Tom Bulleit spent his early years in the world of distilling but decided to take the practical route into a career in law, rather than following his family down the whisky line.
But in the late 1980s, he realised whisky was truly his first love and decided to develop his great, great grandfather’s recipe into his Bulleit Bourbon brand.
After almost three decades, the company is now expanding its reach to a global level, helped after being bought by Diageo.
While the investment has, inevitably, aided this, Tom is still very much at the company’s helm.
I recently had the chance to spend an hour chatting with Tom about his views on life, hard work and company expansion. Here’s what he had to say.
You’ve been nurturing this company for almost 27 years. Why did you first want to build it?
I have been nurturing it for a long time and really living it for a long time. Our family’s been in and out of the business for six or seven generations and as it was something I grew up with, it’s something in my blood.
When I finished school I would have gone directly into the distilling industry but my dad always wanted me to be a lawyer so I did that but stayed fascinated with the distilling business and the fact my great, great grandfather Augustus had a recipe, or a mashbill, for a bourbon that hadn’t been adopted by anyone else since he stopped a long time ago. So I went and had a conversation with my father after practicing law for some years and he said: “Well, that’s between you and your banker Tom.” There wasn’t going to be any money for this project from dad. But I went forward still.
You’re pushing further into international markets: does it feel like a long-time coming for this move?
I’m delighted that we are launching in international markets and think we will be successful, but I did originally think it would take about as long as law school to do this, I suppose four years, so that would be sort of an underestimate wouldn’t it?
From a growth standpoint brands that seem to succeed really quickly, seem also not to hold on so I think this slow-growth we’ve had for a couple of decades has helped us breach a critical mass after we’ve gained a reputation. If I’d have known a lot more about branding and distribution it might have gone quicker, and if I thought this would take a real long time I may have not done it but, while I’m not a business expert, if I were to tell anyone who wants to start a business it would be that perseverance and tenacity are of most importance and the ability to deal with change would be second most.
Things take as long as they do. And fortuitously we’ve found ourselves here with some success rather than not.
You mention a lot about taking one’s time here. What are your thoughts, then, on the boom in craft distilleries? Do you worry most of them will expect success straight away?
Well, I like to keep my nose in my business – they can take the path they think is appropriate. I would not presume to give anyone advice. They need to have an element of “stick-to-it-ness” but remember that things will change. I wrote a business plan early on and some things are similar on the production end, and making whisky is the same, but the business atmosphere and circumstances change all the time. We’re seeing a lot of interesting craft whiskies and I wish them all the luck in the world. We all know each other in the old distilling families, and when I was starting I went to Bill Samuels of Maker’s Mark and said: “Bill I’m going to bring back our old family recipe.” And he said: “When the water rises, all the boats float higher.” I would say the same thing to them.
That’s a great sentiment. No doubt there have been ups and downs. So what have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced since starting the brand?
Given it’s been almost three decades at this point, there have been all sorts of challenges – my wife, Betsy, says I need to write a book before you forget it all; and of course, when I forget my car keys, she just shakes her head – I’m not quite sure what would come out for the book at this point.
But it is exactly life: there’s great challenges and huge triumphs. I have done back to back 12 to 17 hour days for weeks, and I love it but it takes a considerable effort. Early on, I remember Betsy saying to me every three months: “Now tell me Tom, how are we going to pay back all this money we’ve borrowed?” So there were concerns. Right now, we’re doing this wonderful expansion but that took us pushing out to all the States in the US first so it’s been a lot of work.
So what have been some of the high points for you?
In 2009 I was inducted into the Kentucky Distillers Hall of Fame, and I know most who have been invited in are now dead and I have enormous respect for them as I’ve known them since my early childhood. I was very flattered but also a little confused.
Many high points are very personal – they might not seem like something to someone else, but for me they were. For instance, my children: our daughter Hollis and son Tucker. Hollis works with us now as an ambassador and designer, and Tucker is a Junior in college and he will probably come into the business after having internships working at Glenkinchie and in Sydney working in whisky marketing and innovation. When Tucker was nine, I asked him what he would be when he grew up, expecting him to say a fireman or a policeman, but he said: “Well I’ll be you.” And I said: “Well, what will I be?” And he said: “Well, you’ll be dead!”
Ah, the logic of 9-year olds. You mention Tucker has done work in marketing and innovation: what are your thoughts on social media to promote whisky?
There’s nothing like being there in person. The digital world allows you to expand your proposition exponentially but it needs to be reinforced too.
Bulleit has grown recently because, well, we started a long time ago, but because Hollis and I have relentlessly traveled, I’m on over 100 flights a year. Those personal relationships are crucial; that lights the fire.
Bulleit has become a cult brand in the on-trade in the US but it can become enhanced by social media. I’ll never forget, I was in South Carolina at Husk, talking to the bartender and when I left, I was about twenty paces from the front door when a message popped up on my phone saying: “Tom go back in and say hello to John for me.” It was a message from a bartender in Portland, which is 3,000 miles away, who’d read a Facebook posting I’d put on about being at Husk. Things like that are unbelievable to someone my age but it shows digital media is a great way to enhance awareness.
Wow, amazing to see how your reach can expand like that. Speaking of expansion, you’re pushing the product out internationally so how will you be handling that output?
I always say I’m a traveling whisky salesman: for me to go to the trouble to make the relationships and maintain them, only for us to run out of liquid is unfair to myself and the customer. So before we push product further afield and plan where we’re going to go, we make sure there is adequate supply of liquid to carry us forward. We pushed the rye project back twice and we have systematically, through the years, laid down adequate whiskies to cover these expansions. To the extent that we need to expand we will; at this particular juncture we don’t need to.
You currently have three products on the market – are you planning to increase that?
We don’t have any plans to do anything at this particular juncture. I see it expanding in the future, although you won’t see a proliferation of styles or products. We’re in the business of producing Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey so we won’t do flavours – they’re great products but it’s not who we are. Our partnership and chemistry with the bartenders is to provide the best products we can for them to pour.
That’s great Tom. Thank you for your time. Any concluding thoughts?
Well, it’s always flattering to be asked the questions. There was a time when nobody called. But now we’re kept busy all the time but I absolutely love it. Betsy always says my vocation and my advocation are one and the same thing. I’ll die with my boots on!
But really, people often ask me where my favourite place is. And I am a fan of urban architecture but I’ve not really got a favourite place because this is a people business. Edgar Bronfman [of Seagrams] once told me: “Tom we’re in the entertainment business.” And he was exactly right – we are all partners from our distributors to our bartenders and clerks in the stores; we’re all in the entertainment business. And I love it.