Bulleit Proof - The Story Of Bulleit Whiskey

Tom Bulleit’s book Bulleit Proof is the story of a life told in moments. Moments of joy, triumph, hardship, persistence, and success.

By: Tiff Christie|April 15,2020

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Bulleit Proof by Tom Bulleit, Alan Eisenstock. Copyright (c) 2020 by Thomas E. Bulleit, Jr.. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and ebooks are sold.

One Sip

March 14, 2017, Shelbyville, Kentucky

STANDING REGALLY ON STAGE, Deirdre Mahlan, president of Diageo North America, leans into the microphone and says to the audience, “Join me in welcoming the founder of the Bulleit brand … Tom Bulleit.”


Tom Bulleit

The roar from the crowd thunders as I jog up the steps to the stage and hug Deidre, who is applauding now, a grin spread across her face. I arrive at the podium and look out at the hundreds of invited guests packed inside this tent the size of a big top. A kaleidoscope of faces whirls before me—dozens of Diageo folks, members of the media, local and state politicians, my family, and scores of friends, some who’ve travelled thousands of miles to celebrate this day, this momentous event.

Suddenly, I feel weak-kneed and disoriented, barraged by emotions— joy, gratitude, humility, validation, even shock.

And love. I feel enormous love.

The applause soars, peaks, ebbs, and then silence descends, humming with expectation, the only sound the thumping of the wind against the canvas of the tent. I pause to catch my breath.

I peer at the crowd, these hundreds of people eyeing me, waiting, many beaming, some leaning forward on their folding chairs, some holding their programs wound tight in their fists, the wind outside continuing to sing.

I smile and extend my left hand like a game show host pointing out the grand prize. We are on the grounds of the first Bulleit Bourbon distillery, occupying 300 acres of rolling Kentucky countryside.

On this campus, we’ve built four of what will eventually be 12 barrel houses, each holding 55,000 barrels of bourbon, and a 52-foot still—the land, the construction, irrigation system, solar panels, the whole works coming in at a cost somewhere north of $250 million. In a few minutes, along with Deirdre, the governor of Kentucky, one of the senators from our state, and a few other dignitaries, I will wield a pair of ridiculously oversized shears and cut the ribbon dedicating the distillery. But now, I shake my head in wonder.

“I was sitting in the audience,” I say, my hand frozen in mid-gesture, “and I was thinking if all this could happen, I should buy a lottery ticket, because I could win the lottery.”

I lower my head to a ripple of laughter. I smooth my tie, and say, “Thank you all for coming. This is an extraordinary day. I thought, mistakenly, that this would be a day like many others. I don’t know what I was thinking. Sometimes I can speak well, but today—”


I can’t hold the emotion back. I clear my throat, grip the podium with both hands, and say, “I hope you will forgive me. Today I’m a little bit overwhelmed by my wedding anniversary.”

Another laugh, followed by another surge of applause.

“Thirty years,” I say. “Betsy and I. Thirty years. That’s when we officially started our journey together. And that’s when all this began. Of course, if I go back to the very beginning, when my great-great-grandfather Augustus created the original recipe for Bulleit Bourbon, we go back 160 years or so. And speaking of old, did I mention that today is my birthday?”

Now a cheer. I shake my head slowly and whisper, “Extraordinary.”

I pause again, look over the crowd, and close my eyes. In my mind’s eye, I see bottles of Bulleit Bourbon and Bulleit Rye lined up on a shelf, the bottles draped with double gold medals from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and other international competitions, not just once, but year after year … extraordinary …

How did this happen? How did I get here?

It was simple, really, but not easy. Not close to easy.

I went one bartender, one handshake, one sip at a time.


Eleven years ago.

“Try it,” I say.

The brute of a bartender wearing a lumberjack’s shirt and a bushy, flame-colored beard swipes a rag across the bar. He’s a human mountain, six-five, 250 pounds, a three-way hyphenate—manager, barkeep, bouncer—slinging shots, beers, and hardly ever mixing cocktails in this, call it, a rustic bar in Kansas City. Bars like these on the East and West Coasts have started to become trendy, some heading toward hipster, and a few places have seen the emergence of a cocktail culture. No sign of that here. I would call this a hillbilly bar, without a shred of disrespect. I myself am a born and bred Kentuckian and proud of it.

The place smells of pine disinfectant, grilled burgers, and onions— and whiskey. An American pub, catering to business types on the move or on the make sitting shoulder to shoulder with blue-collar regulars in this home away from home, or pit stop, or a place to forget, fortify, or escape. A familiar place.

I’ve been here before. Or have I? I’ve been to similar bars for days and I’ll continue tomorrow. If I don’t come here, I’ll bring my sample bottles to another bar, and then another … and another …

I don’t stop.

I can’t.

I can’t be stopped.


It’s [11:50] in the morning, 10 minutes before the bartender unlocks the front door and ushers in the day-trippers. Plenty of time. I tap-tap-tap the lip of the bottle of bourbon I’ve placed on the bar. I grin at it. I do. I grin because I know the honey-colored liquor inside intimately and I know the convoluted, improbable—no, impossible journey—that brought the bottle and me here. It’s 2006, and at this moment I don’t know how the tale ends. I do know three things. One—the saga comes with some history, beginning 160 years ago in the Old West. Two—it’s a miracle I’m standing here in this bar … a miracle I’m standing at all … a miracle I’m alive. And, three—our little brand brings in virtually no cash flow, we’ve got a miniscule marketing budget, and few people have even heard of my upstart bourbon. All that adds up to one simple, incontrovertible fact: I really need to make this sale.

“Try it,” I say to the bartender again.

I nudge the bottle of bourbon another inch forward into his sightline and spin it to make sure the orange label faces him head-on. He hitchhikes his thumb at a row of liquor bottles crammed onto a shelf buckling behind him.

“I’m overstocked,” he says.

“Well,” I say. “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”

The bartender frowns. “Huh?”

“Mark Twain,” I say.

“Ah.” He shimmies his massive shoulders as if shaking off fleas, flips the rag over, and resumes wiping down the bar. “Got to remember that one.” “Good. Clearly, you have an appreciation for the best.”

He folds the bar rag into quarters, tosses it aside, picks up the bottle of bourbon, and squints at the label. “Bull-ay?”

“Bull-it,” I say. “Like what you fire out of a pistol.”

He peers at me dubiously.

“That would be my name,” I say. “Tom Bulleit. And you are?” “Matt.”

“Pleased to meet you, Matt.” I offer my hand. Matt extends his in return and we shake. My hand disappears inside his palm, which is the size of a catcher’s mitt.

“Same here, Mr. Bulleit.” “Please. Tom.”

“This your brand, huh?”

“It is.”


Matt nods and considers the bottle.

“Frontier Whiskey,” he murmurs, reading the label, and then slowly wagging his head. “Bourbon’s not really selling, Tom. Everybody’s drinking vodka.”

“I’ve heard. Repeatedly.”

“Sorry,” he says, sliding the bottle back to me.

I don’t budge. I keep my eyes fixed on his. “Here’s the thing.”

I pause.

“Now that we’re on a first-name basis, pretty nearly friends, I need a favor.” Now he squints at me. “What kind of favor?”

“One sip.”

Matt leans both of his tree-limb sized forearms onto the bar. “I told you. Nobody’s buying bourbon.”

“That’s why I’m asking for a favor. Or maybe it’s a dare. One sip. For the fun of it. For research. For your edification. For future generations. For Mark Twain. Otherwise, I’ll have to come back tomorrow and go through my whole schtick all over again. And neither of us wants that.”

A sound explodes from Matt that may be a chuckle. An interminable 10 seconds ticks away. Time stops. Matt’s forehead folds in two and then I realize he may in fact be thinking. And then movement. Time resumes. Matt shakes his head, reaches under the bar, and brings out two shot glasses.

“Join me,” he says.

“Thank you,” I say, and pour us each a finger’s worth of bourbon. I raise my glass. “Cheers.”

We clink glasses. Matt swishes the liquid in his mouth, then inhales his shot. After a moment he licks his lips like a bear at a barbecue.

“Damn,” he says, sliding his shot glass toward me. I pour another fin- ger’s worth. He drinks that one faster.

“My,” he says.

“So, just for research, may I interest you in a bottle for your bar?”

“Hell, no,” Matt says. “I’ll take two.”


Back to Shelbyville – March 14, 2017.

I stand on the stage in this tent on the dedication of the first Bulleit Bourbon distillery, gripping the podium in front of what feels like an infinity of faces.

I look out at them and I say, “I don’t believe our lives are told in years … or months … or weeks. I believe we live our lives in moments.”

I pause.

“That’s what I remember most,” I say, and that’s what I am about to share.

The moments.

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