Tom Bulleit – “I Call Bartenders Our Partners in Chemistry”
Tom Bulleit’s surname graces the bottle of one one the world’s best selling Bourbons. He recently visited Dublin for the first time to introduce whiskey lovers to Bulleit 10 Year Old and we had the opportunity to talk to him in the stunning surroundings of the Horseshoe Bar at The Shelbourne Hotel where he shared with us the path to his success, his plans and his thoughts on what makes Bourbon so special.
“Our family has been in and out of the distilling industry since the times of my great, great grandfather Augustus Bulleit”, he says, adding that Bulleit’s current mash bill (the name given to a whiskey’s “recipe”) is a modern reinterpretation of Augustus’ finest, a high-rye whiskey he made between 1830 and 1860.
His family’s ties to Kentucky go back six generations, when his ancestors emigrated from France to New Orleans and then to the Bluegrass State but as he explains, not all of them dedicated themselves to making Bourbon. In fact, that man himself had a long and successful career as a lawyer before realising his dream.
“When I was growing up, I worked in distilleries and loved the industry”, Tom adds, however, his father, “a World War II veteran and a very serious man”, had different plans for him, “he said you’d be a lawyer.”
Aware that nowadays young people might have more freedom to choose career, he points out that “in my generation you did what your father said.” After coming back a veteran from Vietnam, Tom went to law school and during his years of practice, the dream of making Bourbon never left him.
When he eventually decided to open up the distillery, father Bulleit said “that’s between you and your banker”, he recalls.
Tom founded his distillery on the 14th of March, 1987. The date coincides with his birthday and his wedding anniversary. To make the occasion even more meaningful, that was also the day he chose to open his new distillery in Shelbyville, Kentucky, last year, just on the 30th anniversary of Bulleit Bourbon.
Tom’s father never got to taste Bulleit as he passed away while the spirit was still ageing, but perhaps he’d be pleased to know that generations before and after him have come together in a product that is enjoyed and praised all across the US and beyond.
When asked about the key factors for his success, Tom takes a moment to reflect on it. “When you start a business and it goes well, they call you an entrepreneur” but he’s aware that the people you surround yourself with are of great importance. “The first thing you have to do is to marry someone with a good job”, he says so lightheartedly but he means it: his wife is a stockbroker and at the time when he went through the career change and started up the distillery, her support was key. A background in law was also helpful.
Tom adds that it all started “falling uphill” thanks to “some remarkable partnerships” he was able to secure; Seagram in 1997 and Diageo in 2002. “In 1997 when we partnered up with Seagram, we decided to do three products”, (the classic Bourbon, a Rye and a 10 year old) and then, they choose their current packaging which channels an “old medicine bottle” and “is very old fashioned but also very modern.” Tom was keen to have a bottle that echoed its heritage but that had a global appeal.
He doesn’t say it, but one can see how his determination and drive have also played a role. Bringing Kentucky’s best into the heart of Irish whiskey, he does so with inviting confidence. “People like to drink different things”, he points out adding that “it all depends on the occasion, sometimes you’ll drink Scotch, Irish whiskey or Bourbon.”
Regarding the best occasion for Bulleit, he points out how “cocktail culture utilises Bourbon very well” and that while a lot of it is drunk with Coke, “Bulleit is a premium spirit” that can be enjoyed in craft cocktails.
“Most people in Kentucky when I was growing up would drink it on the rocks or with water”, he adds, suggesting a highball (Bourbon, ice and water) as a serving suggestion he enjoys.
“Partners in Chemistry”
Another of Tom’s preferred ways to drink Bourbon are cocktails and he likes the classics. His favourite, however, is open to the interpretation of the bartender du jour. “I like to ask them for their favourite drink, which is often a variation on the Old Fashioned or a sour, but sometimes something really different.”
This gives him an insight on what the mixers and shakers do with it. “I call bartenders our partners in chemistry” he adds, pointing out how they are often the middle person between the brand and drink enthusiasts and how they work to bring the flavour forward and complement it instead of masking it.
What Makes Bulleit Unique
The main difference between Bulleit and other Bourbons is its recipe. Augustus’ original included two thirds corn and one third rye and Tom’s modern rendition combines 68% corn (Bourbon by law has to have at least 51% corn), 4% malted barley and 28% rye, making it the spirit with the highest rye content in its category. Rye gives drinks a characteristic spiciness that gives depth to cocktails.
Another feature of it is its ageing, while Bourbons will often rest for four years, “Bulleit is in the barrel for six years.” The newest expression, while a 10 year old, combines whiskeys that are 10, 11 and 12 years, as Tom explains that the age stated on the bottle is the one of the youngest drop, not an average.
For the last 31 years, Tom has given this brand “passion, heart and soul” and nowadays, with a new distillery up and running and a “substantial increase” in production, he seems at his busiest and his happiest. A father of two, he mentions that his daughter Hollis worked for the company for a decade and his son Tucker, 25, has recently joined the family business. “He’s doing a number of things, helping entertain the distributors. He will be working in the new distillery.”
Nowadays, the plan is to continue expanding and sharing Bulleit with new and established markets. “We’re making a very traditional product, all whiskeys tend to be, but it reaches to modern society thanks to the cocktail culture.”
From a recipe born in 1830, to the pursuit of a dream in 1987, to the multi-award winning range of Bourbons we know and love today, Bulleit has stayed true to its roots while letting its branches grow and reach for new frontiers.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.