American's shooting star

American's shooting star

To paraphase an old music expression, it's climbing the drinks chart with a Bulleit.Charles Cowdery on the latest bourbon success

Production | 09 Sep 2005 | Issue 50 | By Charles Cowdery

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Tom Bulleit – ex-Marine, ex-tax lawyer, current whiskey pitchman – is on the crest of a wave, paddling as fast as he can, hoping he can ride it to fame and prosperity.It has been a lifelong dream of Bulleit’s to bring his family back into the Kentucky whiskey business. He first put that ambition into motion almost 20 years ago, when he was contracted with Buffalo Trace (then known as Ancient Age) to distill about 200 barrels of bourbon to his specifications. In 1995 he released two brands, Thoroughbred and Bulleit, but didn’t quit his day job as a successful corporate tax attorney.Afew years later, Bulleit moved his operation to Seagram’s and their Four Roses Distillery took over production. Seagram’s gave the product a new taste profile and a new look, inspired by 19th century American patent medicine bottles.But winds of change can cruelly buffet a small, emerging product when it becomes enmeshed with giant multi-nationals. In 1999, Seagram’s re-launched Bulleit in a handful of United States and export markets. The next year Seagram’s was sold, first to Vivendi which peeled off the entertainment properties, then to Diageo, which kept some of the drinks business and sold the rest.Kirin Brewery, which had been Seagram’s partner in Japan, picked up Four Roses, both the distillery and the brand. As part of that sale, Diageo contracted with Kirin to have Four Roses supply bourbon for Diageo’s Seagram’s Seven, an American blend, as well as I. W. Harper Bourbon and Diageo’s other American whiskey products, including Bulleit bourbon, which had by then developed a nice business in Australia, the United Kingdom and Germany.Flash forward to May 2005, New York City, Angelo and Maxi’s Steakhouse on Park Avenue South at 19th Street. Dark wood, masculine decor, pictures of cigars on the walls but none in mouths, thanks to New York’s new smoking ban.There are eight single malts and eight cognacs on the back bar, as well as bourbons Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, Blanton’s, and Booker’s. Bulleit is here too, but on the other side, stuck in with the tequila. The black-clad staff are young and attractive.US Concepts, Diageo’s event marketing company, is staging a bar party for Bulleit during the early Friday evening ‘happy hour.’ It is giving away Bulleit baseball caps, carabiner key rings, and sample tastes of Bulleit and water, or Bulleit and ginger ale.Tom Bulleit, native of Louisville, 60-ish, small but fit, a Vietnam War veteran and son of a World War II vet who lost an eye at the Battle of the Bulge, works the dense crowd of young, mostly male office workers with ease and dignity.He has been doing this all week at different Manhattan hot spots to launch Bulleit bourbon in New York. It started a week ago at Brother Jimmy’s, a barbecue place on the Upper East Side, and culminates tomorrow a few blocks north of here, with a big Kentucky Derby Party at the Park Avenue Country Club.With its unmistakable Southern accent, bourbon is almost an import in Manhattan. New York is a cocktail town, hence the ginger ale. But New York is also a trendsetter and trend spotter, and a certain kind of American whiskey is suddenly hot here and other unlikely places around the country.The segment is so new it doesn’t yet have a name. Some call it ‘new bourbons,’ ‘modern bourbons,’ or ‘small batch bourbons.’ They are bourbons packaged like vodkas, and priced between $20 and $30 a bottle. Every major drinks company now has one and Bulleit, improbably perhaps, finds itself bearing the standard of the biggest drinks company of them all.That is why Tom Bulleit is paddling so fast.Finally, almost 20 years on, he is getting his big chance.Although bar patrons get Bulleit and ginger, journalists receive a guided comparative tasting of Bulleit bourbon against Jack Daniel’s and Maker’s Mark. Tom Bulleit points out the lack of phenol alcohols in Bulleit bourbon, which eliminates the medicinal nose of some products (he means Jack Daniel’s) and makes it seem light and less hot in the throat.This is important because unlike Maker’s Mark, a bourbon that touts its use of ‘soft red winter wheat’ instead of the ‘traditional spicier rye’ that can make bourbon taste hot, Bulleit contains a lot of rye, more than any other bourbon, comprising almost 30 percent of its mash bill.Despite the phenol alcohols claim, Bulleit is a little hot on the nose, with smoke first, then violets. The rye provides a spicy, earthy sharpness and a robust, bread-like flavour. Smoke is also apparent in the finish.These components are very well balanced, however, a hallmark of all the whiskey made at Four Roses.Tom Bulleit is proud of his association with Seagram’s and Four Roses, and its master distiller Jim Rutledge.“Seagrams was a production company,” says Bulleit. “They had a great tradition of quality control.” He cites their grains division and their more than 300 proprietary yeasts. Bulleit Bourbon, in fact, is actually a mixture of five different bourbons, all using the same high rye mash bill but each fermented by a different yeast strain.Making Bulleit this way gives the distiller superior control over the final product. Aging is similarly controlled. Instead of the typical barn-like aging warehouses, Bulleit is aged in ‘flathouses’, low buildings in which the highest barrel and the lowest have only four casks between them. The result is exceptional consistency.Tom Bulleit likes to quote W.Edwards Deming, the father of modern quality management theory, who defined quality as “the minimisation of deviation from standard.” In addition to his pride in how Bulleit is made, Tom Bulleit has a passion for the industry and its heritage.“I wanted to do this early on but came to it later in life,” he says. “This is Kentucky’s great industry and I consider it an honour to be part of it.” But now, instead of being the gutsy entrepreneur with a dream, Tom Bulleit finds himself, and his dream, in the protective arms of an international beverage powerhouse, the mighty Diageo.Chris Musumeci, senior brand manager for Seagram’s 7 and Bulleit Bourbon at Diageo, picks up the tale there.Chris came over from Seagram’s along with Crown Royal and its marketing team. This gave UK-based Diageo a new stake in North American whiskey.“Evidently, some of the highups were enamoured of the brand,” says Musumeci, who got the assignment to roll Bulleit out nationally. “I was a vodka and tequila guy, but got intrigued by the Bulleit bottle. It seemed very authentic.” Now in 38 states and on track to be national by the end of the year, Bulleit has become the fastest-growing bourbon in the US.“We think Bulleit has great potential,” says Musumeci. “The limit for this type of product has been about 500,000 cases, but we’ll see.” Tom Bulleit quit his law practice five years ago.Promoting his namesake bourbon is now his fulltime job.His persistence and hard work are paying off. After 20 years of trying, this Bulleit is finally hitting its target.
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