By Sarah Levitch
Photos provided by Willett Distillery
Considered one of the most prestigious awards of the culinary industry, the James Beard Award recognizes professional chefs, bakers, liquor producers and authors for their remarkable achievements. This year, Master Distiller Drew Kulsveen of Willett Distillery has been named a finalist for Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirit Producer. We spoke briefly with Kulsveen to learn more about both his and the distillery’s growth over the past 20 years.
How did you first get involved with Willett Distillery in 2003?
I graduated from college in December of 2002 and came straight to work. There was no distillery, we were in the process of rebuilding it, so I got to dive straight into learning all that. I was also learning the bottling, blending, sales and inner workings of the business. I dove in head first and wanted to absorb everything I could. I went to school to be a doctor; I was pre-med. I decided to change my career path, and my parents tried to push me in a different direction. I think they just wanted me to do something else first, but I was really interested in this and being able to work with my family meant a lot.
What was the process of renovating the distillery and what did you learn during that time?
It was frustrating, but I got to learn a lot about the process. It took a lot longer than we anticipated but we weren’t really in a rush to get it done. We operate a little differently since we don’t have any bank debt or private equity investors and we don’t borrow money. Our company was much smaller back then too. We still operate that way today, but we’ve grown tremendously over the last 20 years. In the early days of the distillery, we had very few contractors on site.
Do you remember the first mash bill you developed?
I have three that we are producing right now in addition to the three original our families had for many generations. We’re using the three that I developed in our core line of brands. The first one that we started to produce was our High Rye which goes into the Willett Small Batch Rye. The first day we distilled it was my wife’s birthday, April 23, 2012. It was really exciting. We were really proud of the quality that we were getting. We knew once it hit the barrel that it was just a matter of time before it developed all the flavors that we expected. The Rye that we’re producing is very distinctive from everything else that’s out there on the market, which is exactly what we were going for.
How do you keep a balance between tradition and innovation?
We had the intent of using the original mash bills in conjunction with the new ones that I developed as a blend together for different brands. We use the old recipe as the base makeup for a lot of the whiskeys, and we’ll have a portion of anywhere between 15-40% of another recipe that goes into the batch. For instance, a brand like Johnny Drum has the original recipe and a High Rye Bourbon that I created blended into it. Many of our brands have mixtures of more than one mash bill, although some of them have just one.
How do you feel about being nominated for this prestigious award?
Well it’s an honor to be even nominated as a semi-finalist. I’m shocked every year. It’s an honor not only to represent the category but also the state of Kentucky. Being nominated as a finalist makes it that much closer and real, but regardless of the outcome and whatever happens, it’s an honor to be mentioned and coveted with the likes of the other people in the category. V