The proprietary mashbill is barreled at 115 proof in Char #4 American Oak. We bottle without chill-filtration to preserve the most flavor possible.”
That’s not a lot of information to go on, but it does confirm the barrel entry proof (bottling proof for this expression is 108, or 54% ABV) and it’s nice to know that this product is non chill-filtered. As for additional specs: as the name indicates, this is an eight year bourbon and the suggested retail price is $250.
With regard to the cost: you might remember what I noted twice above: Willett purple tops are high priced. Part of what we’ll be parsing today is whether or not this expression warrants such an asking price, and it bears mentioning that at $250 this should be considered a super-premium offering which puts it in competition with the Pappy Van Winkle lineup of wheated bourbons more so than the Weller lineup. That is to say, the direct competition for this expression includes some of the most highly rated whiskey in America. Because the wheated bourbon category has been rapidly expanding there are a plethora of options both in that price range and in that age range which means that Willett Wheated 8 Year Bourbon is facing an uphill battle to justify its prohibitive price tag (full disclosure: this was a sample provided free of charge by a friend of mine). Onward march!
Willett 8 Year Wheated Bourbon – Review
On the nose: Citrus zest, red apple skin, and fig Newtons erupt at first before fall spices like clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon join the fray. Over time I pick up a hint of grape soda and even cherries and vanilla frosting. The nose is exceedingly pleasant and though it’s a bit light I would say it has a lot of lovely sweet layers to explore.
In the mouth: Cherry and vanilla jump out at first, and though it’s a little mute entering the mouth there is a nice sizzle and some slight effervescence at mid palate which sticks around for a medium-to-long finish with a moderate Kentucky hug. This is actually pretty enjoyable. Honey, Fig-Newton-and-cinnamon, plus grape soda come through on the palate as does the clove and nutmeg from the nose. For the finish I’m left with cherry, a bit of melted white chocolate, and some sweet oak.
Am I pleased with my experience? Yes, with a caveat. I paid $0 for this sample, I came into it with measured expectations which were met, and now I can share this information with you dear reader. This bottle is perfectly fine, quite tasty even! But perfectly fine does not measure up to a $250 asking price.
Were this bottle marked at $80 (roughly 1/3rd of the asking price) then given the packaging, allure of the Willett name, and quality of the whiskey contained within I think there would be a lot of happy consumers. Or, perhaps there would be only a few gravely disappointed consumers relegated to purchasing this at an extortionate secondary markup. As it stands, I’ve already seen this bottle priced at a 4x markup for $1,000.
I think there are two clear sides of the coin: on one we have those who would applaud Willett for pricing this expression in line with expectations for their brand. Despite the fact that it has still seen an exorbitant price hike on the secondary market there are those who would commend them for “getting their piece of the pie” and being unafraid to price this in line with other limited edition bourbons. I understand this argument.
Then we have those who will inevitably feel burned after paying a premium price for what is, frankly, a good-not-great expression. It’s that camp I empathize with the most, and it’s with them in mind that I’m pleased to have had this experience. Being able to try this expression at no cost to myself and then share my honest thoughts with you, dear reader, is an opportunity I relish.
That said, I hope you’ll steer clear of this release despite its considerable merits. I know from experience that the Willett brand can do better and at $250 there’s no question in my mind that you can do better as well. On quality alone I would score this higher, but I feel inclined to dock a full two points for the pricing. Thus is the heavy burden of a name that has become too famous.