As I prepared to leave work yesterday, I checked my Twitter feed and saw the reminder from Sportsman’s Fine Wine and Spirits that a free Bulleit Bourbon tasting was taking place from 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm. I was kind of tired and almost ignored it, but then…I’ve passed that unique flask-shaped bottle with raised lettering many times and wondered about the spirit inside. Why not take a few minutes to see what it’s all about? I’m glad I went, as company founder Tom Bulleit was there talking about bourbon and signing bottles. Not only was he a very entertaining and likable gentleman, but I also got the scoop on some new works in progress by this [currently] single-expression brand!
Tom talks about the Bulleit History
It’s Mr. Bulleit’s Great, Great Grandfather Augustus who is credited with formulating the original Bulleit whiskey recipe. He came to America with his French family in 1805, taking root in New Orleans. In the 1825 to 1830 time frame, he worked his way up to Louisville, Kentucky where he married and ran a couple of taverns. He also started making whiskey, which he sold locally, and would also take barrels back to New Orleans to sell there.
Tom Bulleit mentioned that he DID work at a distillery when he was young (he’s currently 67 years young), but his father was never really involved in the business. Tom went on to be a marine and a successful lawyer. However, he had always dreamed of resurrecting the family whiskey recipe and starting his own business. He said his father wasn’t too keen about the idea, but Tom felt compelled to follow his passion. He founded Bulleit and ran it as a family business until 1997, when they partnered with Seagrams. Diageo bought out most of Seagrams a few years later and Bulleit became their small-batch bourbon. He said that Diageo has been great to work for/with. They can still be very entrepreneurial and independent, but have access to vast resources.
The Bulleit Bourbon recipe
Now, the story goes that the Augustus recipe, after his death in 1860, was passed along in the family, and it was this recipe that Tom used when he founded Bulleit Bourbon in 1987. The current Bulleit recipe calls for 68% corn, 4% malted barley, and 28% rye. This is a significant increase in rye relative to other bourbons. What I found interesting was Tom’s description of the original Augustus recipe. He said it was originally about two thirds rye and one third corn…not technically a bourbon by today’s standards.
So…I guess the “original recipe” thing is a bit of a loose interpretation, with the key being that, as a bourbon, it has a very high rye content. Of course there are other factors involved in the recipe. Apparently they are very specific about how the grains should be grown. They also have a method of filtering the distillate so that they’re only using ethyl alcohol and none of the phenols (something to do with temperature and specific gravity…I took his word for it). This helps give it a very smooth character. They mature the barrels for at least six years, at which point they start checking them for “proper” maturity. The barrels used to make the final product are between six and eight years of age.
Bulleit Bourbon Frontier Whiskey; 45% ABV (90 proof)Nose: Gentle, with very little direct alcohol influence. Vanilla and some light fresh oak and medium sweetness. Hints of citrus come and go. Palate: Gentle at first, then a very noticeable pepper spice, almost Talisker-like. Turns dry fairly quickly. Finish: The pepper has a medium-long duration, and this is VERY drying on the tongue. More vanilla, and just a touch of smoke in the back of the nostrils.
I expected the 28% rye content to really give this a pop, but it’s quite gentle. It’s fascinating to experience that pepper and high level of dryness on the tongue, but have the rest of the experience be one of subtle toffee sweetness, vanilla and light oak. Bulleit compares price-wise with Knob Creek and Maker’s Mark. I’m having difficulty organizing their profiles in a linear fashion, though. The Bulleit lies in between the other two in relative sweetness and spiciness, but it’s lighter than either of the other bourbons. That lightness is similar to that of Gentleman Jack Tennessee Whiskey, but unlike the GJ, you can tell this one is whiskey, not flavored water.
My tasting notes are based on the in-store tasting last night, and another dram tonight. I’ll hold off on trying to rate this until I’ve had more experience with it. While I’m not going to give up Island or Islay Scotch for this bourbon, my initial impression is that it is a good value if you can find it for a little over $20. I’ll pull it out when I’m looking for something light, but I still want to get an entertaining tingle on the tongue (both from the dryness and the pepper spice).
Bulleit in cocktails
I can’t really offer much when it comes to bourbon cocktails. I like mine neat or with a few drops of room temperature water. Mr. Bulleit also indicated a preference for drinking whiskey neat or on the rocks. He fully supports everyone’s right to create whatever mixes they see fit, but what truly gives him pleasure is seeing somebody enjoy the profile that they worked so hard to create. He did offer up one particular cocktail recommendation. He said this ONLY works with Bulleit [with a sly smile on his face]:
- A shot of Bulleit Bourbon
- 1.5 – 2 oz tonic
- A squeeze of lemon
That’s it…very simple, but he says it’s great. I’ll have to pull a lemon off of our tree this weekend and give it a try.
It was a pleasure meeting Tom Bulleit, and he was incredibly generous with his time. I had monopolized a bit of that time towards the end of the tasting, and when I apologized, he said no apologies necessary. It was a pleasure to talk bourbon with people who are passionate about whiskey. I believed him. He’s a good salesman, but he also seems very humble, down to earth, and appreciative of his opportunity to follow his passion and share it with others. His bourbon is well crafted, refined, and very drinkable. If you’re scared off by the likes of Knob Creek, don’t be frightened by the “Frontier Whiskey” on the label. I’d think of that as more of a reference to Augustus Bulleit’s travels between Tennessee and New Orleans (with whiskey in tow) than to the character of the bourbon itself.
Oh, and I mentioned at the beginning that I got the scoop on some exciting new products they’re working on. However, when I mentioned that I have a whisk(e)y blog, he asked me to hold off putting anything in writing so that they can have first crack at sharing the news. However, I’m free to blog about it in four months if they haven’t gone public with anything. At least that gives you an idea of the time frame they’re looking at. We’re not talking about something that’s years away from coming to fruition.