Monday, April 13, 2015
The Bulleit Story
I wrote this up for another purpose but it seemed like a good thing to share here as well. I've posted all of this before, but perhaps not all in one place. At any rate, Bulleit continues to grow and remains a stand out product for Diageo, even with the success of Orphan Barrel and the recent American re-launch of I. W. Harper.
This is the Bulleit Bourbon story, as succinct as I can make it.
Bulleit was started by Tom Bulleit in 1995. He contracted Buffalo Trace to make it and mostly intended to sell it in Japan, where he was already doing business as an attorney. There were two expressions. The packaging was completely different from what it is now.
Some years later, Seagram's started working on a new bourbon. They wanted to do a frontier theme and they were looking at old apothecary bottles for the package design. They liked the name 'bullet' but knew that wouldn't fly, so they were developing a product called 'Bullitt,' after Bullitt County, Kentucky. (Pronounced like the ammunition.) Then somebody told them about Bulleit (also pronounced that way) so, like any big company would, they made Tommy an offer he couldn't refuse. Jim Rutledge, who worked for Seagram's at the time, suggested a particular combination of Four Roses recipes and that became Seagram's Bulleit Bourbon. Same name, same spokesperson, different company, different package, different whiskey.
In 2000, when Seagram's was broken up for parts, their whiskey brands including Bulleit went to Diageo except Four Roses, which went to Pernod along with the distillery. Diageo also hired most of the Seagram's North American Whiskey marketing team. The year before, Diageo had sold the Bernheim Distillery and all of its American whiskey brands except George Dickel and I. W. Harper.
As part of the Seagram's acquisition, Diageo and Pernod contracted for Four Roses to make whiskey for Diageo. That sort of deal is standard when brands go one way and the distillery where they were produced goes elsewhere. That contract remained in force when Pernod sold Four Roses to Kirin almost immediately.
The initial contract involved both aged whiskey and new make, changing to all new make over time. Diageo aged the new make at its Stitzel-Weller Distillery.
Four Roses was content to fill its contract but when Diageo wanted more bourbon they said no, they needed it for their own products, and when the contract finally ran out over a year ago, Four Roses didn't renew it.
Four Roses wasn't the only distillery making bourbon for Diageo. A few years ago, I was told that Brown-Forman, Barton and Jim Beam were each making about 2 million proof gallons of new make per year for Diageo. My source was impeccable. That whiskey was also aged at Stitzel-Weller.
At around that same time I received a report that Four Roses had conducted chemical tests and determined that Bulleit contained whiskey not made at Four Roses. At the time, Diageo was proudly promoting the fact that every drop of Bulleit Bourbon was made at Four Roses. The person who provided the report refused to go public.
A little over a year ago, I was able to confirm that Four Roses was no longer providing new make to Diageo. More recently, Brown-Forman informed me that they are no longer providing new make to Diageo or anyone else. I have been unable to nail down anything about Barton or Jim Beam.
Obviously, the bourbon in Bulleit bottles today is at least mostly Four Roses. That will be the case for a few more years. Diageo has a problem with Bulleit that most non-distiller producers (NDPs) don't face, the product's recipe. Bulleit contains almost twice as much rye as a standard bourbon and that's a difference you can taste. Diageo can't sell just any old bourbon as Bulleit.
Contract distillers will, of course, make any recipe you want and Jim Beam already makes a similar product in Old Grand-Dad.
One assumes that Diageo would have been content to remain an NDP for bourbon purposes but with distillers pulling back on contract production to supply their own growing brands, Diageo was forced to build a new distillery of its own.
Presumably, Diageo has enough liquid in the pipeline or still being made for it by someone to supply Bulleit, accommodating its growth, until whiskey from the new distillery is ready to go. At present, there appears to be plenty of Bulleit to go around.