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The Local Palate Q&A with Tom Bulleit of Bulleit Distilling Company


With a family crafted, high-rye whiskey recipe passed on to him by his father, Tom Bulleit followed his lifelong dream of entering the distilling business and founded Bulleit Distilling Company in 1987.


Tom Bulleit, Founder of Bulleit Distilling Company

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

We have been in Kentucky for six generations. I grew up in the distilling communities of Bardstown and Louisville. While working between school terms in the distilleries, I fell in love with the industry and found my life’s dream. Before founding Bulleit, I graduated from University of Kentucky and served in Vietnam as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps. Once I returned home I received law degrees from the University of Louisville and Georgetown. I practiced for many years, but finally decided to start my own distilling company with the support of my wife, Betsy. I sold Bulleit by hand for nearly ten years, until 1997 when we partnered with Seagram’s, now Diageo. It was a tough few years starting out, but making our family recipe has been my passion.

How did you learn to make bourbon?

I spent my summers working in a number of Kentucky distilleries while in school, so it was something I was around a lot growing up. My father said bourbon was in my blood, and he told me about a family recipe for a high-rye bourbon which I dreamed of recreating. It wasn’t until 1987 that I founded the Bulleit Distilling Company.

Take us through your typical day.

Well in our industry, there is no typical day. I do travel a lot, visiting members of the trade and bartending communities in meetings and account visits. I also spend time overseas – building a global presence for Bulleit has always been a priority. If I’m not traveling for business, I’m at my office at Stitzel-Weller where we entertain our guests that visit for tours and events.

What sets your bourbon apart from the rest?

Bulleit is high-rye, high-quality whiskey. The high rye content makes our whiskeys drier, and therefore more mixable. Bulleit Bourbon actually uses about twice as much rye as most other bourbons. They are also aged up to six years for Bulleit Bourbon and Bulleit Rye. Bulleit 10-Year-Old is aged for a minimum of ten years.

What’s Bulleit’s mash bill for the bourbon, rye, and 10 year old? 

Bulleit’s high rye mash bill was inspired by a family recipe from my great-great grandfather, Augustus Bulleit. Bulleit Straight Kentucky Bourbon’s mash bill is approximately 2/3 corn and 1/3 rye, which is the same for Bulleit 10-Year-Old. Bulleit Rye is a straight rye whiskey with a mash bill of 95% rye and 5% malted barley.

Bulleit’s high rye mash bill was inspired by a family recipe from Tom Bulleit's great-great grandfather, Augustus Bulleit.

Is there anything special about Bulleit’s yeast strain?

Our proprietary yeast strains coax extra flavor from the distiller’s grade grain that helps give our whiskey its distinctive taste.

Are there any new products coming soon?

We recently launched Bulleit Bourbon Barrel Strength this spring as an offering exclusively sold in my home state of Kentucky. The reception to this new addition to our Bulleit family has been overwhelming, especially among the bartending and trade communities. We’re focusing on the initial Kentucky release for now, but hope to do another run of it soon.

What are your favorite food pairings with the Bourbon and Rye? 

Personally I enjoy drinking it during a classic Southern outdoor barbecue, but I’m also a big fan of letting people know they can enjoy Bulleit however they please, which includes how they drink it and what they eat with it.

If you’re participating in a Bulleit tasting, there are a few foods that are nice to have on-hand for a proper tasting. Plain crackers cleanse the palate between tastings, and nuts, dark chocolate, dried fruit and aged cheese can be served to each tester to see how the bourbon’s taste is affected.

What is your favorite bourbon cocktail? 

I mostly drink my whiskey on the rocks, but I do enjoy my wife’s favorite cocktail which I call Betsy’s Little Treat or the BLT: Bulleit, lemon, and tonic.

What is your favorite rye cocktail? 

Recently I’ve become a fan of our Bulleit Mule, prepared with Bulleit Rye whiskey. It’s three simple ingredients, Bulleit Rye, ginger beer, and lime juice, and is fantastic when made with fresh ginger beer. A classic Manhattan calls for Rye whiskey and I think ours makes one of the best.

Do you have a secret stash?

I do have a secret stash in my home office, which includes bottles of the original Bulleit Bourbon and Bulleit Thoroughbred that were distilled in the late 1980s. Those bottles are the highlight of my collection, reminding me of where we started and how far we’ve come.

What flavor profile does Bulleit go for?

Bulleit Bourbon is a distinctive taste with hints of vanilla, spice and pepper. The body is full and smooth, with a long, lingering finish. The smoothness is bolstered by sweet tones of maple and oak. Bulleit 10-Years-Old is off-dry with spice, caramel and notes of dried fruit, and possesses an exceptionally smoky and smooth finish.