Interview | Bulleit Founder Has Whiskey in His Blood

Attorney-turned-distiller Tom Bulleit shares his whiskey company's history.

Christopher Osburnby Christopher Osburn

Tom Bulleit has whiskey in his blood. His family has been in Kentucky for six generations and he grew up in the distilling communities of Bardstown and Louisville. “I graduated from University of Kentucky and then served in Vietnam, and upon returning home I received law degrees from the University of Louisville and Georgetown,” says Bulleit. In between school terms he worked at a few distilleries in Kentucky and became very passionate about making whiskey, but his father insisted he become a lawyer, so that’s what he did. “But after practicing for many years, I finally decided to follow my dream and start my own whiskey company with the support of my wife, Betsy,” he says.

Bulleit, the founder of Bulleit Frontier Whiskey, was gracious enough to answer a few questions for Crave.

Crave: Tell me about your great-great grandfather’s high rye bourbon.

Tom Bulleit: My father told me about the family legend of my great-great grandfather, Augustus Bulleit, after he learned how much I loved the bourbon industry. He told me that Augustus made a high-rye bourbon between 1830 and 1860, and that he disappeared one day while transporting barrels of bourbon to New Orleans. No one in our family ever knew what happened to him, though. It was the mystery behind our family recipe that inspired me to create Bulleit Bourbon.

Why did you get into the whiskey business after a successful law practice?

My father always said that whiskey is in my blood but I knew I wanted to get into the business when I was working at distilleries in between school terms. That is when I fell in love with the industry. I have a very vivid memory in one of the distilleries thinking, “I love this and I’m going to do this one day.” My dad told me that I should join the military, then practice law, so that’s what I did. Several years into my career as a lawyer, I told my father I was still interested in reviving the family bourbon recipe. He told me, “Well, that’s between you and your banker.”

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How hard was it to get started?

For nearly 10 years I sold Bulleit by hand, walking into bars or stores and asking if they had heard of Bulleit, while still practicing law as my day job. I heard “no” so many times, I stopped keeping count. In 1997, that hard work was recognized and we partnered with Seagram’s, now Diageo, which is what I always call “falling uphill”. The partnership opened up incredible distribution and marketing opportunities for Bulleit that weren’t previously available to us.

When did you know that you had “made it”?

Well, I never want to think I have “made it” because I never want to become complacent and stop striving to create delicious whiskey. However, there are some personal high points that I’ve been proud of throughout my bourbon career. Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher appointed me as a member of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels in 2006. I was also inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2009 and named a Louisville Hometown Hero in 2014. Those honors have been a testament to how much has been accomplished in my entrepreneurial journey.

Bulleit Lineup

What makes whiskey great?

Whiskey is great because it can always be enjoyed with friends all along the cultural frontier.

What advice do you have for whiskey novices?

For those new to whiskey, I suggest experimenting with all types to find out what you enjoy, responsibly of course. Don’t just taste a bourbon, Scotch, and rye and then settle on your favorite. It is also important to taste several offerings within a whiskey category. You might think you don’t like bourbon, but you could have tasted a wheated bourbon and you might actually prefer a high-rye bourbon. You can conduct your own tastings at home, or order a flight at your favorite whiskey bar and ask the bartender to lead you through a tasting. The key to immersing yourself in the whiskey world is experimentation.

Why should someone grab a Bulleit Bourbon or a Bulleit Rye over another brand?

Bulleit Bourbon and Bulleit Rye are high-rye, high-quality whiskeys at a reasonable price. Both are versatile enough to enjoy in a cocktail or as a sipping whiskey. The high-rye content makes Bulleit easy to layer with different ingredients in cocktails while still being able to stand out as the true star of the show. Our whiskeys are also aged to perfection – up to six years for Bulleit Bourbon and Bulleit Rye, and a minimum of 10 years for Bulleit 10-Year-Old.

What advice do you have for someone who might have aspirations of opening their own distillery?

My first piece of advice would be to marry somebody or have a partner with a good job because you’re going to need to supplement your income somewhere! My second piece of advice would be to listen to bartenders. Being able to form such strong friendships with bartenders around the world has been one of the most enjoyable parts about building Bulleit. Without the bartending community, Bulleit would not be what it is today.

Is there anything else our readers would want to know?

If your readers are ever in Louisville, I welcome them to come visit us at the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at Stitzel-Weller, our home on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Guests are invited to learn more about our history and enjoy some delicious whiskey on our tour of the historic distillery. Also, we’re about ready to open our new distillery in Shelbyville, Kentucky. We should begin making bourbon there in early 2017 and we can’t wait. Stay tuned for more news!