American whiskey continues to thrive at the forefront of popular culture. Recently, Tom Bulleit, founder of the Bulleit Distilling Company, was in the region promoting the brand that uses the 150-year-old bourbon recipe that had been passed down from his great-great grandfather Augustus Bulleit.
Viva Asia sat down with Tom to talk, Bourbon, Bottles, Recipes, and Muhammed Ali.
VA: What drove you to recreate your great great grandfathers Augustus recipe?
TB: I grew up in the distilling community in Kentucky, which is rather small. I worked in the distilleries when I was growing up and the majority of my extended family have been involved in the industry and it was something I had always wanted to do. My father was not in the industry and wanted me to be a lawyer, which I am. I practiced law for many years and then in 1987 went to my father and told him I really wanted to be in distilling to which he responded, “That is between you and your banker”. The bank were very accommodating lending me what at the time was a mountain of money and also telling me not to give up my day job.
I carried on working as a lawyer and at the same time started Bulleit in 1987 and we didn’t have our first whisky until 1994.
VA: How closely does today’s recipe follow that of your great-great-grandfather’s?
TB: The recipe has been passed down word to mouth through the family. Originally distilled between 1830 and 1860 my great great grandfathers recipe was two thirds corn and one third rye. Today the recipe is sixty eight percent corn, four percent barley and twenty eight percent rye.
VA: The Bulleit bottle is unique. Where did the design for the bottle come from?
TB: When Seagram Americas purchased Bulleit, they wanted a bottle that made a statement and stood apart from other products in the marketplace, and reflected the heritage of the brand. Working with Sandstrom Partners in Portland Oregon we created a distinctive bottle that resembles medicine bottles from the period.
VA: Are there any surviving bottles left from your great great grandfathers time?
TB: If there is we don’t know about them. I would think it would be extremely unlikely given the way he distilled and sold the product. My great great grandfather was a French immigrant who first settled in New Orleans and then moved up to Louisville. He had a tavern or maybe two at one time, but most of his product would have been sold back into New Orleans. There is glass that has been found from later in the century but very little has survived from the 1860’s.
VA: I have read that Diego decided to leave things as they were and keep production small. As your bourbon becomes more available and well known in emerging markets like Indonesia is there going to be pressure to produce more bourbon or does it create an opportunity to create more varieties?
TB: The volume of production will definitely grow and we have made good plans for that and have produced enough products to meet the anticipated growth in new markets.
VA: It’s all in the water. How much does the Kentucky limestone filtered water contribute to the taste of your Bourbon?
TB: Water is a very important factor for all whiskies produced around the world. The water for our Rye comes from a two million year old glacial aquifer and the distillery is quite literally built on top of it to source the water.
VA: How long do you let it the bourbon age before you bottle it?
TB: Our bourbon is aged between six and eight years. However, we will bottle it when we feel the distillate has reached the right maturity.
VA: What do you think is driving the worldwide interest in small batch bourbons?
TB: Our brand has grown through word of mouth and grown with the cocktail culture and our products have become cult brands with mixologists around the world. A lot of this has been driven by the cocktail culture, which really started in London in the nineties at places like the Lab, and has been dramatically enhanced by social media.
VA: Is there such a thing as a typical Bourbon drinker?
TB: I think probably not. I’m not a marketing person but the demographic would be typically male. However, interestingly thirty percent of people coming into our category are female. Again I think this is driven to some extent by the cocktail culture, but I am meeting more and more ladies who enjoy the bourbon maybe with a little bit of water or over ice, but who are genuinely embracing the spirit.
VA: If you are not drinking Bourbon what do you like to drink?
VA: What would be your favourite whisky and food combination?
TB: Personally, I am very primitive and I would drink the bourbon with a hamburger and the rye with a hot dog. However, we get great bartenders and great chefs that together do a great job in creating pairing menus in different markets and I am always fascinated with the pairings they come up with.
VA: What is a normal day for you Tom?
TB: I travel a lot. But when I am at home I spend a lot of time focusing on the quality and consistency of our products. As much as I can I try and devote time to my two wonderful children.
VA: What is most satisfying been a member of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, the highest accolade a Kentucky citizen can receive or been honoured with a "Hometown Heroes" mural joining the likes of Muhammed Ali?
TB: It has been a surreal life and all these things are amazing. Having grown up in the distilling community I was also honoured in 2009 to be inducted into the Distillers Hall of Fame.