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.

“New Orleans was the only place in the US that spoke French, so that’s where he arrived,” explains Bulleit. “In due course he came up the Mississippi river and settled in the Louisville area, which was becoming America’s whiskey port. He had his own granary and so distilled, and had a tavern at one point. He would make trips back down the river to sell his whiskey. It was an incredibly arduous journey in those days.”

“In 1860 he did not return – even though he had a family of five boys. In the south we consider ourselves gentile, so the ladies would always say he had been murdered. The men would say he had another family in New Orleans and possibly liked them better.

“There was talk of sending sheriffs to find him, but in 1861 the Civil War started and that was a bloodbath. One person missing was almost irrelevant.

“We don’t know what happened to him but we do know what happened to his recipe. It was passed down by word of mouth from Augustus to my great-grandfather to my grandfather to my father Thomas. The distilling jumped from Augustus to me. But other branches of my family were involved in bourbon – it was a very strong life influence. You could smell the grain driers all over our neighbourhood.”

Bulleit’s start-up cost more than he had. “My banker told me not to give up my day job – ‘you owe me far too much money for that’, he would say. My wife Betsy would ask each month: ‘How are we gonna pay back all this money, Tom. I have calculated that you would have to practise law for another 273 years.’”

Bulleit bottled his first bourbon in 1994. In 1997 he was at the table with Seagram. “At one point during the negotiations they asked: ‘What is the concept Tom?’ I had no idea what that meant.”

Maybe not, but Bulleit is a born raconteur. Selling bourbon to a drinker isn’t much different to selling bourbon to a drinks group – you need to reel them in with the story.

“We got together with Seagram, which was a huge boon. They loved the recipe, the name and the fact our family has a long tradition of distilling.”

The group had sold all of its Bourbon brands and was looking for a way back into the category. “Seagram had an extraordinary quality culture. It did a lot of things on gut and feel. We moved all our operations to its Lawrenceburg Kentucky and Lawrenceburg Indiana distilleries.” The names are just a coincidence, says Bulleit. “Although I am configuring a story about an Uncle Lawrence who was wounded and crawled between… I’ll work it out.”

In this industry when a big business comes knocking the small business is the one to adapt. This is also true of Bulleit, but not for the worse. “When we transitioned to the old Seagram operations we were able to fully implement the family recipe, which is two-thirds corn, one-third rye.

“The stills in Lawrenceburg Kentucky are by a large creek and in Indiana they are built on top of a 2 million-year-old glacial aquifer. There’s an inexhaustible supply of limestone water. We chose a great yeast strain and Art Peterson came in as master distiller – with more knowledge about whiskey than anyone I’ve known. He could put whiskey on his palm and tell you what it is, who made it and how old it is.”

When Diageo bought two-thirds of Seagram in 2000, Bulleit went with it, but its founder has remained a consensual partner in the brand. “I’m involved in innovation and marketing, even though I know nothing about marketing. For instance, we’ve had discussions about flavours. But that’s not who we are, we make straight whiskey.”

In 2011 Bulleit Rye was introduced and in January the US saw a second-coming of the limited edition 10 year old. Exports are also being brought up from 40% abv to the domestic Bulleit proof of 90 (45% abv).

Bulleit says he has a favourite whiskey but, like a parent, you never say which one. Whichever it is, it’ll be found on the rocks, allowing for some dilution. “Art Peterson used to say water is to whiskey what oxygen is to wine. There’s no question water opens it up. You can see the molecular change.”

Without a pause, Bulleit is back in Kentucky and is reeling out the family orders: “Mother would have a Highball. And Aunt Jean-Claire – who was a catholic nun – she would drink it straight. She gave herself a dispensation no doubt…”

Bulleit was inducted into the Bourbon Distillers’ Hall of Fame in 2009. Having revived a recipe of bourbon’s history and put it in a bottle that is selling around the world, the only question is why they took so long.