A bourbon and beer bond: Kentucky brewers meet at Willett Distillery for barrel-sharing experiment

These used Willett barrels are going home with Kentucky brewers. | Photo by Sara Havens

Two thriving Kentucky industries came together Monday morning for one common cause — creating tasty beverages for beer and bourbon fanatics alike.

One might assume factors like competition, jealousy or holding a grudge would get in the way of an event of this nature, but if you’ve spent any time with anyone from either the beer or bourbon world, you know it’s quite the opposite.

More than two dozen members of the Kentucky Guild of Brewers met at the Willett Distillery Monday morning to pick up used bourbon barrels they’ll create new beer with. Those bourbon barrel-finished beers will debut at the second annual Kentucky Craft Bash, held June 23 at Waterfront Park.

Willett Master Distiller Drew Kulsveen leads the tour. | Photo by Sara Havens

Insider tagged along to witness the camaraderie between the two industries and also catch up with Willett Master Distiller Drew Kulsveen, who led everyone on a private tour and tasting — after the empty barrels had been loaded into cars.

Members of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association also were in attendance in Bardstown and helped facilitate the events along with the Willett staff.

It further drove home the point that there is mutual respect between the two industries, and it benefits everyone involved — including thirsty beer and bourbon aficionados.

Kulsveen said nearly 95 percent of Willett’s empty barrels go to the brewing industry, an interesting fact not common at many Kentucky distilleries, which usually ship them internationally to Scotland, Ireland, Mexico and the Caribbean.

“We’ve done what we can with the barrels, so I’m excited that you all get an opportunity to use them, and I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with,” Kulsveen said to the brewers, which included Louisville businesses like Akasha, Monnik, Old Louisville Brewing and Against the Grain.

In a press release that went out after the event, Britt Kulsveen, the distillery’s vice president (and sister of Drew), spoke to the partnership between bourbon and beer.

“There is a tradition of collaboration and hospitality in Kentucky’s bourbon industry,” she said. “Today we see how this longstanding tradition is expanding and are proud to honor the storied heritage of our family and the brewing industry. We are thrilled to welcome our brewery friends to Willett and can’t wait to taste these beers.”

The event was attended by more than two dozen Kentucky brewers. | Photo by Sara Havens

Derek Selznick, executive director of the Kentucky Guild of Brewers, helped organize the event and told Insider it was an exciting day for him and the brewers the organization represents. Sometimes it can be difficult for a smaller brewery to obtain used bourbon barrels, and this generous gesture by Willett meant a lot to the craft of barrel-aged beers.

“This is a thrilling opportunity to partner with Willett Distillery and use their barrels to make over 30 exclusive, experimental beers,” he said in the release.

The brief tour took attendees through the working distillery, where they tasted white dog, sampled the bubbling mash and got a glimpse of the unique 800-gallon pot still, which Willett’s flagship bourbon is shaped after. Many of the brewers asked technical distilling questions that were way over our head, so during those explanations, we played with the distillery cats patrolling the campus.

The tour ended with a few samples, including two Willett Family Estate collections (14 and 16 Year bourbons) and the 80th anniversary special release.

Here are some images from the event: