Classification: Straight Rye
Company: The Willett Distillery
Distillery: The Willett Distillery
Proof: 111.2 (Cask Strength)
Age: 4 Years
Mashbill: A blend of Willett high rye mashbill (74% rye, 11% corn, 15% malted barley) with the Willett low rye mashbill (51% rye, 34% corn, 15% malted barley)
MSRP: $54 (2020)
In the early 2010’s Willett started distilling their own whiskey on-site for the first time in over 30 years. In 2014, they celebrated this accomplishment with the release of a two year old rye whiskey. Since then they have continued to age their rye whiskey and have stuck with a four year age statement for their standard rye product, although younger and older age statements can be found. It is a small batch and is released at barrel proof. The cap is sealed with aluminum and continues the company’s move away from traditional wax they used for many years and were well known for.
An interesting and borderline unusual aroma is propped up by floral, botanical, and sweet scents. Plenty of caramel is present in the form of caramel apple, caramel popcorn, and burnt toffee. The aroma has a gentleness about it thanks to additional notes of honey. There is a bit of rye bread lying underneath it all too. It’s an aroma that bucks your general understanding of what a rye whiskey should smell like and has some fun doing it in the process.
A warm bed of raisin, menthol, and spice starts off the sip. Combined with green tea notes, it creates a somewhat medicinal taste. It’s unique, yet works in application. There’s additional light cherry and citrus throughout that works well by introducing a contrasting fruit accent. Overall an unlikely pairing of flavors that perform surprisingly great together.
Further botanical notes are introduced against a slight ramp up of spice. The rye’s proof becomes more evident with its overall hotness turned up during the finish. A lingering aftertaste of toasted grain and black pepper against a fleeting dryness closes the whiskey. Much like the nose and palate before it, the flavors all come together quite well.
On paper there isn’t much that drastically sets Willett 4 Year Rye apart from its contemporaries. Its age is fairly common for ryes and despite it not coming from MGP like so many ryes do, its Kentucky roots don't make it stand out as most Kentucky distilleries have now added a rye whiskey to their product portfolio.
Willett 4 Year Rye most notably stands out as the result of its flavor profile. From its nose, through its palate and finish, this whiskey is attention grabbing. Like its two year old version, the nose retains its floral and botanical scents but adds layers of complex caramel notes. The palate too features uncommon flavor notes you don’t often find in conjunction with one another. While some craft distilleries have produced unique tasting ryes in their own regard, they often can’t shake their youth and overall graininess. That’s where Willett shines. There’s surprising depth to the 4 Year’s sip, and while it does feature a toasted grain note in its finish, it adds dimension and doesn’t distract. This swirling and layering of contrasting flavors somehow comes together in the end, and against the odds, this patchwork of flavors works.
Willett’s reputation blossomed over the past decade taking them from cult status to full on juggernaut thanks to the passion of their adoring fans. This has caused their distillery-only releases to fly off the shelves. Even their 80th Anniversary, which was generally seen as an average to above-average product, was instantly snatched up by fans.
Their lower-aged, in-house distilled rye releases on the other hand have been a different story. While they might not be collecting dust, they don’t see the same rabid demand. And price has never been a deterrent for fans regarding Willett’s releases, with fans willing to pay whatever price was asked for one of the company’s high-aged bourbon or ryes.
Their inaugural two year rye was priced quite aggressively at $35 in 2014. Six years later and two years additional aging has brought the price to $54, a 54% markup. Despite the age statement not being overly impressive, Willett has priced the product competitively against other craft distilleries. You could argue the sharper price jump might be due to the “Willett tax” simply because it’s a Willett, and Willett can charge whatever Willett wants to charge. Yet in this case, Willett 4 Year Rye has developed admirably from its two year version and offers enough quality and uniqueness to justify the company’s asking price.
A 4 year old rye doesn’t seem like much to take note of, that is until you taste this rye's unique collection of flavors.
Willett has made quite a name for themselves over the past decade. Going from a relatively unknown contract distiller to a critical and commercial darling, who’s near mention is enough to instantly sell a product, is quite impressive. Of course they didn’t get that way by chance. They continue to be expert distillers and even a low key product like their 4 Year Rye has a lot to offer. It’s difficult to say whether another rye product on the market tastes quite like their 4 Year Rye. The product has grown in complexity from its younger offering like any great product should, and has good availability and is priced right. Willett 4 Year Rye might not be as exciting as the company’s older releases, but it continues to showcase their distilling prowess by offering a one-of-a-kind tasting rye whiskey.