The lore behind Bulleit Distilling Company is almost as good as its 10-year bourbon: During the 1830s in Louisville, Kentucky, Augustus Bulleit tinkered with countless whiskey varieties in search of the right flavor. When he finally found his high-rye recipe, he barreled a batch, loaded it on a boat and set sail to New Orleans to sell his prized spirit. On that trip, he vanished, never to be seen again.
More than 150 years later, Tom Bulleit decided to finish what his great-great-grandfather Augustus started. He traded in his law career to launch the Bulleit Distilling Company in 1987. From there, Bulleit climbed its way to becoming one of the best-selling American whiskeys, according to a 2018 survey of top bars conducted by Drinks International Brands Report.
We got a chance to talk to Tom, who shared what to expect when Bulleit’s $10 million visitor’s center opens in spring 2019 in Kentucky (six generations of the Bulleit family have made the state their home), his favorite bars and the way he drinks his bourbon.
Bulleit debuted its first dedicated distillery, a 300-acre facility in Shelbyville, Kentucky, in 2017. What can people expect at the nearby soon-to-open visitor’s center?
What people can expect is a behind-the-scenes look at Bulleit, and the distilling industry as a whole. We’ll showcase how we make our award-winning whiskey with a commitment to Kentucky and guests will receive a firsthand experience in how we make the highest quality bourbon possible in tandem with our commitment to agriculture-forward sustainability, environmental responsibility and energy conservation.
From learning about the community around the distillery to meeting the most diverse team of whiskey blenders in the industry — people like Andrew Mackay and Eboni Major — to understanding how our high-rye recipe really changed the game for bartenders who wanted a spicy bourbon to make classic cocktails.
The facility will ultimately be a commitment to the entire spectrum of the industry —from the grain to the glass.
How do you take your Bulleit bourbon?
My father and I would drink bourbon on the rocks. Mother would add water, which makes it a highball. My aunt [nun] Sister Jean Clair drank it straight, and [my wife] Betsy, of course, enjoys a BLT. The BLT is an easy cocktail we serve quite frequently at our home in Kentucky. Bulleit, lemon and tonic… or as she likes to say, Betsy’s Little Treat!
What do you like to pair it with?
Barbecue is one of my favorites. However, one of the best pairings is the combination of Bulleit and steak. There is something about bourbon at a steakhouse — I like a nice ribeye cooked medium with a glass of Bulleit bourbon on the rocks. It’s a classic pairing for a reason.
What’s a great way to enjoy Bulleit in a cocktail?
I always recommend the refreshing BLT. It’s so simple and one of Betsy’s favorite cocktails to serve when we entertain.
Also, you can never go wrong with the Kentucky mule — Bulleit rye, ginger beer and a little lime. There is the spice from the rye that’s nicely balanced with the pop of citrus from the lime.
What are some of your go-to bars?
In New York there are so many, but you can bet when The Dead Rabbit gets back up and running after their tragic fire, I’ll be stopping in for a Bulleit 10-Year.
PDT, also in New York, is known for their fantastic drinks, and you should visit to give those a try. However, one of my favorite things about PDT are the hot dogs next door at Crif Dogs.
Another New York longtime favorite is Death & Co.
How has the bourbon scene changed since you first launched the company?
The bourbon landscape has changed dramatically. When I first started in 1987, bourbon was trending down and vodka was king. I hand-sold Bulleit bar to bar and heard “no” so many times I lost count, but that was an important part of my entrepreneurial journey because it put me face to face with bartenders who’ve been the backbone of Bulleit ever since.
We’ve almost come to the other end of the spectrum now with renewed interest in bourbon and the global bourbon boom. It’s great to see so many people around the world loving all kinds of Kentucky whiskey, including our array of offerings — Bulleit bourbon, Bulleit rye, Bulleit 10-Year and Barrel Strength.
Also, people are more educated about bourbon now that they have access to so much information. I think that’s a good thing because they can do their homework and feel good about what they choose to drink. That’s why we’re so proud of awards like being named the No. 1 best-selling and top-trending American whiskey by the world’s 50 best bars, according to the Drinks International Brands Report three years running.
And, of course, we’re very proud that Bulleit has won Double Gold medals across the board at the famous San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Hopefully, those credentials encourage people to give us a try.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in taking your great-great-grandfather’s recipe and turning it into a successful company?
Getting started is tough for any entrepreneur because there’s that inherent fear of the unknown. When I decided to revive my family’s old high-rye bourbon recipe, bourbon wasn’t even doing that well here in the States. My father and banker both thought I was crazy, but I didn’t care because I had a passion and the confidence that there was a place for a high-rye bourbon.
Thirty years later, and it’s that same passion and commitment to the recipe that’s still pushing me to bring Bulleit to more people around the world.
Bulleit Bourbon Tattoo Edition marks the first time the bottles’ design has been changed in the company’s history. What was the inspiration behind collaborating with top tattoo artists on the more artistic bottles?
The inspiration for the collaboration with tattoo artists was really the same as it was for collaborating with bartenders since our very beginning — a real and genuine respect for their work and how they push boundaries in order to move the cultural frontier forward.
If you’ve ever been to a talented artist’s shop, it doesn’t take long to understand how detailed their art form is. Whether it’s tattoo artists and their ink, bartenders and their cocktails or distillers/blenders and their whiskeys, those are our type of people — passionate people who aren’t afraid to try new things. People like that have inspired me since Bulleit was born in 1987, so we do our best to honor them today through our Frontier Works program, and by making great whiskey.
You’re on the road a lot. What are your favorite travel destinations?
Each destination is first and foremost about the people. I’m amazed by the diverse people I’ve met and places I’ve been lucky to visit — each with a unique perspective as they forge their own frontiers.
I always say that when I grow up I’m going to move to New York City. And, of course, I leave my heart in San Francisco every time I visit. When I think about it, Bulleit was born in Kentucky and that will always be home, but Bulleit grew up behind the bar in the Bay Area thanks to bartenders, our partners in chemistry.