After launching exclusively in Kentucky last year, Bulleit is officially rolling its Barrel Strength bourbon out to other major cities starting this week.
To celebrate, Bulleit held an event a few weeks about in San Francisco for some local media to try out the spirit, both on its own and in some amazing cocktails created by the bar staff at SF’s Tradition. Bulleit is very much a bourbon for bartenders. While its roots are in Kentucky, San Francisco’s bartenders were very much a driving force in the launch of Bulleit Rye, and today the SF area is bourbon’s biggest market.
On hand for the launch of the event was founder Tom Bulleit, who took a few minutes to talk to us about the launch of Barrel Strength and Bulleit’s new Kentucky distillery, which is now officially in one-shift production with plans to move to three-shift production in the next few months. Check out the full interview (edited for length) below:
Paste: Where is Barrel Strength available now?
Tom Bulleit: Barrel Strength is available in Kentucky, and we’re launching it here in San Francisco on June 6th, and then in New York City. Northern California and Metro New York, and Kentucky where it’s available now.
From an outside perspective, it’s a little odd to go from Kentucky to SF as opposed to perhaps going to the South first. Why San Francisco?
I love San Francisco. It’s an amazing city. I think it’s the most beautiful city in America. And it is really where Bulleit was to a very considerable extent, grew up and was built. Northern California is our best market, New York is our second best market. Literally the bartenders and mixologists in this community — this is one of the best bartending/mixology communities in the world. Probably San Francisco, New York, London, Berlin is coming on. So, not for nothing, this is one of the important markets for us. This is really the one market we grew up in. While we may have been born in Kentucky, this is where we grew up. The combination of the cocktail culture here. the extraordinary bar culture.
Paste: Do you see barrel strength as something people are going to put in cocktails rather than drink on its own?
TB: I think a little of both. It’s a nice sipping whiskey. I think it’s nice. I like to wake it up a little bit with water. I find that people that drink the Barrel Strength will like it straight. A lot of people drink it almost like a scotch, up and warm, sometimes they put ice in it, but I would imagine that it’s really going to be consumed up and warm.
High-proof spirits are great to mix with for bartenders and mixologists. You might say “Why Tom?” and I would say “Because they told me they were!”
Paste: I imagine it has something to do with the water content
TB: Right. Then they can add more stuff. It really holds up well with adding a multiplicity of ingredients… Mixology to me is like being a chef, it takes absolutely a superior palette. One of the reasons this is here is because the mixologists and the bartenders want it and ask for it. Just like all the rest of our products, other than our original.
Paste: You mentioned earlier being a tax lawyer. From lawyer to distiller is a big leap, what made you decide to do that?
TB: I’m the business guy. I’m not the master distiller or the chemists. from a business standpoint, I was a commercial lawyer. Really, the methodology of practicing law, which is analytic and fact discovery and paying disciplines on top of that law and on top of the facts is something that I do all the time. I bet I use the methodology of law if not the actual law itself on almost a daily basis. I minored in history, for instance, and majored in English, and we’re all about writing and looking at things. And then I minored is history, and we’re all about history – family history.
The reason I’m sitting here is not because I was a lawyer, it’s because I’m a descendant of Augustus Bulleit, my great great grandfather, who distilled between 1830 and 1860. Our extended family has been in it, but not our direct family. This is the recipe I brought back in 1987. But I grew up working in the distilleries. loved the business. I wanted to do it right after college. My father said “I want you to be a lawyer.” and you did what your dad said a long time ago. I eventually went back to him, and her through “Well, alright.” I had practiced law for a long time and then did both for about 10 years.
Paste: You changed the recipe a good bit from that original one, right?
TB: Actually, the original recipe was extremely complex: two-thirds corn and one-third rye. It’s very close as implemented today. Today it’s 68% corn, 4% malted barley, 28% rye, which is still about two thirds and one-third. A little different, but not much. The significant thing is that it’s a very high rye recipe. Most of the bourbons are 12-13%, which is fine God bless them, it’s a different style of bourbon. Ours is about double that. Really the high rye feature is what we emphasize.
Paste: You just opened a new distillery. Can you tell me about that?
TB: [We’ve been working on it ] over the last three years. Maybe at least a year, 18 months, in the design stage and then two years in the build stage. We started testing the distillery back in September, and we’re now in one-shift production, which started in February. By the summer we’ll be in three-shift production. We have three new warehouses that are finished, a fourth that’s about half full, and we’re working on the fifth.
Paste: And you’re making traditional Bulleit there? What will come from that distillery?
TB: Exactly what you’re drinking here. That distillery will make Bulleit bourbon.
Paste: So it will be six years before we see anything from there since you have to wait for it to age?
What we’ll do is continue to make fully-aged straight bourbon whiskeys. We like them at about six years. Of course, we have a 10-year-old, which is really hard to push out that far, the average is about 11 years really. And the six is 5,6,7,8 – it might average 7.
Paste: When the bourbon from the new distillery hits store shelves it will look exactly what we see today?
TB: It’s a different water source. You couldn’t taste the difference. We’re going to grow the corn, non-GMO corn there rather than get it from sources in Clark County, Indiana. You couldn’t tell the difference because every year the crop is different. It’s too subtle. Maybe, if you were making a beer – but we distill a beer to make a whiskey. By the time we do that you would never be able to tell the difference. We have a patented yeast strain that will come forward. We went through literally a hundred or two hundred considerations to make exactly the same whiskey.