Tom Bulleit Talks Bulleit Barrel Strength And Bulleit's Brand - The Whiskey Wash

Tom Bulleit Talks Bulleit Barrel Strength And Bulleit’s Brand

By Maggie Kimberl / May 18, 2016

Tom Bulleit sits in an office that once belonged to Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle, laughing as he reminisces about the journey that brought him here. He had grown up around the whiskey business his whole life, working in distilleries off and on before joining the Marine Corps. After he returned from his service in Vietnam he used his G.I. Bill to go to Law School at the University of Louisville.

Bulleit practiced law for decades as he raised his family, but in 1987, the family lore of his great-great-grandfather Augustus Bulleit’s whiskey business finally got the better of him. He went to his father and said he wanted to start a whiskey business, to which his father replied, “That’s between you and your banker.” When Bulleit had told his father he wanted to be a Master Distiller in college he had not had the same response. Perhaps the fact it was still on his son’s mind two decades later made it easier to accept.

Tom Bulleit

Tom Bulleit at Bulleit (image via Maggie Kimberl)

Bulleit had spent time working at Bernheim Distillery. His Uncle was a Master Distiller at Henry McKenna. He laughs as he recalls a heated debate that took place around the holiday table one year in Bardstown about the difference between the supply side of the whiskey business and the marketing side of the whiskey business, noting everyone always thinks their side is the most important one to the business.

He started his whiskey company during a time that people weren’t really interested in bourbon, though his timing would eventually prove to be serendipitous. “We really fell uphill,” he chuckles. For the next decade, Bulleit ran both his law firm and the Bulleit Bourbon Company. Once Seagram’s bought Bulleit in 1997 he began doing the whiskey thing full time. The brand had begun to take off as bourbon became popular once again in the United States. Diageo then bought part of Seagram’s, and Bulleit has been part of the Diageo portfolio ever since.

Then tragedy struck in 2005 when Bulleit was diagnosed with colon cancer. Though he was very ill he continued to work, citing the great effort put forth by the brand team to work his schedule around his illness. He joked he had been told you’re either going to die or you’re not so you may as well keep working, and keep working he did. It was during this time the Bulleit brand became a strong international seller.

Today there are four products in the Bulleit brand portfolio – the flagship orange label Bulleit Bourbon, Bulleit Rye, Bulleit 10 year Bourbon, and the just-released Bulleit Barrel Strength. According to Bulleit Brand Ambassador Doug Kragel, “We’re seeing an evolution of bourbon drinkers,” noting that the typical consumer wants the option of a fuller-bodied, higher proof whiskey. This latest release has a proof of 119, though subsequent releases may vary.

Diageo is in the midst of building a brand-new Bulleit Distillery in Shelbyville, Kentucky. “We’re really excited about that,” Bulleit says. It is expected to begin operating later this year, though currently Bulleit is not making its own whiskey. The new distillery will be “one of the most environmentally friendly industrial facilities in the United States.”

Tom Bulleit

Bulleit Barrel Strength (image via Maggie Kimberl)

The partnership with Seagram’s provided the original supply line, but the question of whether there will be supply issues in this interim time as they get the new facility up and running comes up in whiskey geek circles quite frequently. I asked Tom Bulleit if there were any concerns about supply, especially since a barrel strength bourbon uses more of their supply.

“We’re pretty solid. This is an old industry and we’re pretty good at predicting,” he says, adding his partnership with Diageo has been invaluable. If there ever were a supply problem, Kragel later said, the focus would always be shifted back to the core brand, the original Bulleit Frontier Bourbon. The approximate mash bill is 68% corn, 28% rye, and 4% malted barley, which Bulleit says was modeled after Augustus’ recipe of 2/3 corn and 1/3 rye.

For now the Bulleit Barrel Strength release will only be available in Kentucky. According to the press release, “Over the last year, Bulleit Founder Tom Bulleit traveled the country sharing sips of a new, unreleased style of Bulleit Bourbon with some of the world’s top bartenders. As Bulleit was built by the support of the bartending community, Tom wanted to know what they would think about an addition based on higher proof instead of new flavors or finishes. The feedback was overwhelming and reinforced the decision to officially launch Bulleit Barrel Strength Frontier Whiskey in his home state of Kentucky.”

So what’s next for Bulleit Whiskey? “You’ll have to ask my wife!”