The earliest Willett, from this particular Willett family branch, that we can trace back to with 100% certainty, is Edward Willett, who was born on October 19, 1657 in Hertford, England. Exactly when Edward was brought to America by his uncle, Charles Willett, is up for debate. Mary Louise Donnelly, who wrote Edward Willett, Colonial Maryland Pewterer, County Clerk, Plantation Owner, His Ancestors and Descendants, states, "it was probably as early as 1666." This much we know – Edward was in Maryland as a young boy.
In 1674 he was sent to London to learn the pewter trade. Edward Willett's first cousin, Richard Willett, was a London pewterer who received his pewter mark in London around 1660. Richard's mark included the "willett" bird, as did Edward's. At times, the family coat-of-arms was used as an inscription on the pewterer's touch. Towards the latter portion of the 1600's the touches appeared with the maker's names. Edward Willett incorporated both practices in his touch.
Mary Louise Donnelly goes on to say that the Willett families in England had coats of arms so similar that it is certain they were originally of one family. On the top of each Willett coat-of-arms is found a bird over a crown, as Edward Willett had struck on his touch. The original will of Edward Willett of Prince George's County, Maryland, still in existence in the Hall of Records in Annapolis, carries his seal, his mark. This seal bears the imprint of a crown with a bird over it. His seal places Edward Willett as an English Willett descendant. The bird found on the top of the crest and coat-of-arms is said to be a willett, a large light-colored shore bird known for its loud cry, "wil-wil-willett."
Some time after 1685 and before 1692 Edward Willett returned to the Province of Maryland and settled at Mount Calvert near the Patuxent River. Edward Willett is considered among the earliest of American Pewters.
William Willett was born around 1715 in Prince George's County, Maryland, the son of Edward Willett and Tabitha Mill, on the family homestead, called "Bealington." Here William Willett spent his entire life. Around 1737 William Willett married Mary Griffith.
William continued the pewter business of his father. In the Maryland Gazette on Thursday, January 8, 1756 and for the six Thursdays thereafter William Willett ran the following ad: "William Willett, Pewterer living about 2 miles from Upper Marlborough on the Blandenburg Road now moulds old pewter at 9d per pound or will return one half good new Pewter for any quantity and to be cast in whatever forms employer pleases, either flat or soup dishes, or flat or soup plates. N.B. He will wait on any employer within 20 or 30 miles to receive their old or return their new pewter, and they may depend on being served faithfully and honestly dealt with."
In Across the Years in Prince George's County, the author states, "most of the pewter ware that went to Kentucky in early days was made by William Willett of Prince George's Co., MD and some by his father Edward."
William Willett, Jr. was born in 1743 in Prince George's County, Maryland, the son of William Willett and Mary Griffith. In 1782, 1783 and 1786 William Willett received a license to operate an "ordinary." He ran this business until 1792 when the family moved to Kentucky. An "ordinary" was a tavern where travelers lodged for the night, received a stable and fodder for their horse, as well as their own food. One night's lodging cost 7 shillings and 6 pence and for the horse's keep an additional shilling. Wine cost 5 or 6 shillings a quart and rum 2 shillings a quart.
In 1792, the year that Kentucky became a state, William Willett, Jr. moved from Maryland to Kentucky. William Willett, Jr. is the first Willett from this particular branch of the Willett family tree to call Kentucky home. On March 22, 1803, in Nelson County, Kentucky, William Willett, Jr. married Catherine Wathen Power.
George Edward Willett was born in 1805 near New Hope, Kentucky, the son of William Willett, Jr. and Catherine Wathen Power. George Edward Willett was apprenticed to John Rogers to learn the trade of a "house joiner." John Rogers was an architect from Baltimore, Maryland, who had earlier drawn the plans for St. Joseph's Proto-Cathedral in Bardstown. St Joseph's Proto-Cathedral is the first cathedral west of the Allegheny Mountains and is listed by the U.S. Library of Congress as a national landmark possessing exceptional interest and worthy of careful preservation. Sarah B. Smith, in her book, Historic Nelson County, states: "Nelson County claims the following architects: John Rogers, Samuel Beall, Col. James Marshall Browne, Alex Moore, George Willett, Baker Smith and Arthur Graham."
John David Willett was born on December 26, 1841 in Nelson County, Kentucky, the son of George Edward Willett and Catherine Ann Miles. He was educated by the Jesuits at St. Joseph College in Bardstown, St. Charles College in Maryland, and in Florissant, Missouri. A newspaper article stated, "He was highly educated, refined and extremely courteous."
On November 19, 1872 John David Willett married Mary Alice Moore, the daughter of Charles Alexander Moore and Katherine Ann Cotton. They first lived just outside of Bardstown. After fire destroyed their home, they moved to Bardstown.
Shortly after the Civil War, John David Willett began the Willett distilling tradition in Kentucky. He was Master Distiller at, and one-third owner of, the Moore, Willett and Frenke Distillery, located in Bardstown. In her book, Historic Nelson County, Sarah B. Smith states that, “failing eyesight caused John David Willett to sell his interest in the distillery to his brothers-in-law, Ben F. Mattingly and Tom Moore, yet his knowledge and skill was such that he shrugged off the handicap and went on to serve as Master Distiller for five plants; three in the Bardstown area and two in Louisville.” John David developed mash bills that were later used by the Willett Distilling Company in some of their whiskies.
Aloysius Lambert Willett, who went by Lambert, was born on September 23, 1883 in Bardstown, Kentucky. On April 28, 1908 Lambert married Mary Catherine Thompson, the daughter of Charles T. Thompson and Georgianna Coomes.
Lambert grew up in the shadow of his father, learning the art of distilling firsthand from some of the most respected men in the business at the time. Therefore, it was not unusual that Lambert Willett began his career in the whiskey business at the early age of 15. Lambert became involved in the Moore & Selliger Distillery, located in Louisville. Mr. George Moore died in 1896 and the distillery continued to operate as "Max Selliger & Co." According to Sam Cecil in The Evolution of The Bourbon Whiskey Industry in Kentucky, just prior to Prohibition, “Jim Beam sold the Clear Springs Distillery to W.O. Stiles, Garfield Barnes and Lambert Willett, and they continued bottling for a short time.” The Nelson County Courthouse records indicate that the property was sold to Joe Downs on December 30, 1924 and then back to W.O. Stiles on October 9, 1926. During Prohibition, Lambert raised hog and cattle at his farm in Bardstown. At the end of Prohibition, Lambert was the superintendent of the newly renovated Max Selliger & Co. Distillery (aka Bernheim Distillery).
Aloysius Lambert Thompson Willett, who went by Thompson, was born January 27, 1909 in Bardstown, Kentucky, the son of Lambert Willett and Mary Catherine Thompson. Thompson joined his father, Lambert, at the Bernheim Distillery in the capacity of Assistant Superintendent, at the age of 25. In the spring of 1936, at the age of 27, Thompson and his brother, Johnny Willett, who was a young engineer, started the Willett Distilling Company, RD #43, near the site of the Boone Brothers and later Thixton-Millet Distillery, RD #422. The distillery was erected on the family farm, which had been purchased by Lambert Willett.
Upon completion, in the spring of 1937, the Willett Distilling Company produced its first batch of whiskey. That first batch amounted to 300 bushels (30 barrels) on March 17, 1937, St. Patrick's Day. The newly barreled whiskey was stored in the traditional metal-clad warehouses, capable of holding between 5,000 and 6,000 barrels. The warehouses were built on some of the highest ground in the county, assuring a fresh breeze would aid in the maturation of the whiskey.
At the beginning, the Willetts ran a charged beer still and operated it for a decade before it was replaced with a columnar or coffee still.
Five years after the foundation of the Willett Distilling Company, Lambert retired from the Bernheim Distillery to manage the farm and assist in overseeing the Willett Family Distillery in Bardstown. Around that same time, on January 14, 1942 to be exact, in Fairfield, Kentucky, Thompson married Mary Virginia Sheehan, the daughter of James William Sheehan and Mary Ellen Hagan. They resided in Bardstown.Robert Willett, who also served in WWII as an Army Air Corps pilot, left his law practice in Washington, D.C. in the 1970’s to join his brothers in the family business. The Willett Distilling Company continued to operate until the early 1980’s.
Two of Thompson’s brothers, Paul and Bill Willett, served in the Army Air Force during World War II, and joined the distillery after the war. Paul was in charge of bottling and Bill took over the distilling operations. After a few years, Bill left to pursue other interests and the Willetts hired Charlie Thomason to take over as Master Distiller. Charlie Thomason was a native of Anderson County, Kentucky and had been a Master Distiller at a number of distilleries in the area before and after Prohibition. Charlie Willett, a Navy veteran of WWII, established a wholesale house after he served and distributed Willett products as well as other distillery brands.
On December 16, 1972, Even G. Kulsveen married Martha Harriet Willett at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Bardstown, Kentucky. On July 1, 1984, Even G. Kulsveen, son-in-law to Thompson Willett, purchased the property and formed Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd., registered distillery DSP-KY-78. Even Kulsveen continues to operate at the facility to this day. Even's son, Drew Kulsveen, joined his father in the beginning of 2004 and Even's daughter, Britt Kulsveen Chavanne, and her husband, Hunter Chavanne, joined the business towards the end of 2005.
Great efforts to restore the distillery, cistern room, aging warehouses and many other aspects of the grounds have been ongoing for several years. Mr. Dave Singer was very instrumental in seeing our dreams come to fruition. Dave was a welder who did the lion's share of welding work at our family's distillery. Unfortunately, Dave left us much too early when he passed away in December of 2010. We remember him fondly and this never could have happened without his contributions.
Paul Culver, Jr., his father, Paul Culver, Sr. and Paul Jr.'s hard-working and dedicated crew joined us on July 19, 2010. They have been indispensable team members with incredible knowledge and know-how on a wide array of things – ranging from construction projects to helping Drew and Terry put barrels into the rickhouses.
Terry Ballard joined us in April of 2011 and before he knew it we put him to work in the distillery! Terry has taken to distillery work like a duck to water. Like Paul, Terry is multi-faceted and helps around the distillery in many different capacities. He is very hands-on with the entire process – from grain delivery to cooking to fermenting to distilling to filling the barrels to giving tours… Terry does it all and he does it well! Barbara Hagan (she will always be "Barb" to us) joined our family's company in August of 2010 and she helps Britt and Even with the mountainous task of day-to-day logistics within the company. Barb always seems to bring a positive attitude to work every day and it's a real joy working with her. Drew's wife, Janelle Vincent Kulsveen, works in the gift shop/tasting room and has been a tremendous addition as well. From day one, she hit the ground running and the place has never looked better. And it would be remiss of us not to mention Ray Schooling and Angela Lanham, who have been with us two decades and over a decade, respectively. Ray is an expert with the filler and capper on the bottling line and he dips a mean bottle as well. Angela is a trusty team member who can always be counted on. Last, but certainly not least, Jeff Bischoff, has done the excavation work of an army for the last few years. Without Jeff, hardly a one of our many projects would have ever gotten off the ground (literally). Without all of these individuals, as well as many others who are not listed here, we would not be where we are today.
So after all these years of renovations and retrofitting, in the early morning hours of January 18, 2012, Drew, Paul, Terry and a few others started cooking a batch of corn, rye and malted barley. Some time close to sun-up that morning they started the fermentation process, and on January 21st Drew fired up the copper pot still. We waited until January 27th to put the first few barrels into storage. That would have been Thompson's 103rd birthday and Mrs. Martha Willett Kulsveen thought that there was no better day to put those barrels into storage than on her father's birthday. And we all were whole-heartedly in agreement. The family is using the original mash bills that Thompson used when he was President of the Willett Distilling Company. In addition, Drew has implemented a few of his own mash bills.
In the latter portion of 2011 we opened up a gift shop and tasting room. In addition to that, tours are now offered. We would like to extend a warm welcome and encourage you to pay us a visit. Until then, Cheers!