Friday, June 16, 2017

Tom Bulleit, Great Guy, But Not an Entrepreneur



Under the "Icons of Entrepreneurship" banner, the INC.COM headline says this: "The Unsung Hero Behind Bulleit Bourbon."

It is about Betsy Bulleit, her marriage to Tom, and their "third and fourth children," Bulleit Bourbon and Bulleit Rye. It is a fluff piece, written by the brand's PR agency.

I like Bulleit Bourbon (a product of Four Roses) and Bulleit Rye (a product of MGP of Indiana). They are excellent whiskeys. And I love Tom Bulleit. I always enjoy visiting with him. He is a great guy. I don't know Betsy, but the happy marriage angle is great too. I'm totally happy for them.

But Tom Bulleit is not an entrepreneur.

In 1995, Bulleit, a lawyer in Frankfort, Kentucky who had some business in Japan, created two new bourbon brands, 'Bulleit' and 'Thoroughbred,' for the booming Japanese market. He sold Bulleit to Seagrams in 1997. They reformulated the whiskey and redesigned the package. Mostly, they liked the name, which is pronounced 'bullet.' Thoroughbred fell by the wayside.

Tom was an entrepreneur for two years.

Selling your company after two years is surely one measure of entrepreneurial success, but you stop being an entrepreneur when you stop entrepreneuring. For the last 20 years he has been a brand ambassador. Brand ambassador is a noble calling and Tom is a very good brand ambassador but he is an employee, like Fred Noe is at Beam. It is not his company.

The brand owner is Diageo, world's largest drinks company, which never can resist gilding the lily.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

Did he even produce anything in those 2 years, or did he basically just sell the brand? I'm not familiar with the story and too lazy to look it up myself. Thanks!

helium said...

So, what did he do in those two years? Doesn't seem like enough time to produce his own juice, so maybe sourced and sold something? It ultimately seems like he just sold his brand name. Is this true? Sorry, to lazy to check myself... Thanks!

Erik Fish said...

"The brand owner is Diageo, world's largest drinks company, which never can resist gilding the lilly."

Diageo is rather peculiar that way. On the one hand, with NONE of their, by my count, five American whiskey lines, Dickel, Bulleit, I.W.Harper, Blade&Bow, and the Orphan Barrels, do they tell a straight unembellished story or are transparent about where the whiskey comes from. Well, Dickel is at least actually distilled mostly at the eponymous distillery, and at some point Bulleit will be,too. The others, not so much.

But on the other hand, it is hard to stay mad at them for long because they always produce or source good to excellent whiskey. (In their scotch portfolio, even Johnny Walker Red isn't nearly as bad as it is fashionable among aspiring whisky snobs to claim.)

Their visitor center at Stitzel-Weller is a rather interesting affair. Even though it's called the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience, it is a rather incoherent but entertaining attempt to blend S-W history with Bulleit and marketing for the other Diageo labels. And the high point definitely is that you get to sit behind Tom Bulleit's desk in what is supposed to have been Pappy's old office. I think next time we'll sneak in a flask of Old Fitzgerald for a toast when the guide is out of the room.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Whiskey for the original brands, Bulleit and Thoroughbred, was sourced from Buffalo Trace.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Sadly, the 'Pappy's old office' thing is fake too. The small room where Tom Bulleit's desk is was part of Pappy's office, a much bigger space, and that isn't where his desk was. Pappy's desk looked out those big windows that are now in the tasting room. I know because I was there in 1991, when it was essentially as the Van Winkles left it.

Matt R said...

Another sour grapes blog post. What's the point of this article?

Chuck Cowdery said...

For some reason, I don't believe that is a sincere question.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Chuck is beginning to realize that all is not as advertised, and consumers should not be scammed by every made up story they hear. At least JD made fun of themselves with things like giant Eagles in their adds. Bulliet is a good $32- whiskey. Everything else about it is pure hyperbole trying to raise the price.

Erik Fish said...

And since, last time I checked, you're not trying to persuade Diageo to distribute "Cowdery Frontier Whiskey" instead, it's also a complete misapplication of the "sour grapes" metaphor; I don't think he understands what it means :)

ron nap said...

It just seems you've went from being very informative to being very critical.

Anonymous said...

Now it begins. The real subtext of the mega producers . If you fail to embrace our bullshit stories, you are being critical.
Maybe it's time for the big guys to start putting in their bottles: number 1,732,451 bottle of exactally the same thing this month. See how the "craft" price point holds up on that.

Anonymous said...

If it's criticism you want, criticism you'll receive.

Sorry Chuck, but lily (the flower) is spelled with a singular 'L'.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Never let it be said I can't take criticism. Fixed. Thank you.

Erik Fish said...

Anonymous said...
"Sorry Chuck, but lily (the flower) is spelled with a singular 'L'."

Well, in that case, it's a single l, not a singular l, since there's nothing awesome or remarkable about it other than its loneliness, and Chuck spelled lilly with a double l, not a plural l :).

(A different?) Anonymous said...
"Maybe it's time for the big guys to start putting in their bottles: number 1,732,451 bottle of exactally the same thing this month. See how the "craft" price point holds up on that."

Don't go overboard in the opposite direction now, although craft propagandists have tried about 1,732,451 times without too much success.

Once you cut through Diageo's and other large producers' marketing BS, there is a lot of very good whiskey behind it.

Craft distillers oftentimes have the opposite problem. The authenticity of some bearded guys in flannel shirts babbling about passion and handmade in front of a micro-still in a pre-fab garage only goes so far compensating for immature, raw whiskey that's way overpriced for what it is. I recently paid $75 for a local micro's first bottled-in-bond bourbon. An impressive achievement for a small distiller, but comparing the whiskey itself to the major-brand bourbons I have currently open, I bought a $25 bourbon plus a $50 donation to keep my local distiller afloat. I'm cool with that as a one-time thing, but that's not sustainable.

helium said...

" I bought a $25 bourbon plus a $50 donation to keep my local distiller afloat." -Erik Fish


that would be great if the distiller actually made the $50. However, with our current system, it seems unlikely. A small, local distillery not too far from me says that they only make $10 off their bottles, which are going for over $50.

Anonymous said...

Erik Fish,
Point noted, thank you.

Yes, I am a different anonymous, I may have used singular erroneously, but I certainly didn't misspell exactly with an extra 'a' and a double 'l'.
[/humor]

frederic said...

The general consensus on a bartender group on Facebook was that this was Diageo's PR trying to re-write history to remove Hollis Bulleit (Tom's daughter) from the story. Despite her marketing ideas from bottle and label selection to traveling to Tales of the Cocktail and other events having made a big part of the brand's success. They recently removed her position about two months ago.

Olli said...

For me whole Bulleit is verry commercial . Good handemade Rye I am really interested in. Hard to find .

Olli said...

There is no spirit in this world that has a gerater sucsess than the story about it. For my opinion the Big Ones make sometimes a real good whiskey . So the smaller Independent Distillers in US do to. I Love my whiskey different each day. It dependes on my mood and perhaps the weather. My love is on Bourbon and all the New and interresting spirits made by american distillers. I' m a little bit tired of scotch and Irish Whiskeys. But among them there a really great ones. Big industrial like Jameson or small like Teeling.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

I'm with you, Erik. I typically won't pay $50+ for two-year old whiskey from a so-called "craft" distiller. That isn't to say there are some true craft distillers who make their own, quality, hooch. But they are the exceptions.

Our local distillery, St Augustine Distillery, released their first bourbon, last year. It's underaged and has an odd flavor (cheap scotch?) IMO. But I went to the distillery and bought one at $50, just to support the local business. Hopefully, they will get better as they grow. Hopefully, they get to keep more of the profit, than they would if I bought it at the liquor store.

Chuck Cowdery said...

You may want to ask them, you might be surprised by the answer. In some states, the distillery still has to pay the distributor, who does nothing, because, you know, the three-tier system. But in any case the distiller also gets the retailer's cut, so they do make more if you buy direct.

Sieve in the Sea said...

I was wondering why you skipped over Fredrick's point about the potential deeper politics of the industry. I've never seen you mention Hollis Bulleit on your blog, but if you are going to say that Tom Bulleit is only ambassador, which he may well be - why not mention Hollis Bulleit who has been an ambassador for quite some time, and until the publishing of the Unsung Hero article and her apparent erasure of history she would absolutely qualify as an entrepreneur and an "unsung hero". She changed the face of bourbon.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I've never met Hollis and since you guys seem to know a lot more about that than I do, maybe you need to start a blog.