“I don’t give a damn ’bout my reputation
Living in the past, it’s a new generation”
-Joan Jett & the Blackhearts
Bourbon opinions are – as the crass old adage goes – like anuses: everyone has one, and everyone thinks everybody else’s stinks. Don’t believe me? Hop onto your social media platform of choice (my preferred venue is the dumpster fire formerly known as Twitter), post a bottle photo, and ask people what they think.
The results will mostly resemble what Hobbes described as “bellum omnium contra omnes;” a war of all against all. It seems like every bottle is someone’s favorite and someone else’s bête noire. She loves this one; he hates it. He buys every bottle he sees; she thinks it’s badly overpriced at SRP.
Sometimes, though – against all odds – a consensus emerges. On these occasions, popular opinion is unanimous. Infrequently (but not never) the opinion is positive… though this is complicated by the fact that price is typically correlated to the regard in which a whiskey is held, opening another front for disagreement. More often, though, the accord pertains to shared disdain for a given expression.
The subject of today’s review seems, to me, like one of these universally disliked bourbons. Interestingly enough, it comes from Willett, a name (and now distillery) that inspires impassioned fandom from a segment of bourbon buffs. Whatever your feelings on their whiskeys (most of them are controversial in the ways described above), you cannot deny that Willett has its share of admirers.
That said, it feels like even people who love Willett (generally) hate Pot Still Reserve. To gauge sentiment quasi-quantitatively, I started a poll about the expression with only two options: “love it” or “hate it.” Though the results were conclusive, they weren’t quite as uniform as I would have expected. Of 164 votes cast, 72% went for “hate it,” with “love it” attracting only 28%. Some of the “love it” voters chimed in with comments to the effect of “it’s so meh, I can’t be bothered to hate it.”
Before I make my evaluation of this whiskey, a little history of the expression, for those unfamiliar: Willett Pot Still Reserve made its debut in 2008. In a prior review of Willett Rye, I pointed out, “It is notable for its decorative pot still-shaped bottle; amusingly, the bourbon won a gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, while the packaging won a double gold medal in its category.”
Indeed, the tall and stately decanter is an eye catcher, similar to the distinctively-shaped Blanton’s bottle. I’d guess that a not-insignificant number of Pot Still Reserve purchases are motivated by the packaging, which also elevates expectations about the quality of the whiskey it contains.
Though Pot Still Reserve came out in 2008, it was then based on sourced whiskey, as the Willett family did not commence distilling at their renovated distillery until 2012. Per the timeline on Willett’s own site, the first whiskey off the eponymous Willett pot still – a two year old rye – was released in 2015. This was followed by a four year bourbon – also from the Willett stills – the next year.
I’ve had better and worse bottles of Willett bourbon and rye. The high-teens age statement “purple top” (the cognomen for the expression formally known as “Willett Family Estate Bottled Bourbon”) bottles from years gone by were usually excellent; Frank previously took us on a tour of some of those barrels.
The company has been increasingly aggressive on pricing for its highest-end expressions, seemingly aware of the multiples of SRP for which bottles change hands in the grey market. Even Willett’s more readily available expressions like Rowan’s Creek ($50) or Noah’s Mill ($65) feel, in my estimation, to be overpriced relative to their specifications, and particularly in consideration of the competition on the store shelf.
Based on all this, I have tended to pass on buying bottles from Willett for my personal enjoyment. That’s not to say that I’m not curious about some of them, even if that curiosity is of the morbid variety. Each time I spy a bottle of Pot Still Reserve (and they’re hard to miss), I think about all the scorn I have seen heaped on it. “How bad is it, really?” wondered a little voice inside my head.
I’m going to find out today, based on a bottle gifted to me by a friend (thanks, John). Though everything I have written heretofore might lead you to believe that an excoriating review is a foregone conclusion, I’m going to do my best to go into this with an open mind. Honestly, I have a difficult time believing this will be as awful as its reputation suggests, or as some folks claim. It may end up being bland, immature, and overpriced, but I strongly doubt I will be so turned off as to pour the rest of the bottle down the drain.
Final specifics: this is “Small Batch Bourbon.” Unfortunately, the batch information on the top label was destroyed in the process of opening this, leaving only “Batch number 23,” which I presume is indicative that it was bottled this year. We are reassured that this is whiskey from Willett’s own stills by gold font on the back of the bottle proclaiming it “Distilled, Aged, and Bottled by Willett Distillery Bardstown.”
This is from Willett’s wheated mash bill of 65% corn, 20% wheat, and 15% malted barley. The whiskey is bottled at 94 proof (47% ABV). Retail price in my neck of the woods is $55.
Willett Pot Still Reserve – Review
Color: Golden orange, with a subtle salmon hue.
On the nose: Noticeably youthful and grainy at first, this note is soon augmented by some sweet and rich aromas of honey. There’s an accent of Meyer lemon peel and wisps of mint leaf and limestone as well. As I sniff at this longer, an exotic, spicy woodiness almost reminiscent of Mizunara emerges, with a subtle note of jasmine incense. There are also herbaceous, medicinal scents of eucalyptus and camphor swirling around.
In the mouth: That same youthfulness is evident upfront, as this starts with a blast of grain and wood, awkwardly intertwined. This thins out as it moves toward the middle of the palate, where it tingles the roof of the mouth with a heat that feels much stronger than the ABV would suggest. Moving toward the finish, this has the weakest, most watery suggestion of a glass of iced tea left out in the sun until it has become diluted by the melting ice cubes. A reprise of the subtle mint and stone notes are all this leaves by way of a final impression, as it fades fast and falls mute.
This tastes like one of the weaker examples of the Bottled-in-Bond style, with an age closer to the minimum permissible four years. However, we’re able to acquire that type of whiskey from the likes of Jim Beam and Heaven Hill and Old Forester and other big Kentucky distilleries, typically at a price half (or less) of what you’d pay for this bottle. To paraphrase one of the commenters on my aforementioned poll: it’s $20 worth of bourbon in a $35 bottle. I’m waffling between a 3 and a 4, here. Not wanting to add more fuel to the fire of ignominy, I’m going with…
Is this good bourbon? Certainly not, in the sense that I would never recommend it to anyone or go out and purchase a bottle for myself. It’s fairly pedestrian whiskey dressed up to attract buyers looking for a novelty bottle.
Is this bad bourbon, though? Not really, judged on its own merits. So, what is it about Pot Still Reserve that inspires such low estimation from the type of people who share their whiskey opinions online? As I said, I think the bottle creates an expectation of quality that the bourbon fails to match. I think there’s also some general distaste for the aggressive pricing across the entirety of the Willett range, and punching down on this expression feels like an easy way to vent that frustration.
Perhaps the moral of the story, then, is that few whiskies are ever as good (or as bad) as the loudest voices on the internet would lead you to believe. The segment of our readership which (like myself; no judgments) remains chronically online would do well to remember this, and to calibrate their own expectations accordingly.
Photos author’s own, except the bottle photo, which is courtesy of Willett.