Name: Bulleit Bourbon Aged 10 Years
Style: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Numbers: 45.6% ABV (91.2 proof)
Distiller: Unspecified. Produced by Bulleit Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg KY
I don’t just drink beer! As I remark in my profile page, I’ve always found it strange that Americans categorize people as beer guys, wine guys, whisky guys etc. It doesn’t happen so much back home in Blighty, and to me it’s just logical that if you love wine you’ll likely also appreciate beer and spirits. I’ve mainly written about beer so far because that’s where the most is going on, but spirits is every bit as fascinating to me.
Though it’s a little behind the beer curve, the spirits market is on a very similar track. For instance, craft distilleries are popping up across America at a similar rate to craft breweries – since 2005 breweries have grown from 1,447 to 3,200 in number and distilleries from 70 to 683. And the drivers of growth in craft spirits are, in my view, the same (as explained more fully here). They’re being made locally by relatable people who really care about what they’re doing. The old American frontier spirit. And just as in beer, the craft vs crafty argument is rearing its head.
(For those that don’t know, this is craft beer/spirits made by “actual” craft brewers/distillers – defined by trade associations here for beer, and here for spirits – vs beer or spirits made to look like craft – “crafty” – but produced by large companies.)
I have a clear position on this. Great drinks are great drinks. If a drink is well made, safely made, and tastes fantastic, it’s a great drink. It’s up to the drinker to choose his libation. For example, I don’t think that because Blue Moon is made by Tenth & Blake, which is 100% owned by MillerCoors, it’s a bad beer and should not be drunk. I don’t buy the “hoodwinking consumers” line. If someone only wants to buy beer or spirits made by fledgling businesses with tiny outputs, that’s cool. And if someone is happy to buy a mass-produced American witbier and stick a slice of orange in it, that’s fine too.
An interesting case study in craft vs crafty spirits is Bulleit Bourbon. Despite its small-batch, hipster appeal, by the American Distilling Institute’s definition, this is most definitely not a craft spirit. It is owned and sold by Diageo, the largest premium drinks company in the world. And they have aspirations to make it a 1 million case brand.
But, like any authentic brand, it has a good story, well told through its best-in-class packaging . Bulleit was started in the late 1980s by Tom Bulleit, a military veteran and lawyer from Kentucky whose family has deep roots in the state and in bourbon. Legend has it (ie. it’s not documented) that Tom’s great-great-grandfather, Augustus Bulleit, was a first generation French immigrant who dedicated his life to making the best whiskey he could, and who mysteriously disappeared while shipping barrels down the Ohio river towards Louisiana. Tom used this as inspiration to start up his own bourbon, and he did it the hard way – he was for several years in the 1990s assuredly a craft distiller. His operation was bought by Seagrams in 1997 which in turn came to Diageo following Seagrams dissolution in 2001. And Diageo has, with great passion and dedication, been building it up ever since.
Tom Bulleit, now 71, is still closely involved with everything to do with the brand, and spends most of his time traveling the world extolling its virtues. The future looks bright for the bourbon, as Diageo is now in the process of building a big, dedicated distillery in Shelby Co., KY, which began August this year. I know personally from my time at Diageo, everyone involved in the company and especially the whisky business loves Bulleit and takes huge pride in it. This led to the release last year of the 10 year aged whiskey, which is a richer, more potent version of the original.
To my senses, everything about this bourbon is distinct, high quality and full of character. That starts with the excellent package and bottle, which was developed by Tom Bulleit and Seagrams when they bought it, and was supposedly the reason Diageo went for it in ’01. It has an old school look, with the term “Frontier Whiskey” called out not only on the label but in raised type on the bottle itself. The 10YO comes in a rustic outer box, which contains a 19th century newspaper-styled insert to tell you the Bulleit story before you drink it.
The whiskey itself pours out a rich tawny amber. The liquid is of course the same mash bill as Bulleit – not specified, but high in rye (estimates are round the 70% corn, 25% rye, 5% barley range) – but the extra aging time gives it more color as well as more alcohol by volume.
The nose is tangy but at the same time mellow and lusty. For anything above an 80 proof I always add a drop of water to take off the prickle (and by drop I mean literally a few droplets, carefully applied), but without it this whiskey hits you with pungent citrus fruits and varnish, layered on top of smooth caramel and fresh oak. By adding a touch of water you can reveal some richer chocolate and spice notes, and the citrus becomes noticeably more like orange peel. The aroma is almost smoke-free, and in the background you get a hint of clove and leather, which is wonderful complexity.
There’s plenty of spicy burn to the whiskey when you taste it. All the aromas concentrate then gently disperse as the liquid surrounds your tongue, and you’re left with plenty of oak, cinnamon and orange to chew on. The finish is crisp and slightly sweet, giving you caramel, toffee and a little apricot to savor.
As an immigrant to the States, I’m often looking to experience and explore distinctly American drinks, and American whiskeys are becoming an obsession. Whether it’s from Colorado, Tennessee or Kentucky, I love sipping a whiskey and imagining the frontiersmen of the 19th century, drinking a similar whiskey and contemplating the vast wilderness before them. That Bulleit is a delicious bourbon, inspired by just such a man and made in the tradition he began is more than enough for me. That it’s made by a large international company is neither here nor there. I savor every last sip just the same.