Walk into any bar across the country, and you’ll find an orange label with “Bulleit” on the front. The words “Frontier Whiskey” prominently displayed on the bottle. Bulleit (pronounced “Bullet”) has been a gateway bourbon for new drinkers over the last two decades. Everyone tries Jim Beam or Makers. Bulleit’s high-rye mash bill provides a different flavor profile from the standard “shelf” bourbons. Most know that Diageo owns the Bulleit brand. But, the brand has a whiskey family history dating back to the 1850’s. This post is a story about the brand. Not the history of the name. This is the story of the Bulleit brand that most Bourbonr’s don’t know.
Let’s talk about the brand history.
In 1987, Thomas E. Bulleit, Jr., fulfilled a lifelong dream of reviving an old family bourbon recipe by starting the Bulleit Distilling Company. Inspired by his great-great-grandfather Augustus Bulleit, who made a high-rye whiskey between 1830-1860, Tom left a successful law practice and risked everything to experience life on the frontier. Today, we’re not the only ones who are glad he did.
Tom Bulleit started the Bulleit brand in 1987. The original Bulleit looked much different than the bottle we know today. Tom Bulleit didn’t use his family history in Bulleit story originally. Instead, he focused on another Kentucky past time, horse racing. Ancient Age distillery (Buffalo Trace distillery DSP-KY-113) produced the first bottles of Bulleit. You’ll notice the first Bulleit bottles were in the squat/square bottles made famous by Elmer T. Lee (Weller Centennial). After starting the brand, Tom contract distilled at Ancient Age distillery to produce the product. Contract distilling is different than the NDP model we know today. Tom had the bourbon distilled and barreled on his behalf. Then he waited. The first bottles released in 1995 included a 90 proof Bulleit bourbon as well as a 100 proof “Thoroughbred” Bulleit bourbon.
Tom Bulleit also used a “new” technique (actually an old technique but this is marketing at its finest) that would make a four to six-year-old bourbon taste like a ten-year-old bourbon. The “engineering” meant they would heat the warehouses during the winter months to simulate the temperature swings of the Kentucky seasons.
Shortly after the Bulleit release Tom Bulleit was approached by Seagrams. The story I’ve been told is Seagrams was hunting for a brand to release bourbon under. Apparently, they liked the name “Bullet” but knew that wouldn’t fly. Next, a reference to Bullit county Kentucky. They found their solution in purchasing the “Bulleit” brand. It fit perfect with their frontier whiskey theme. Plus, there was a historical narrative to partner with an “apothecary” styled bottle. With a new look, Bulleit adopted the new tagline “Frontier Whiskey”. Bulleit Bourbon was produced at the Ancient Age distillery until 1999. After the Ancient Age barrels had run out Bulleit switched its bourbon source to Four Roses (another Seagram’s company). Everything was great until December of 2000. Seagram called it quits and had their assets divided between two buyers, Diageo and Pernod-Ricard. The Bulleit brand was acquired by Diageo. Diageo extended the contract with Four Roses to remain as the source for the Bulleit brand. This contract survived serval ownership changes from Four Roses (now owned by Kirin). Confused yet?
Four Roses remained the source of Bulleit for over a decade. Diageo was still buying from multiple distilleries for their other brands. It’s believed that Four Roses was the sole supply for the Bulleit brand until 2013(ish). Due to an increased demand for both products, Four Roses was no longer able to keep pace with their own growth while supplying a substantial amount of bourbon to an NDP. This is where we’re left today. There are the usual suspects as to who makes the current Bulleit bourbon. I assume there’s still a substantial amount of Four Roses in each bottle. Diageo has also contract distilled with Brown-Forman for many years. Barton has been rumored to source bourbon to Diageo. As well as Jim Beam.
I asked the Bulleit team about their new source. Here is their response: “We are unable to discuss the specifics of our relationships with our various distilling partners, but we guarantee our commitment to providing the same high-rye, high-quality bourbon that Bulleit has been known for throughout the years.” I believe it’s probably a mix of distilleries. As long as their contracting with a high-rye mash bill I don’t foresee a huge change in taste/quality.
After switching to the Frontier Whiskey bottle not much changed for Bulleit brand over the next decade. They made their way into more markets and gained a following along the way. In 2011, Bulleit released its first product line extension with a rye. Bulleit Rye differentiated itself by marketing the 95% rye mash bill. The funny thing is the rye is sourced from MGP in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. AKA the former Seagrams Distillery. Between the branding, high rye and higher proof, mixologist across the country fell in love. Bulleit kept the ball rolling by releasing a 10-year limited edition in 2013 as well as a barrel strength Kentucky only release in 2016. While the source of the two new bourbons is unknown my taste buds would say it’s definitely Four Roses.
For years Diageo let the famed Stitzel-Weller distillery serve as the unofficial headquarters of the Bulleit Brand. In 2014, the Bulleit experience opened at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Shively, KY. Believing in the brand, Diageo dropped $10 million on the new Bulleit visitors center. Bulleit is set to see even more changes in 2017 with the Bulleit distillery is set to open Shelby County Kentucky.
But, the biggest question is how does the old Bulleit compare to new Bulleit. Here’s my review:
The nose is toasted marshmallow and bananas foster. There’s a little bit of cedar and red fruit. It’s definitely on the sweet side but not overpowering. It has a peppery maple candy taste. The middle of the palate is orange peel and vanilla. The taste is not as sweet as the nose would would lead you to beleive. The taste also has a mineral or char note. The finish is a little spicy and not overly oaky. It lingers nicely with bananas fosters and oak.
All things considered, this is an excellent pour. It’s different than the High-Rye bourbon we’ve come to know as Bulleit. That’s not a bad thing. Ignoring the nostalgia of the bottle I’d pick the new Bulleit barrel proof over this bottle. This bottle reminds me of dusty Old Charter 7. It’s probably the same bourbon.