Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Who Makes Bulleit Bourbon?
Although I have taken some shots at the marketing of Bulleit bourbon, I've always been a fan of the product itself. It's well-made and has a distinctive taste profile. Bulleit is not a typical bourbon. The reason, we've always been told, is that the mash contains more rye than any other bourbon on the market, in the neighborhood of 35 percent.
Although there was a previous version of Bulleit made at Buffalo Trace, the current iteration has long been a product of the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. When Seagram's acquired the brand, it also owned the distillery. However, when Seagram's was dismantled (2001-2002) the Bulleit brand went to Diageo while the distillery (and Four Roses brand) went to Kirin.
Then as now, Diageo had no functioning distilleries in Kentucky, so as part of the sale to Kirin it contracted for Kirin/Four Roses to supply its bourbon needs. Although that initially meant aged whiskey, it has evolved to mean new make (i.e., white dog), which Diageo barrels and ages at the old Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Shively, Kentucky, which Diageo still owns. From solid industry sources, I can tell you that Diageo also contracts with Brown-Forman, Constellation and Jim Beam for white dog.
The amounts are significant (on the order of six million proof gallons a year) and Diageo has many other needs for bourbon. It still sells I.W. Harper Bourbon in Japan and other places, though not so much in the United States. Bourbon whiskey is also the second-biggest component, after neutral spirits, in Seagram's Seven Crown American Blended Whiskey, other American blends, and even some Canadian blends. Diageo, a scotch company at heart, is much bigger in North American blends than it is in straights.
But Bulleit, because of its distinctive taste profile, was believed to be all from Four Roses, which sells about 40 percent of its output to Diageo.
So I was surprised when, in the context of an event coming up next week at the Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, a Kirin executive objected to the characterization of Bulleit as being made by Four Roses. His assertion was that since Four Roses supplies whiskey to Diageo, but can't be sure what Diageo does with it, and because it's known that Diageo gets whiskey from other sources they (Kirin/Four Roses) don't believe Bulleit is 100 percent Four Roses whiskey. Another source tells me that organoleptic testing confirms that Bulleit is not 100 percent Four Roses-made whiskey.
So I contacted Diageo, told them what I was hearing, and asked them where Bulleit is made. Here's their reply:
"Bulleit Bourbon continues to be wholly distilled at the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY according to exacting standards developed by Tom Bulleit and the Bulleit Distilling Company. Bulleit Bourbon’s bold flavor is the product of a unique recipe featuring a high proportion of the rye grain and the use of a proprietary yeast culture. As with all Kentucky straight Bourbons, Bulleit Bourbon is aged in charred barrels made from new American Oak and contains absolutely no additives whatsoever."
Who is telling the truth? Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps more interesting is why, now, is Kirin/Four Roses getting its back up about this? Is Diageo doing what Four Roses says and Four Roses is putting them on notice that if they want to continue to invoke the good name of that distillery, they better stop diluting Bulleit with whiskey made in other places? Or is something else at work here? I'm pretty much at a dead end because I take everyone at their word unless I have reliable evidence to the contrary.