Interview: Tom Bulleit On Bulleit’s New $115M Distillery And More

Bulleit is a red-hot whiskey brand. It’s a top seller at retail locations and a mainstay of back bars worldwide.

Expanding on this success, brand-owner Diageo recently announced that Bulleit is building a new $115-million, 300-acre distilling and warehouse facility in Shelbyville, Kentucky. Not too shabby for a brand that was resurrected in the ‘80s by its founder’s great-great grandson, Tom Bulleit (pictured atop), who then hand-sold it in bars for years.

I had opportunity to sit down with Bulleit (While in Miami for Diageo’s 2016 World Class bartender competition finals) to talk about the future of his rapidly growing brand.

Beverage Dynamics: What’s your goal with the new facility? Do you plan line extensions?
Tom Bulleit: I’m a firm believer of keepin’ on keepin’ on. We’ll continue to make our rye in Indiana. And in Shelbyville we’ll continue making our bourbon. And that’s pretty much all we’ll make there. Of course, we’ll make a great deal more of it. And we’ll continue to make our 10-year-old bourbon as well. But there are no plans right now to expand the portfolio. We’ll keep doing what we do well, with an eye towards consistency. We’ll be at a larger scale, yes, but I don’t think that means we can’t do great craft whiskey.

Our cask-strength bourbon, however, might broaden beyond Kentucky. Right now you can only buy it Kentucky. We’ll push that out to other markets, but that’ll be in short runs.

The water source for our bourbon will change once we open up Shelbyville. We’ll be drawing water from the limestone lake that touches our property. And I believe we’ll be building one of the most environmentally responsible distilleries in the state.

BD: Oh yeah? Why is it important to be eco-concious?
TB: There is a Kentucky writer who says that you should treat your neighbors downstream as well as you hope your neighbors upstream would treat you. I love that philosophy.

There’s a wonderful fishing and recreational area on the other side of our lake. So we will be withdrawing water so slowly that the lake will never go down more than 1/8 of an inch, so that we do not damage the ecology of the lake.

We have paid so much attention to having it be eco-friendly. When I was growing up we did not understand how you have to be eco-friendly. Now we know better. We have a responsibility towards each other and towards nature.

BD: You often point towards the cocktail scene as influential to Bulleit.
TB: Before we bottled our rye and our cask strength we ran them past many bartenders and mixologists. We asked these people, ‘Do you like this? Is this a valid proposition? Does this merit bottling?’

Our portfolio is really based on what they tell us. That’s where our rye comes from. They were telling us that a lot of classic cocktails call for rye whiskey, and can we please make them one?

That’s how we got on the frontend of the rye movement. This was back in ‘04, ‘05. And although rye is still not a big element as far as overall whiskey sales go, I do think the category is going to get much bigger.

BD: How important is consumer education today?
TB: It’s absolutely huge. It’s a generational thing. Used to be we’d just buy bourbon because it tasted good. Now young people are much more discerning. That discernment is enabled by the internet, because you can find out anything now in a second on Google.

And there’s much greater variety now in spirits. Used to be there was a limited number of spirits you could buy. Now that selection is basically limitless. So when you approach spirits with a limitless proposition, and with the internet, it makes people expect more and want to know more from us. So promoting product knowledge is huge.

Kyle Swartz is associate editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com

1 Comment

  1. Bulleit Opens $115M Distillery In Kentucky | Beverage Dynamics Reply

    […] Builleit was founded by lawyer-turned-entrepreneur Tom Bulleit in 1987. He resuscitated an old family brand and recipe for bourbon. He later sold the brand to Diageo, but remains with Bulleit as its brand ambassador. We spoked with him in September about the new distillery. […]

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