Bulleit proof

From soldier to distiller by way of being a lawyer – the creator of Bulleit bourbon has a chequered history. He shares his stories with Hamish Smith

I took my pistol off and laid it on the table, did the exam, got back in my jeep and went back to war.” Meet Tom Bulleit, Vietnam vet, lawyer, Bourbon Hall-of-Famer and founder of Diageo’s great American whiskey hope, Bulleit.

“Wars are peculiar. There are lots of things that happen amid the mayhem that you wouldn’t expect.” In order to go to law school after Nam, Bulleit had to take an exam. “I told the gunnery sergeant I wanted to go into Da Nang and take the LSAT. He said: ‘What the ****,’ which meant no. So I found him later, after he’d had a few beers. He’d forgotten I’d already asked him and replied: “What the ****.’

“That time it meant yes. A jeep with a machine gunner on the back had been arranged to take us down highway one into Da Nang. There were probably 40-50 people taking exams inside the compound. In a demilitarised zone there are rockets [landing] at times, but it was a relatively straightforward place.”

Little in Bulleit’s life has been straightforward. Born in Louisville, Kentucky. to a catholic family, schooling was by nuns, then priests and finally the University of Kentucky. “I graduated with the lowest grade-point average since the university was founded in 1783,” says Bulleit proudly. “I had taken extra courses to graduate when finally they said: ‘Tom we have had enough.’ My father went to Notre Dame, a very fine school, my grandfather Chicago – the genes collapsed in my generation.

“I told my dad I wanted to be a master distiller. He said: ‘Well, you’re going into the military.’ We were in the middle of the Vietnam War; it was full draft in ’66-’67. My father was a disabled Second World War veteran and by far the best man I’ve ever known. After the war he said I was going to be a lawyer. He wasn’t particularly an optimist – I don’t know where he found the confidence in me.”

Bulleit did as his father said. “You discover as you grow older the person you most want to please in life is your father. That’s who you gauge yourself by. My father died in 1991. His shadow has grown in death – he’s about 1,500ft now.”

Having graduated from a good law school, Bulleit worked at the US Treasury Department. In 1987, though, he quit his job and came back to Kentucky. He wanted to set up a law firm – that and a bourbon business.

“My dad thought I was mentally ill. He grew up in the depression – to him a job was a treasure. I told him I really wanted to do it and he finally said ‘that’s between you and your banker’ – which was a yes.”

If bourbon was French, Bulleit’s hometown of Louisville, with its 35 distilleries over the years, would be the grand cru of the AOC. Of course, bourbon does have some Gallic influence. A Frenchman called Augustus Bulleit, the great-great grandfather of Tom Bulleit, emigrated to New Orleans in 1805.