Interview with Tom Bulleit

Last week during Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, Tom Bulleit, founder of Bulleit Frontier Whiskey,  paid a visit to WGNO-TV for an on-air interview for News With a Twist (you can find that here).   When they were done taping, I sat down with him for a few minutes to chat.  We talked Bulleit Bourbon, New Orleans, Tales of the Cocktail, and more.

Tom, how are you?

Very well, thank you!

I haven’t met a person that didn’t like Bulleit bourbon.  What makes it different?

I think a couple of things.  One, certainly the people that make it happen.  We have wonderful master distillers and chemists and engineers for both the bourbon and the rye.  I think it’s a unique proposition, really, in American spirits and bourbon.   For instance, at one end of the bourbon bookshelf we might have Maker’s Mark, which is a great iconic bourbon that’s made with winter wheat.  It will have a little bit lighter flavor… a great sweetness and smoothness.  At the other end of the spectrum you’ll have Bulleit bourbon.  It’s very heavily ryed bourbon.  Shall I divulge the secret recipe?  68% corn, 4% malted barley, 28% rye.

I was close.  The first time I tasted I guessed about 30% rye.

Exactly – as implemented today.  The historic family recipe is two thirds corn and one third rye.  That’s about double the rye of most bourbon.  So, it would be the driest of the bourbons.  Very spicy.  It’d be more towards the scotch palate, maybe, because of the dryness.

I find the drier bourbons, the ones higher in rye, make for a nicely balanced cocktail. 

Well, they make a different cocktail, certainly.  I always plead ignorance when it comes to mixology.  I can break glasses, but aside from that… that’s about as far as it goes.  We’ve had, historically, this wonderful partnership in chemistry, with the bartenders and the mixologists.  They will tell me exactly what you just said.  They will say ‘you mix sweet with sour’, ‘sour with sweet’, not two things that are sweet.  Bulleit is on the dry side.

I like the way it tastes in an old fashioned, and I keep a bottle around for just that purpose.  Your rye whiskey is 95% rye.  That’s a pretty high rye content.

Well, rye whiskey has to have 51% rye.  A straight rye is 80%.  Bulleit is 95% rye, 5% malted barley.  It is also 90 proof.  (A large portion of the next sentence in the audio recording is quite unintelligible.  I’ve tried my best to transcribe it as closely as possible.) I guess another characteristic might be we just use the heart of the whiskey for making… in column stills here in the United States. We’re making several number of alcohols, but primarily phenylethyl alcohol and you know the ethyl alcohol is called the ‘heart of the whiskey,’ and we’re just using that.  It’s a little bit lighter in the throat and mouth.

A couple of years ago you introduced the 10 year Bulleit bourbon.  It’s getting a lot of high marks.  What’s next for Bulleit?

Well, we’re going to stay on course.  I love the way Bill Samuels has managed Maker’s Mark through the years.  I think he’s one of the great iconic distillers and business people in our industry.  He stayed on course for decades and decades.  I have great respect for him.  He’s a very good friend of mine.  I have great respect for that approach.  We’re in an area of innovation.  People do different things.  We won’t do flavored [whiskies].  I think they’re wonderful, but it’s not who we are.  We make straight whiskey.  We’ll probably bring out variants of that in the bourbon and the rye as years go by.  Nothing right now that’s planned.

You’re in New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail.

We’re here for Tales of the Cocktail, which we… actually I’ve been here for all of them through the years.  Ann Tuennerman has gone from a few bartenders around a few bars to I think last year there were 17,000 career bartenders that came here.  It is the defining gathering of mixology and bartenders in the world.  People are here from all over the world.  It’s an amazing event.  I’m always struck by how entrepreneurial it is.  This is an entrepreneurial city.  I travel all over.  You may not know this is maybe the most hospitable city in the world.  The people are just wonderful.  They are so charming.  In that character, there is an entrepreneurship for everyone.  One of the things we did this year was we sponsored the apprentice program lunch yesterday.  These young people come in and work like thunder supporting all of the cocktails and all of the food service that goes on in this enormous event.  Each one of them… I mean they’re bar owners coming here as apprentices.  They’re bar owners!  They are unbelievable bartenders.  They come to help out.  There’s a huge group from Tampa.  The United States Bartender’s Guild in Tampa.  Tampa is taking this very seriously.  But we’re getting these folks from every place.  I love that entrepreneurship.  I guess I would call myself an entrepreneur, bringing back my great-great-grandfather’s recipe.  Certainly he was one.  I think this city just boils with that in it’s food and beverage service.  Just go to Las Vegas and see who’s restaurants are there.  Look how many of them came from New Orleans.  It’s amazing.

When you’re down in New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail, what’re you drinking?  What’s your favorite cocktail?

I think my favorite cocktail is… dad and I would drink bourbon on the rocks.  My other is a highball.  I don’t hear it called that anymore much, but you add water to bourbon on the rocks.  My aunt Sister Jean Claire(sp?) was a Catholic nun.  She drank it straight.  I guess she gave herself a dispensation.  I’ve tasted thousands of cocktails through the years made by incredible mixologists, and I’ve never had a bad one.  They’re making cocktails with all sorts of things.  This is not a rebirth.  It’s really the birth of the cocktail movement to me.  Historically we made cocktails, but certainly not with the variety of ingredients, the creativity and the enthusiasm that we’re doing now.  The cocktail movement has been a huge growth driver for Bulleit.  As you say the mixologists and bartenders like the way we’ve configured Bulleit.  It’s compatible with mixology.

Lastly, the popularity of bourbon in the country is skyrocketing.  We just did a piece here (at WGNO-TV) about the bourbon boom… and it is booming.  Where do you see the bourbon industry in the next couple of years?

Those things are really hard to project.  I have been more-or-less a heads down… I come from a pot-stirrer family.  We stir the pot, and in due course it comes out.   We see in the 40’s and the 50’s bourbon and beer in America was huge.  It goes through cycles.  I can’t tell… at this point we don’t know whether this is a cycle.  I suspect everything goes in cycles.  The whole world does.  I think the whiskey industry has come on very heavily.  Not just bourbon.  I don’t know if people are aware that scotch is huge.  They sell more scotch now than they ever have in the history of distilling scotch.  I think people are identifying the whiskies, and I think it may calm down.  I think it will be a settled part of people’s appreciation.  It’s like the culinary arts.  I don’t think we’ll go back to basics in restaurants and I don’t think we’ll go back to basics in mixology.  I think vodka is a wonderful mix, but I don’t think we’ll go back and depend on it exclusively.  I think the whiskies are coming forward and probably will stay forward.

 

Tom was cheerful and enthusiastic during the entire interview.  He seemed to have a genuine passion for the whiskey industry.  The part of the interview that stood out for me was when Tom teased possible future releases being variants of their current bourbon and rye whiskey.  Could we see an aged rye whiskey from Bulleit in the future?

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