Kentucky Bourbon Trail Part 15: Willett

I had heard good things about Willett Distillery and how good the tour was, so I tried to plan it on Saturday, but Google Maps lied to me again, indicating that they were closed on Sunday. Learning from my Heaven Hill experience, I went to their website and found that there are actually tours available on Sunday. I booked the earliest available at 1:30 and entered my military status.

I attended Mass in Bardstown (again I opted to drive to the destination and choose a church service nearby), ate lunch, and arrived around 11:30.

Willett Distillery

I drove up the long gravel hill and found myself in a working distillery. I kind of felt like I had taken a peek behind the curtain. It is nothing like the polished corporateness of Maker’s Mark or Jim Beam. There isn’t any pavement anywhere, there are abandoned farm implements, piles of cement blocks, ponds, and many, many rick houses, all with the signature black mold. This looks like what a distillery should look like in my mind’s eye. I felt a strange sense of pride driving up in an F-150, like I belong somehow.


The visitor’s center opened at noon, and I wasn’t the only one making an early pilgrimage that Sunday. Willett Distillery is still kind of early in it’s resurgence but the success is palpable. The visitor’s center is in the process of expansion which will include restaurant and possibly banquet facilities.


The tall tan structure houses the column still that everything starts in. The two rust colored structures hold the grain that will go into the mash build.

Rick houses
Visitor’s center to the left
Across Rowan’s Creek are Heaven Hill’s rick houses
Heaven Hill in the distance, grain auger in the foreground

I checked in, paid $5 for the glass that would eventually be used for tasting (military discount!) and the guide moved me up to the 12:30 tour. That was very kind of her.

I bet I’ll find barrels with KY on them
Go inside and wait…
I love this building
The unique still is the logo

The door is quite heavy and difficult to open, especially in the breeze that blows across the hill top. That very breeze is what is said to provide ideal conditions for aging bourbon in the rick houses. It’s always blowing and cooler than down the hill.

Entryway with reading material on the walls
Belt driven fans
Fermenting tanks

The view from the second floor, at the top of the fermenting tanks, is really beautiful. A lot of trees, valleys, and standing water.

Empty tank

One of the fermenting tanks was empty, affording a chance to see the cooling line ringing the inside. The mash generates heat, and too much of it kills off the yeast, so it has to be controlled.

Some of the tanks were quite liquid
And some rather dry
The famous still

The custom made still used for the second distillation is so much the signature of Willett that the bottles of Willett Small Batch are actually patterned off the still. Our guide offered us a small sample from the signature bottle and took photos of the various groups posing in front of the still.


The size of the fermenting tanks can be seen in the background. I wish I had brought my wide angle lens to take it all in.

Head, Tail, and Heart

The distillation process is interesting. The first alcohol to be extracted is the head, and it’s not worth drinking and goes into the tank to the left. At some point it changes to the good stuff, the heart, and it goes to the tank on the right. Eventually it turns to the tail and that joins the head in the left tank. The heart gets sent to the barrel station and the other tank is recycled into the next batch. Nothing is ever thrown away.

Barreling station
Marking the barrel head
Labeling is so important in every industry
Tools of the trade
Scale for weighing barrels
Noah the cat

I mentioned the cat startling me during my visit to Maker’s Mark and my son gave me a hard time for not taking a photo. This guy is posed on top of the barrel as if he’s a prop. Like everything in the Willett Distillery, he’s got a job to do. He is tasked with keeping mice out of the grain. And he’s named after Noah’s Mill, one of the bourbon brands bottled here.

Proof he is real, just for you, buddy.
See the K and Y? And an M…

The heavy barrels are rolled by hand out of the building and towards the rick house. They are heavy enough that the state letters on the barrel bands is pressed into the wood of the floor. Very cool.

KY barrel
Rails for the barrels
Beautiful barrel head
What the heck?

One of the common terms from all of the distilleries I’ve visited is the “Angel’s Share”. That’s the name for the volume lost during the aging process. It accounts for the wonderful smell in the rick houses, probably that black mold growing outside, and is said it’s payment for the angels watching over the magic that is happening in the barrels. Willet’s master distiller is trying to capture some of that Angel’s Share by aging hams, hanging them in the middle of the rick house. The jury is out on it’s effectiveness. Maybe it will catch on.

The Willett brands

Have a taste. We had a taste of two more, one was Old Bardstown and the other was of our choosing.

Inspired by the photos in the entryway
Government inspector’s office

One of the interesting parts of this wonderful old distillery is the pre-prohibition bonded laws. The government used to have an inspector who held the keys to all the rick houses and oversaw all the production and movement of liquor. He had an office and watched all the comings and goings through the entrance. The building still stands.

I was really sad to go. I wish these good folks well.

Willett Distillery
1869 Loretto Rd
Bardstown, KY 40004

Part 14 is here.

Part 16 is here.

~ Freddy


I'm an engineer, a veteran, and an avid traveler. I agree with Robert Louis Stevenson - "I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move."

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