The Origins Of Willett Bourbon Can Be Traced Back To The 17th Century

Bourbon is an all-American liquor with centuries-old roots and recognition as the only spirit holding a U.S.-specific denomination. Invented in the 18th century, there's a historic reason Kentucky is the Bourbon hub of the world. During the state's origins, settlers were offered land to grow corn, and it didn't take long to figure out corn could be distilled into alcohol. The legacy continues today, with many of the best bourbon brands hailing from the region.

Willett Bourbon is a producer with deep roots: The distillery's origins trace back to the 17th century. It all started with English-born Edward Willett, who emigrated to Maryland during his childhood. He then returned to England to apprentice as a metalworker, where he cast an insignia with a bird — a motif still kept on Willett bottles today.

Nearly a century later, his grandson William Willett Jr. moved to Kentucky, and it was his son who took upon the bourbon trade. From here on out, the family's bourbon lineage kicked off. The Willett distillery opened in 1936 on the family farm, and the Willetts have been involved in the bourbon trade since.

Willett bourbon has remained family owned since opening

Since breaking ground in 1936, Willett's descendants have continually operated the company. Some of the bourbon brand's first bottlings employed mash bills developed by William Willett Jr., the first distiller in the family. And this line — called the Old Bardstown — continues today, making it possible to sample some of Willett's historical legacy.

While they've remained involved in the bourbon business, Willett bourbons haven't been continuously distilled. Liquor production took a pause in the 1980s, primarily because bourbon lost popularity nationwide and the distillery started producing ethanol during the energy crisis. Martha Kulsveen, the great-granddaughter of first distiller William Willett Jr. took on ownership in 1984, and the brand rested other distillers' bourbons while gradually selling its old liquor stock. Expressions would not be released under the Willett name for decades.

In the early 2000s, Martha Kulsveen's son and daughter joined the team, helping reestablish the brand. In 2008, they released a bottle with the Willett name, followed by house-distilled bourbon in 2015. Now, the mark is again flourishing, a proud success story of an independent and family-owned brand. Amidst a difficult landscape of large macros and celeb-owned bourbon brands, Willett is a small and historic distillery worth toasting to.