After spending a cool April day at Keeneland enjoying the horse races, I woke early the next morning to embark on the hour-long drive from Lexington to Bardstown. It sounds like an epic journey, and it always is.

As I pulled off the Bluegrass parkway, I drove past the towering rick-houses and large-scale bottling operation at Heaven Hill and continued down Loretto Road to Willett Distillery, which is just up over the hill.

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If you’ve never been to Willett, it’s a strikingly small and charming place in comparison to what’s just down the road. It feels very much like the family operation it is, and that’s because they treat you like you’re one of the family.

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When I arrived at the Whiskey Shop I was ahead of my group. While I waited for them to arrive, Drew greeted my small group and invited us upstairs to try something special.

He sat the glass on the table and pulled out a hand-labeled bottle that was almost empty from underneath the bar and explained that it was something new they’ve been working on. The XCF was our first taste of the day at Willett and it was great way to kick things off.

I don’t have any notes from that day because reveling in the experience, during and after, was much more important to me than scribbling something onto a piece of paper, but I do recall that I expected the orange profile to be much more prominent than it actually was at first. While it did contribute to an alluring nose and profile, it wasn’t until comparing with the unfinished rye side-by-side that the complexity arrived in full force.

We didn’t spend too much time with the XCF then, as there were other things on the agenda (read more about that with some beautiful photos of the distillery here), but today I’m extremely happy to be reunited.

Willett XCF Exploratory Cask Finish

Willett-Exploratory Cask Whiskey Hand

The Whiskey

An Indiana-distilled small batch rye whiskey aged in Kentucky for 7 years in American white oak with a #4 char, finished in Grand Marnier casks and bottled at 103.4 Proof (51.7% ABV). A total of 6,912 bottles were produced.

From the label: For this first release of our Exploratory Cask Finish Project, we have taken select barrels of seven-year-old American Rye Whiskey and finished in Curaçao casks sourced from France. Our family hopes you enjoy this rare release whiskey.

About the Finish

Grand-Marnier, originally known as Curaçao Marnier, is a blend of cognac and tropical fruit that derives it’s original name from the Laraha citrus native to Curaçao. A descendent of the Valencia orange transplanted to the island from Spain in the 1500’s, it’s said that goats would rather starve than eat the fruit due to its bitterness. While these are not a delicious, sweet snack, their aromatic peels create a wonderful bitter essence of orange when dried, which is what’s important in this particular case.

Before being blended with cognac to later become Grand Marnier, the bitter orange peel is macerated, distilled, then aged in bourbon barrels for two years. From Sku, “The Willett rye is aged in the bourbon casks that were used to age the orange distillate before sweetening, so it’s not as if the casks has Grand Marnier in them.” Hence the “Finished in Curaçao Casks” on the label, which seems more accurate, but also is could be due to trademark issues preventing the use of the Grand-Marnier name. Don’t take my word for the details on the label it as it’s just speculation.

Wilett XCF Rye Whiskey

Tasting Notes

The nose is very clean and crisp, and lends to the expectation of a light body. It’s sharp, almost like an orange cleaning solvent, if that could be considered a good thing. You can pull characteristics of rye or Curaçao out separately depending on what you’re going for, but the finishing is obvious. The whiskey takes the Curaçao barrel very well.

Big sweet flavors come through the front, especially fruit stripe bubble gum. The nose is complex, and the rye notes are relaxed and deep once the whiskey begins to settle, but it’s still sweet overall.

There’s a beautiful fig brûlée note resting underneath the debut, as well as dried and candied fruit zests in the style of a very tasteful clove and cinnamon potpourri.

My girlfriend, who is more experienced with wine, notes honeysuckle and a blooming cotton field, with a hint of fresh tobacco. The honeysuckle is spot-on, and since I’ve never experienced a blooming cotton field, I’ll take her word for it. 

The front of the palate is very light and sweet, but abruptly turns warm. Not hot, just enough rye heat to loosen the tie. Burnt orange comes through on the palate, and the heat continues to rise, oddly enough only on the middle and back of the palate into the throat.

Swishing this around brings out more fruits, but it dances rather than rests, similar to an intriguingly awkward marriage where the couple’s first dance isn’t technically spectacular, but it entertains just the same.

The darker notes of bitter orange rest on the palate as more rye character creeps forward to dry things out a bit. We’ve gone from fresh fruit to dry essence in exactly the fashion the process intended, or so I’ll claim. There’s a slight bitterness that is slightly off-putting to me, but an explanation of why that isn’t such a big deal are up next in the comments.

Comments

Anyone between the ages of 0 and 50 who has lived in or visited Charleston, South Carolina is probably familiar with the nose, warm palate, and bitter finish of Grand-Marnier. This is because it’s been the go-to shot in almost every bar and restaurant for as long as I’ve been around here, which for the record has been about 8 years off-and-on.

I try to avoid shots at all costs, but this town loves them to the point that if you venture out of the house you’ll likely be offered at least one no matter where you go. What I consider to be a dirty trick played on unsuspecting friends, shots of “Grandma” are almost unavoidable. To me, there’s nothing more disgusting than diverting course from a cocktail to down a warm liqueur, but it’s rude not to oblige when offered, right?

Because of this, the thought of Grand Marnier alone leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, but in terms of the XCF it’s a nice touch, and likely won’t conjure any bad memories for anyone outside of Charleston.

With a price tag of about $150, I can’t say that this is necessarily a great value, but it is a quality product that isn’t exactly inexpensive to produce.

Overall, this is a bittersweet whiskey that is more fiting as a dessert whiskey or digestif. For my tastes one small glass is about all I want to enjoy in a single sitting, but it is very much a pleasant experience. For that reason, it’s possible to stomach the high price knowing that the bottle will last a little longer on your shelf. Or Will-it?

Grade: B+