Sunday, July 20, 2008

Drink Bulleit Anyway.

The new ad for Bulleit bourbon bothers me.

My first problem is, I don't know what it means. What makes Bulleit the "Last of the Great Bourbons"? And why should that make me want to drink it?

Gene Song is the Brand Manager for Bulleit and George Dickel at Diageo. Here is his explanation:

"Last of the Great Bourbons" is meant to convey the idea that Bulleit Bourbon is among a small collection of unique bourbons which have survived the tests of time and continue to be enjoyed today. More specifically, Bulleit Bourbon's distinctive taste from its high rye recipe and long history dating back to Augustus Bulleit combine to form something unique. Unless other brands from the 1800s are resurrected, this 'fraternity' of bourbons is closed.

Today, we are lucky to live in a time where consumers who enjoy bourbon have more choices than ever. There are a lot of great bourbons available, each with its own history and taste profile. "Last of the Great Bourbons" is intended to inspire those who are looking for a bourbon with both distinctive taste and a long, rich history to discover Bulleit Bourbon.

Well, okay, except for a couple of things. First, and perhaps most important, Bulleit bourbon is not a "brand from the 1800s." Bulleit bourbon was launched in 1995, the brainchild of Tom Bulleit, a Kentucky lawyer who, through his legal work, learned a lot about the growing international market for American whiskey. He contracted with the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, to make it. A few years later, he moved his operation over to Seagrams. They created the current bottle and reformulated the product, moving its production to the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.

When Pernod-Ricard and Diageo teamed up to buy Seagram's, they each took the brands they wanted and sold the rest. Diageo took Bulleit but not Four Roses, although Bulleit is still made there under contract.

Bulleit has never before claimed to be a 19th century brand. Tom Bulleit always said that his family had a history in the whiskey business. That evolved into stories about a 19th century ancestor named Augustus Bulleit. The present day Bulleit formula was supposedly passed down from Augustus.

I know and like Tom Bulleit and have asked him about this history. He told me it's what his father told him, but he looked a little embarrassed as he said it. I didn't press him. This much I know, there is no evidence to support any of the claims about Augustus Bulleit and there is no record of a product named "Bulleit Bourbon" before 1995. That doesn't mean the stories passed down through the family aren't true, it just means it's a big stretch to characterize Bulleit as a 19th century brand.

It was Seagram's that, in advertising, first called Bulleit "frontier whiskey." The original Buffalo Trace package looked like it might contain perfume. Seagrams went with something inspired by 19th century apothecary bottles, hence the "frontier whiskey" theme. A couple of years ago, Gene Song's predecessor told me it was the bottle design that caught the attention of senior Diageo executives and made them think Bulleit was a horse they could ride to the front of the emerging premium bourbon category.

As for the recipe, the Bulleit recipe is one that Seagram's has made for decades, since long before there was a Bulleit bourbon. Yes, it is a high-rye bourbon formula, but it was developed entirely independent of the Augustus Bulleit legend.

Finally, did Gene Song really answer the question? Why "last"? He seems to be saying that it is last in that it is the most recent 19th century brand to be relaunched in a later century. He even concedes that it could be supplanted if, for example, somebody reintroduces Old Tub, the Beam family's 19th century bourbon.

One also has to accept the premise that 19th century automatically equals great.

Perhaps this just goes to show that we shouldn't read any advertising too carefully.

Or does it show that we don't read most advertising carefully enough?

All that said, drink Bulleit bourbon anyway, because Four Roses is a great distillery and Bulleit is a delicious and well-made bourbon, in an admittedly cool bottle, that is sold at a good price ($20-$25). The high-rye mash bill gives is a spicy taste you won't find in many other bourbons.

My problem with dubious history in association with American whiskey products is that the industry has such a rich authentic history, I hate to see it confused with ficton contrived by marketers for short term gain. Diageo isn't the only culprit, virtually everybody does it, although I have taken Diageo to task before for playing fast and loose with the history of its George Dickel brand.

The moral, I guess, is that while I take my whiskey straight, I take most whiskey marketing with a grain of salt.


Scott said...

Whenever I read about beverage marketing folks playing fast and loose with history, it reminds me of and old Dilbert strip where he gets reassigned to the marketing department by the pointy haired boss. When he arrives, he's greeted by people in togas and there's a banner over the door that says "Marketing, two drink minimum." Perhaps they're drinking what they are selling.

After hearing the concocted "history" of so many modern brands, it seems to me that the bulk of the marketing executives in the bourbon industry have B.S. degrees (not to be confused with a Bachelor of Science). For the sake of complete disclosure, I have to admit that my encounter with a Bulleit advertisement in a magazine a few years back started me on my trip to Bourbonia.

I think it was the cool bottle.

Anonymous said...

Well, Chuck, I suppose that when you're a marketing executive instead of a whiskey person, you'd be forgiven thinking that whiskey just had to be better in the 19th century. Fact is, a lot of whiskey being sold then was tobacco-flavored iodine-colored white dog with wintergreen and a little sulphuric acid (vitriol) tossed in for a bead.

Remember the environment - and century - that spawned the Bottled In Bond Act.

Meanwhile, just off the top of my head, I can think of a few brands of whiskey that came to us from the 19th century and never really left:

Jack Daniel's

George Dickel

Four Roses

I. W. Harper

Old Forester

Early Times

Mattingly & Moore (if Heaven Hill still makes it)

Tom Moore

Old Charter

Old Crow

Old Fitzgerald

Old Grand-Dad

Old Overholt (possibly the oldest continuous brand)

Pepper - James or Oscar, I forget which, is still bottled for export


Old Taylor

W. L. Weller

Obviously, some today are more drinkable (Weller) than others (Crow), but it should be readily discernable that even today quite a few brands being sold go back to the time period falsely claimed for Bulleit. The Pepper whiskeys actually claim a pedigree to the 18th century.