Wine Blog

Gems of the Midwest

A few weeks ago, I traveled to the southern Midwest and parts of the northern South to visit – among other locations – Kentucky Bourbon Distillers/Willett Family Distillery (KY), and Capriole Creamery (IN).


Johnny Drum, Old Bardstown, Willett Family Estate, Willett Pot Reserve, Kentucky Vintage, Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek, Kentucky Pride, Black Maple Hill… all of these diverse bourbon and rye labels are bottled by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, an independent family company whose roots in the Bardstown area reach back to the 1850’s, when John David Willett was the master distiller for Moore, Willett & Frenke.  He sold his interest in the company due to illness; the company changed names several times, with family members continuing to work for it and other distillers, until the mid-1930’s.

(Even Kulsveen in front of the new distillery at Willett.)

Prohibition was repealed in 1933; Lambert Willett and his son Thompson Willett began construction of Willett Distilling Company in 1935, and produced their first batch in 1936.

The company began to produce ethanol for fuel in the 1970’s; when gas prices returned to lower levels in the 1980’s, Willett shut down.

 Thompson Willett’s son-in-law, Even Kulsveen, purchased the company in 1984 and renamed it ‘Kentucky Bourbon Distillers’.  Today, he continues to work with his son Drew (production manager), his daughter ‘Britt’, and son-in-law Hunter Chavanne.

Hunter gave us a terrific tour of the facility.

(Hunter pointing out upcoming changes to the distillery in 2013.)

From 1984 until January of this year, as an independent bottling company, KBD did not distill their own product, but instead purchased barrels.  In the years to come, however, we’ll see a new series of distillates from them, both from column and pot stills.

(Pot still @ Willett.)

There’s a terroir to Kentucky I never understood properly until this trip, where I learned up close that: the underground spring-fed water sources determine the location of each distillery; the massive limestone boulders that underlie this swath of KY guarantee that water’s purity; and that the ageing quality of the distilled spirit, in barrel, in giant 5-story ‘rickhouses’ (pictured below) has a lot to do with the relative heat and humidity of the summer season.

(A signature rickhouse in Bardstown, Kentucky.)

Once distilled, Bourbon is barrel-aged in a rickhouse suck as this; summer temperatures range from 110 degrees F on the top, 5th floor to 90 degrees F on the bottom floor.  The higher story the bourbon is stored, the greater evaporation, higher alcohol, and deeper color the spirit will have; the lower the story, the lower evaporation & etc.  The blender’s art is knowing how to make a consistent product of this very terroir-driven, variable art.  I was brought to mind of Jerez, Spain once I stepped inside of Willett’s rickhouse.

(An OK/decent view of the inside of whiskey barrel ageing.)


It just so happens that the same limestone which underlies the topsoil in Kentucky also provides the bedrock for the southern Indiana Hills, where Judy Schad has raised goats at Capriole Farm for national award-winning cheeses for over 20 years.  (This matters, as the water quality filtered through the limestone gives a greater mineral component to the vegetation that her goats eat, and provides a greater complexity to her raw-milk cheeses.)

(Sign in Judy’s cheese tasting room.)

If you know me at all, you know I’m passionate about domestic artisan cheese – and one of the signs I’ve learned to gauge cheese quality is the happiness of the animals at the farm.  Judy’s goats are some of the happiest I’ve seen outside of Sancerre; judge for yourself!

(Happy Indiana goats @ Capriole!)

With just a few hands on deck – which have unfortunately dwindled as of late – Judy and her daughter make over nine different styles of goat milk cheese every year, raw and pasteurized, whose names include ‘Mont St. Francis’, ‘Old Kentucky Tomme’, ‘Piper’s Pyramid’, ‘O’Banon’, and more.  This fall, we’ve chosen to feature their ‘Sophia’ as a terrific pair with our fall reds and whites by the glass.  Everything at Capriole is done by hand, as I was assured by current assistant cheesemaker Chris Osborne; don’t miss a chance to try their cheeses wherever you find them, Webster’s or otherwise!

(Capriole’s tiny, ENTIRE cheesemaking facility.)

(At Webster’s, we carry Willett’s Bourbons & Ryes, and Capriole’s cheeses; please come in & enjoy them separately or together!!)

- jeremy quinn