Cancer cares not of your friendship, your love, your family connection, your bond with whoever has it. Cancer seeks to destroy, and we often feel hopeless to help those we love.
Earlier this year, that’s how the famed Willett bourbon family felt, when their patriarch, Even Kulsveen, was diagnosed with stage four Lymphoma. As Kulsveen privately battled cancer, his son, Drew, and daughter, Britt, championed their father’s iconic whiskey rise.
As a young man, Kulsveen worked with the venerable Thompson Willett in the 1970s and fell in love with Thompson’s daughter, Martha, whom he married. Both Martha and Even were a part of the 1980s and 1990s bourbon revolution, with Martha handling the business side with an iron fist and Even using his gifted palate to find barrels on the open wholesale market.
The Kulsveens helped tap into the Japanese market—bourbon’s savior—in the 1980s and were among the first to champion small batch.
In the past year, when the Kulsveen siblings have shared these stories at places such as the James Beard House and Kentucky Derby Museum, tears occasionally formed. While they kept their father’s cancer battle out of the public eye, they knew, and it devastated them.
But then, a miracle happened: Doctors said Evan Kulsveen went into remission in May.
From that point on, the Kulsveens vowed to fight cancer.
And last Saturday, at the Bourbon Crusaders’ American Cancer Society benefit, “Willett To Be Cured,” I and 125 people witnessed the Willett anti-cancer stance in full force. I served as the emcee and auctioneer for the charity that battled Breeders’ Cup and other whiskey events for attendance, but true bourbon geeks found a way to attend because of the illustrious bourbon bounty.
Up for bid were holy unicorns riding in Santa’s Slay: Bald Monk, an extremely rare underground blend that collectors go crazy for; 1987 release of Booker’s; 1979 Ezra Brooks 15-year-old; and a bowling pin filled with Jim Beam. In addition, Willett donated some rare experiences that only bourbon royalty and Bill Murray have enjoyed. (Yes, Bill Murray even finds his way to Willett, because he’s Bill Murray).
Last year, we raised $68,000 for the ALS Foundation. This year, event organizer RJ Sargent hoped to at least match that. As we sold off the bottles sold for $400 here, $1,500 there and an occasional $3,000 splurge, I thought we were well on our way to matching last year’s total and then, the Willett items came up for auction.
When I was given the sales sheet, I saw a note, “spending a half day with Drew Kulsveen.” I knew I had to pump this up, because few people would truly understand that you’re not just playing cards in the distillery. Kulsveen and the winner would be walking from warehouse to warehouse, row after row, with a drill and a whiskey glass, tasting rare barrels just waiting to be bottled.
The bidding started strong at $1,000 and finished at $4,500. Kulsveen even bid on himself, which offered some laughter, but I was so thrilled, as we passed the $60,000 mark. With two items left to bid on, the 30-member Bourbon Crusader’s third annual charity auction was well on its way to making an event record.
But I don’t think anybody fully understood how we were about to smash expectations.
The second to last item up: The first bottle of every Willett gift shop release for the next year. Essentially, people treat these Willett releases like the new iPhone—some pay people to stand in line, while others will go as far as camping out nearby. Willett’s amassed a cult following entirely off the stellar whiskey they’re selling in the gift shop and limited releases. If you’re lucky, you might get two bottles in a given year. So what’s it worth to get the first bottle of every release for a year? Try $25,000, the winning bid.
As I said “sold,” in the back, the representative for the American Cancer Society was in tears. She couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. Nobody could. At this point, the event crushed it, and we still had one item left.
I was losing my voice, but with all my vocal cords, I offered the final item to purchase: Your own barrel of Willett. Yes, you win this item and you go to the Willett Distillery to select your own barrel. In years past, this went for $10,000, a number that would put us in the high five digits if we hit it again.
The bids went quick: $5, $10, $15, $20 and then to $30,000, where it went back and forth until $32,000, when Drew Kulsveen added a twist to the auction. He shared his family’s battle with cancer and said to get the number up higher, he would open the locked doors to the most craved, beloved and sought-after barrels of bourbon in Kentucky right now—15-year-old cask strength Willett.
While Willett started distilling its own liquid in 2012, it amassed an enviable inventory from other distilleries, including the house Pappy Van Winkle built–Stitzel-Weller. These older stocks are the bourbons dreams are made of and fetch $20,000 per bottle in private auctions.
The crowd gasped with Kulsveen’s 15-year-old bourbon announcement, and the bidding quickly hit $40,000, but slowed. Then, Kulsveen made another announcement: Willett would not only allow access to any barrel the winning bidder wants, but Willett would create a private label just for the winner and give them an opportunity to live in bourbon lore, as the famed LeNell rye has for the past decade. So, now, the winning bidder would essentially would have its own bourbon brand. How cool is that?
The fierce bidding commenced. $41 to $42,000 quickly escalated, and groups huddled discussing how they could pool resources. One gentlemen pulled out a black card and simply said, “I got this.” He took it to $45,000, where the bidding seemingly stopped and that’s when the greatest surprise of the night came in.
Willett offered to duplicate the barrel, private label and experience to any group who wanted to kick in $45,000. Four groups committed immediately and one later joined.
My jaw dropped. The Kulsveen family was in tears, so were many members of the audience.
When the money was tallied in full, we raised $340,000 for the American Cancer Society, Louisville Chapter.
Nobody could believe it.
While the war on cancer is far from over, for one night, bourbon people kicked cancer square in the tumor. It was the sort of night that gives us all hope, that one day this deadly disease will no longer hold us hostage.