American Whiskey
February 22,
We Visit Bardstown's Secret Master Whiskeyman... sort of 

In April 2006 we returned and got a preview of EXCITING NEW THINGS we'll soon be seeing from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers.  See more at the end of this page!

Kentucky Bourbon Distillers
The Willett Distillery
Bardstown, Kentucky

Noahs' Mill, Rowan's Creek, Vintage, Pure Kentucky

PERCHED ON A HILLTOP just outside of Bardstown, Kentucky, sit the cold remains of what was once the Willett Distillery, Willett Distilleryproud makers of Johnny Drum and Old Bardstown bourbons. Cold, but not abandoned, however. For this is the home of some of the world's finest bourbon whiskey -- and most of it is totally unknown in the United States. It's also the domain of one of bourbon's most hidden and reclusive masters, Even Kulsveen.

The Willett distillery was built shortly after the repeal of Prohibition by brothers Thompson and Johnny Willett, and it became the family distillery, with several Willetts involved off and on, for over thirty years. Their signature brands were Old Bardstown, which is now produced by Heaven Hill, and Johnny Drum, which they now bottle for overseas sales only. They were pretty much a local distillery, selling mostly in Kentucky, and  during the gasoline crisis in the 1970's they converted the distillery to produce alcohol for gasohol fuel and stopped making bourbon entirely. America's success at overcoming that situation was unfortunate for the Willetts, however, and the distillery closed down, never to produce beverage alcohol again. The bourbon-distilling equipment and machinery haveJohnny Drum been torn out and salvaged, and most of the buildings have been razed. All that remains is what was used for the fuel alcohol distillery. And the bottling line from which some really fine bottles of whiskey originate.

Even Kulsveen (originally from Norway, I believe) entered the story as a result of marrying Thompson Willett's daughter, Martha. In the mid-to-late eighties he appears to have tried bringing the family distillery back to life. This was a time when the foreign market for American bourbon was beginning to boom, especially the Japanese market due to their sudden rush of financial fortune. Even began bottling the old remaining Willett stock in classic and prestigious-looking packages, with labels reminiscent of hand-written wine labels, and selling the products in Japan and Europe. This was not the best time for establishing new brands in the American market, and he didn't attempt to do so. Corner CreekOnly a few years later, single-barrel and small batch bourbons would become the rage here as well, but Even has never had much of an interest in developing an American market. It may be worth noting that both Even's Kentucky Bourbon Distillers and Jim Beam Brands use the exact same proprietary phrase, "Small Batch Bourbon" to describe their respective collections of four brands. Whether such competitive maneuvers have contributed to Even's taciturn profile is speculative, or course, but interesting.

Establishing a market for new brands of bourbon is a difficult and expensive task, and although Even has wanted, from the very beginning, to rebuild the Willett distillery and start making bourbon again, that hasn't happened yet. The original old Willett stock eventually ran out, and he has been buying bourbon from other distilleries to bottle under his brand names. That's not such an unusual situation; there are only eight bourbon distillers (seven after Seagram's closes), and many different brands. Some of the most respected bourbons in the world are bottled by bourbon men whose mastery is in their ability to select and mix to reach the flavor profiles they seek. Peter Jake'sThe very best of these can produce a variety of distinctive bourbons, each unique, but with a signature flavor common to all of them. Kentucky PrideEven Kulsveen is among those masters.

We've enjoyed Even's bourbon almost as long as we've been drinking bourbon, and his products have always sat in the top row of our favorites list. But nowhere can any information be found about him, save for a snippet here, a rumor there, a trademark license application, a chance meeting. Even doesn't participate in the Kentucky Bourbon Festival events, doesn't do tastings, doesn't answer mail. A few weeks ago, John managed to catch him by finding the telephone number of the Kentucky Bourbon Distillers office and phoning him directly. John explained that we're bourbon enthusiasts, that we love his products and want to learn more about the man behind the label. Even said that's nice. John asked if there were a time we could visit with him for awhile and talk. Even asked when we were coming. He seemed to be relieved that John was talking of a future date, and suggested we call next time we're in town and maybe he'll be available. In all fairness to Even, this unsolicited phone call from a total stranger was all he knew about us. Unfortunately, it still is.

On the internet forum where we often participate, there has been much discussion about Even and his bourbons. One of the forum members, Brenda PiercBrenda Piercefieldefield, is a local resident of Bardstown, and she volunteered to find out more about the Willett operation. Visiting the site in person, she also came away with very little new knowledge. She didn't see anyone, and no one answered when she walked in the main door and yelled. But she did get some photos of the buildings. When she reported that to the forum members, we knew we could never think of exploring there without inviting her along with us.

This afternoon, as we wait for Brenda to meet us at the Getz Museum, John calls the office three times, and speaks to a pleasant young lady who tells him, the first time, that Even is in, but unavailable at the moment. The second time he calls, she puts him through to Even's line. John waits for several minutes and then the line goes dead. Of course, it could have been the cell phone batteries -- they are low. He hooks up the adapter and tries again. This time, however, he just lets her know that we'll be dropping by and that we'd like to see Even. Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (Premum Brands)

Brenda, who has been to the distillery before, leads us out Loretto Road past the Heaven Hill site. We turn left into the driveway and as we begin up the gravel road that leads up the hill, Even comes barreling down in his car. We have to swerve to avoid being run over. He doesn’t even stop to ask what we are doing in his driveway – he just continues out and up the road. Brenda shouts to us, "that’s him!", but we don’t  bother to chase him. We just continue on up the hill to the distillery. Brenda shows us the unmarked door into the packing house where the main offices are located. Like she did before, we call up the stairs, and this time a man appears at the top and tells us the office is there.

The office of Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, like that of Charles Medley’s distillery in Owensboro, is decorated in a style we refer to as "early explosion". Paperwork ranging from printed flyers to invoices to scribbled sheets are piled in large stacks which are, themselves, made up of smaller stacks, Office Bldgall over. There are desks under some of the stacks, but they are barely visible. Here and there, partially-filled sample bottles can be found. On the walls are advertisements, made only for Japan and Europe. Two very large (almost billboard-sized) museum-quality haute art photography posters advertising Johnny Drum dominate the inner office walls. They don't look like whiskey ads you'd expect to see in America; they look more like Calvin Klein ads or art gallery fare. Main Distillery bldg.The elegantly printed text is in Japanese.

Within this den of clutter we meet Lillian Metcalf, who turns out to be a very gracious hostess to three odd strangers who’ve burst nearly unannounced into to her busy workday. Kentucky Bourbon Distillers does market four products in the United States, but only on a very limited basis. They are Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek, Pure Kentucky, and Kentucky Vintage. They also bottle some products for other marketers, such as Jefferson Reserve, Sam Houston, and Peter Jake’s.The only things aging here are warehouses - B.Piercefield Other brands which we know to be theirs include Corner Creek and Kentucky Pride (both of which we know to be available in the U.S. and to be brands owned by Even Kulsveen, despite Lillian's denials). It's not easy listing their brands, because due to contractual agreements with the people for whom they bottle, and the general reluctance of this organization to share any information, they won’t discuss them or even acknowledge them. Most of their products are sold only overseas, and Lillian is quite surprised  (and a little alarmed) to learn that we were familiar with brands such as Johnny Drum, or packaging such as the bottle of Kentucky Vintage in our collection that came in a blue satin bag (Pure Kentucky normally comes in the blue satin bag, but Vintage is sold only in a white burlap bag… in the U.S.  that is; only the product that is shipped to France is supposed to have a blue satin bag). We spend quite awhile talking with Lillian, and undoubtedly learn a lot more than we ever would have had we spoken to Even instead. Still, we certainly would have consideredTanks it an honor to have been able to chat with the man responsible for such fine bourbons.

Well, maybe next time...


April 27-29, 2006
... saw you just the other day; my, how you have grown

IT ISthe spring of 2006, and we have another opportunity to visit the Willett distillery site, this time under quite different circumstances. The next generation of the Kulsveen/Willett family has joined their father and the impression we get is that of watching (and feeling) the second stage of a lunar rocket light off. Drew Kulsveen, his sister Brit, and her husband Hunter Chavanne have invited us to visit the distillery and see what is being done there today.

We meet them at the Bourbons Bistro restaurant in Louisville on Wednesday night, where several of us who communicate through the discussion forum joined up on their al fresco patio. Among the group are Ben and LeNell Smothers, owners of LeNell's, Ltd. wine & spirits in Brooklyn, NY. LeNell, who brings her sweet southern drawl and cowgirl boots all the way from Alabama, campaigns endlessly (and pretty successfully -- or is that successfully pretty?) to educate N'Yawkers in the finer points of bourbon and rye appreciation. Among other things, the Smothers' are here to select a single barrel of 23-year-old rye whiskey to be bottled under their own label. They have selected Kentucky Bourbon Distillers to be their vendor. They have also invited us to help them select the barrel from among dozens available to them. We are totally thrilled at the prospect. That will be on Saturday.

For tonight, we have brought with us, as we always do when there is a chance we'll run into a Kulsveen, a fiddle-shaped pint bottle of Old Bardstown bourbon. The bottle is full and sealed, and dates from around 1953, when the Willett family made that whiskey. It's the only bottle of original Willett bourbon we've ever seen, and the only example any of us ever had, including Drew, Brit, and Hunter. We were so thrilled to be able to offer it to them to open and share (remember, we don't collect whiskey -- that's what museums are for -- we collect tastes of whiskey). And it's pretty obvious that the Kulsveens are equally thrilled. And for those not fortunate enough to be here, yes, the whiskey is excellent. A five-year-old, Old Bardstown wasn't a "premium" bourbon in its day, but it was more flavorful than many of today's super-premiums. They simply don't make bourbon like that anymore, because it costs too much. But Drew says they still have the original recipes and could reproduce that whiskey, perhaps as a higher priced specialty that would be appreciated more by enthusiasts than by the mainstream bourbon drinker that was its original target group.

In addition to maintaining the company's current position as a premier vendor and bottler for prestige private brands, Drew and Brit are actively bringing their family's dream of restarting the Willett distillery to reality.

Of course, we've heard such dreams before. Charles and Sam Medley.
Cecil Withrow.
Various owners and owner-wannabbees of Stitzel-Weller and Michter's.
It's easy to dream, but nearly impossible to accomplish.

We have seen the future of the Willett distillery, and it gleams like a copper kettle. Like more than one copper kettle, in fact, along with a few stainless steel fermenting tanks, grain mills, a steam boiler, and other equipment. Oh, and did we mention the new buildings, built on the original foundations?

We are here with a group of friends who are all American whiskey hobbyists. In addition to Linda and John are Mike Veach, our historian friend, JD and Kirsten Knaebel from Indiana and another whiskeylover we've met via the whiskey discussion forum at, who we know as ChuckMick.

Oh, and of course we could NEVER think of returning to the Willett distillery without Brenda (agent Scully), so you know she's here!  By the way, Brenda has an excellent webpage oriented toward bourbon, and Bardstown... and COOKING! These are all things that Johns and Lindas like, and you can find more about them here:

Bourbon Recipes: Cooking with Kentucky Bourbon

Unfortunately, we are asked please not to bring our cameras... yet. When we get there it immediately becomes obvious why -- there is a great deal of construction going on, and things are very messy; plus, there are some real surprises in store, and it's important that they be presented when the project is closer to completion.

And what a project! The first thing we notice, from a couple of football fields away, is the massive horizontal cedar plank siding on the new distillery building. The siding is impressive even at that distance, and is made more so as we approach the building and set that it is set off against absolutely gorgeous stonework facing the rest of the building. The stone facing project is the work of a single master stonemason, who has been working on it for about two years. The look is different from that of the Woodford Reserve distillery in Versailles, which has more of a stone block appearance. The Willett distillery's stone is darker, and more roughly textured, giving the look of field stones. But very clean field stones. There is no doubt that this facility will rival the Woodford Reserve site for the beauty of its restoration.

Inside, the distillery will be even more impressive. Originally built right after the repeal of national prohibition, it was never intended to be a showplace. But in its new incarnation that's exactly what it will be. The distillery building, like all the buildings, is being rebuilt from the original foundations up, and that means even the concrete floors have been ripped out and replaced with brick. The entrance consists of two immense doors, or at least it will when they're finished being constructed. Right now there are only plywood placeholders. When completed, the entranceway will be finished in hand-carved French oak, a tribute to the Willett family's French roots, with the threshold cut from blue granite, native to the Kulsveen family's Norway.

There is a stairway leading to the second level walkways, and it ends in a platform that will be a viewing area where a visitor could sit and overlook the processing going on. Such a visitor would be able to see the mills and storage bins, capable of handling not just the normal corn, rye, and malt, but also a fourth grain, giving the distillery the capability of producing every known variety of American whiskey, as well as recipes that have yet to be developed. Remember, this distillery's customers are primarily brand owners who need to have whiskey made to their specifications. The best distillery for that purpose is the one that has the ability to produce whiskeys that have never existed before.

And to that end, we have the stills. The original Willett column still, although not suitable for ethanol distilling, was never actually removed. It has been now, but only to allow for testing and whatever repairs may be needed. It is expected to be returned to service, good as new, within a week or two (meaning before you read this). The testing is being done at Vendome in Louisville, the premier maker of whiskey (and other) stills, who were the original manufacturers. When it is reinstalled it will join the other still, which is already on site. Also crafted by Vendome, this is a true pot still, of the type that hasn't been seen in bourbon production for many decades. In 1996, the Brown-Forman company installed a set of three genuine copper pot stills in their Woodford Reserve (then Labrot and Graham) distillery. They were custom-made by Forbes in Scotland, and adapted to the making of bourbon whiskey. The Willett pot still, also genuine copper, is a single still, made by Vendome in Louisville, and was constructed specifically for making bourbon and rye whiskey. It is a beautiful piece of equipment and a joy to behold. It is not a "one-barrel-a-day" tourist attraction. This still means business, and its existence makes it clear that the Willett distillery is serious about its role as provider of whatever type of distillation a prospective client needs.

Not to mention brands that Willet will be making on their own. Drew showed us the bottle they have had designed for their own "Willett" brand. As far as we know, there never was a "Willett" brand, as such. The pride that Drew and his sister show in this endeavor is overwhelming. You can't spend more than a few minutes with either (let alone both) of them without catching some of the same excitement.

As the project gets closer to completion, we will likely be able to visit again -- with camera -- and it will be so interesting to show the new facility. We'll probably leave this page intact, though, just so we can share the fun we had, trying to sneak a peek at one of the most important makers of bourbon whiskey in the business.

There is more to this. Click here to see our visit in 2012 with the American Distilling Institute.

Looking for more about American Spirits?  Google  

          Contact us through 

Story and original photography copyright © 2000 & 2006 by John F. Lipman. All rights reserved.