On the late evening of December 10th, 2021, a violent tornado ripped through a large swath of Western Kentucky. By the time the 190 mile-per-hour funnel of devastation had dissipated, a total of 58 lives were lost. A path of unimaginable sorrow lay in its wake. Almost immediately, the local whiskey industry banded together to help rebuild that which could be salvaged. Distilleries donated money, bottles, and entire casks to The Kentucky Bourbon Benefit, a non-profit relief fund. By Christmas, more than $3 million USD had been raised.
Much of that cash came in by way of charitable auctions. Virtually every big producer in the Bluegrass State put something special on the block, allowing 100% of proceeds to be retained by the fund. But there was one specific donation that was especially noteworthy: A 19-year-old barrel of bourbon from Willett Distillery. By the time the hammer dropped on the 21st of December, it had nabbed an astonishing $400,101—a new record for a single cask of American whiskey. It nearly doubled the previous high watermark.
And it wasn’t even the only product that the Bardstown-based producer gave to the cause. “We donated a barrel of 8-year-old bourbon that went for $143,000,” says Drew Kulsveen, Willett’s award-winning master distiller. “We were obliged to gift a second 8-year-old barrel to the second place bidder for the same contribution. Then, when we observed the competitive bidding [for the 19-year-old barrel], we were delighted to contribute another at the same donation commitment.”
That’s over $1 million raised from just 4 barrels of bourbon. Even more astounding, the pair of older expressions are expected to yield no more than 100 bottles per cask—meaning that the final sale values each individual bottle at $4000!
What exactly will that liquid taste like? Well, that’s difficult to say. For one, the deep-pocketed purchasers now have the final say on exactly when to let it leave the influence of the barrel. And as for the distillate itself, Willett was known to source its early 21st Century liquids from a wide assortment of producers including Jim Beam, Bernheim, Heaven Hill and Four Roses. They didn’t start laying down their own juice in the modern era until 2012.
“The generosity of the donors participating in the auction was overwhelming,” Kulsveen tells Forbes. “I am still in shock. Once it became clear that we had the attention of an unbelievably generous group of people, my family decided we would like to provide folks with more opportunities to give.”
Indeed, the family-run operation has made a habit out of assisting local non-profits since setting up shop in Kentucky all the way back in 1936. It’s a spirit of generosity that does not go unnoticed by enthusiasts of the native liquid.
“Offering not only one 19-year-old barrel but another to the second highest bidder just shows the level of support Drew and the Willett family have for their home state,” observes Aaron Young, a member of a philanthropic bourbon group known as Honor Among Thieves. “The bourbon community is made up of a lot of great individuals and it was on full display with this auction. The bidders on these two 19 year barrels helped raise over $800,000 in tornado relief funds. That speaks volumes for what the bourbon community is made of and the following that Willett has garnered over the years.”
It also calls attention to the rarity of the liquid that Willett parted ways with. 19-year-old stock from their Bardstown warehouse is in supremely short supply. “We may never see another 19 year old barrel of bourbon offered to a charity again,” according to Young.
Nonetheless, it was never something that Kulsveen and company had to spend any time deliberating. “Generosity and hospitality are core values of our family that we practice in our home and at our family distillery,” he says. “Our aim is always to make the biggest impact possible.”
You can make your own impact by contributing to the state’s official Tornado Relief Fund, here.