Classification: Straight Bourbon
Company: Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd. (KBD)
Distillery: Willett Distillery
Release Date: Ongoing
Age: NAS (Aged at least 4 years per TTB regulations)
MSRP: $50 (2023)
Rowan’s Creek is a bourbon produced by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd. (KBD), a company otherwise known as Willett Distilling Company or “Willett Distillery” as it is most commonly referred to. Willett Distillery was established by the Willett Family in 1935, and then in the 1970s switched from distilling spirits to distilling ethanol for fuel, and in the 1980s, stopped distilling entirely. Willett Distillery began distilling spirits again in 2012.
Rowan’s Creek was first released in the mid-1990s with a 12 year age statement. It is the sister bottle to Noah’s Mill, a higher proof bottling from Willett with a similar look and feel. In the early 2000s the age statement was dropped from Rowan’s Creek’s label. The product was sourced until recently, and Willett Distillery does not disclose where Rowan’s Creek was distilled for much of its history, and likely included whiskey from a number of distilleries. However, as Willett’s distillate aged, the company eventually changed over to bottling Rowan’s Creek with their own distillate in recent years.
The name Rowan’s Creek is derived from the creek that runs through Willett Distillery’s grounds. The creek is named after John Rowan, who settled in the area and made a name for himself as a judge and statesman.
The nose begins by establishing a sturdy caramel base, with layers of vanilla and honey sweetness mingling in. Toasted marshmallow notes enhance this sweetness, while a light floral-grassy scent adds an unusual dimension. The sweet bouquet is complemented by a hint of spice, adding contrast to this otherwise fairly balanced aroma.
The medium-bodied palate leads with caramel as its most prominent flavor. It continues with the soft, mellow sweetness of vanilla, which is supplemented by raw sugarcane sweetness that layers in. Light oak adds a gentle touch of depth and complexity. The unusual grassy-floral note on the nose also comes into play on the palate, but moves away from the grassy side towards a more general floral undertone that’s still unusual and somewhat hard to pin down. Peppery spice emerges on the backend, contrasting what is otherwise a sweet-forward, above average sip.
The finish kicks off with a rush of spice, mingling with caramel and vanilla that carry over from the palate. The warmth of brown sugar unveils itself, again keeping the ongoing tone on the sweet side as it finishes. The floral note has dissipated entirely by this point, making for a more straightforward sweet-spice mix that concludes the sip on a modest note.
Rowan’s Creek is one of Willett’s brands that does not highlight the Willett name or showcase the family crest, which has become a trademark people look to of the brand. This includes Noah’s Mill, Johnny Drum Private Stock, Pure Kentucky, Kentucky Vintage, Old Bardstown Bottled in Bond, Old Bardstown Estate Bottled, and Old Bardstown 90 Proof.
Rowan’s Creek is essentially the lesser version of Noah’s Mill - less proof, less age (at one point when age was stated and presumably also the case today though the exact ages in both blends are unknown), and a lower price. They’re bottled in similar packaging, with Rowan’s Creek’s handwritten text appearing as if it was either penciled by a child or in the dark, and both look very dated and unassuming on the shelf. This old-timey feel will resonate differently with different people, but one thing that resonates with me is my preference for or against Rowan’s Creek and Noah’s Mill over the years.
I’ve found both bourbons to be inconsistent from batch to batch, and while I have enjoyed the various batches of Noah’s Mill I’ve had over the years, I generally have not enjoyed Rowan’s Creek. By that measure, while the two whiskeys appear to be different versions of the same whiskey on the surface, I don’t feel their flavor profiles have exemplified this even if the base ingredients have been similar (exact blends are unknown) and they only vary by age and proof.
This batch of Rowan’s Creek is the first I’ve had that is made from bourbon distilled by Willett, and I was pleasantly surprised. While I found a slightly unusual grassy aroma on the nose, the rest of the sip veers more towards caramel and sugary sweetness with complementary spice, which I enjoy. There is still a slight uniqueness to the overall flavor profile that is primarily due to the grassy-floral note and something I cannot quite pinpoint in the palate, but it’s dialed back and as a result, makes for only a slightly unique tasting bourbon. Instead, it’s a straightforward, caramel-heavy pour.
While I enjoy this batch of Rowan’s Creek, there isn’t anything about it that inspires me to seek out another bottle or replace this one once it’s gone. Similar proofed Kentucky bourbons such as Wild Turkey 101, Knob Creek Small Batch, and Four Roses Small Batch Select are all examples of better options. While I discussed the idea of Noah’s Mill being a complementary option as opposed to simply a competitor of other similarly priced and proofed Kentucky bourbons, Rowan’s Creek doesn’t offer a unique enough experience to set it apart. It’s not a bad bourbon, but I cannot think of a reason to purchase another bottle anytime soon.
One might argue that Willett bourbons that bear the family crest command a premium, and as a result now that Rowan’s Creek is made from Willett’s own distillate, it’s a lower cost of entry to get access to Willett distilled whiskey. But that premium is seen with many of Willett’s bourbons whether or not they distilled the liquid in the bottle, as we have seen both their sourced and in-house distilled family crest adorned whiskeys command a good deal of admiration, and as a result, can command a higher price. Every family crest adorned Willett bourbon I’ve had, whether distilled in-house or sourced, has been absolutely fantastic. This is proof that Willett is doing a lot right, but it doesn’t automatically translate to everything they’re bottling.
Whether Willett distilled or not, the ultimate test is how the whiskey tastes. This particular batch is perfectly fine, but nothing more and nothing less. As batches are marketed as small and denoted with specific codes, it’s not surprising that batches vary. Anecdotally there seems to be a lot of variation given my experience and other reviews of the product, and it would be interesting to know more about the specifics of each batch - flavor profile, ages of the blend, and so on, similar to Booker’s and Barrell Bourbon batch variation.
A straightforward Willett distilled bourbon that doesn’t offer enough in today’s bourbon marketplace.
Willett Distillery is respected for both their sourced and in-house distilled whiskeys. I enjoy just about everything they produce, and I fall in the camp of consumers who enjoy their younger distillate. There is nothing inherently wrong with Rowan’s Creek, however, at the same time, there is nothing truly notable about it either except for the fact that it is now distilled by Willett.
Unlike a new upstart craft distillery that may be working with a small budget, getting to know their distillation equipment, or dialing in blending, Willett has a good deal of experience, operates on (presumably) a reasonably larger budget than a typical craft distillery, and has been distilling (since their hiatus), for over 10 years. Batch variation and lack of information get a pass when the whiskey itself is truly notable, as is the case with many of Willett’s releases, but that is not the case with Rowan’s Creek. It may be a serviceable bourbon overall, but its lack of notable qualities and the fact that other (better) Kentucky bourbons are priced for less makes Rowan’s Creek a bourbon that just doesn’t stand out in any meaningful way.