Bulleit Bourbon boasts a history dating back to the early 1800s, but in fact is among the more recent brands to hit the liquor store shelves.
According to the company, the drink comes from a recipe that dates back to a man named Augustus Bulleit, whose family emigrated from France and who arrived in Kentucky direct from New Orleans. He became a tavern keeper, and made his own bourbon based on a secret recipe. But when he died in 1860, the recipe died with him … until Tom Bulleit decided to bring it back in 1987. He claims that the beverage he produces today is the one his great-great grandfather drew up lo those many years ago, and whether or not that is true we should be grateful that he abandoned the law to pursue his passion. We need good bourbon way more than we need lawyers.
The fact that it sells itself as a 150-year-old brand is all marketing, especially since back then nobody waited around for years to age their liquor before drinking it, meaning that most modern bourbon drinkers wouldn’t much like the beverages their ancestors called by the same name. Note, however, that on the website, this is depicted as “The Legend,” not “The Verifiable Historical Facts.” Also note that it now is brought to you by Seagrams, which is a less compelling story, which could explain the reliance on this backstory.
But that’s just part of the retro appeal.
Bulleit bourbon comes in a glass bottle with raised lettering in type that looks like it could have doubled as a flask for an old frontiersman trying to clear the land and get the crops planted before leaving for the Civil War. That is accentuated by the golden brown color that would not look out of place in the 18th century saloon. Its cap seals the top of the glass with cork, a nice touch for those who appreciate tradition and prefer the feel of that rather than a screw-top. The result is classic enough to look very nice in a liquor cabinet, or as an appropriate gift when going to someone’s house.
You can’t judge a book by its cover, or a bourbon by its container, but it illustrates how the bourbon sees itself. It competes with brands like Maker’s Mark and Knob Creek, and wants its image to reflect that. Don’t underestimate the power of the bottle for that. It has the look of a more expensive brand (you can usually find a 750-liter bottle for just north of $20, which isn’t bad at all, but of course the important question is whether it has the taste to match.
Bulleit Bourbon Frontier Whiskey distilled by The Bulleit Distilling Co. Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey. 750ml bottle 90 proof.
Bulleit bills itself on the label as a “Frontier Whisky.” In addition to calling attention to the old-school labeling, it also makes sense because it has a high rye content (around 30%). That doesn’t make it a whiskey on anything but the label – it’s still more than half corn – but it has more rye than its rivals and would be a good starter bourbon to those who are whiskey drinkers now for that reason.
You read a lot of reviews that say that rye content makes it a little sharper than others if you’re drinking it neat, but keep in mind that is in comparison to other premium bourbons, not to the truly sharp bourbons that taste like they were made in your neighbor’s backyard. In fact, Bulleit is an exceptionally smooth drink, especially considering that it has more alcoholic content than many of its rivals at 90 proof. There are hints of vanilla in the bouquet, and some caramel and oak as well for those who can take the few moments to consider such things before downing their drink.
Each bottle of Bulleit is aged for at least six years, and is produced by mingling two or three of the distillates. That tells in the taste – this bourbon goes down really easy. Perhaps too easy. The flavors blend together very well, since the rye cuts the sweetness for a unique and pleasing taste. Because it doesn’t burn as much as expected, it is easy to drink a little too much and wind up feeling it in the morning.
Bulleit is excellent both neat and over ice, and doesn’t need to be dressed up. For those who want something fancier, or who feel like a mixed drink every now and then, it also mixes surprisingly well on the cocktail circuit. In addition to the rye content there is a peppery overtone that plays well with others.
A restaurant I went to recently made its version of a Manhattan with Bulleit, vermouth and ginger liquor, and even as a guy who usually takes his bourbon neat or on the rocks I thought it was very impressive. It also makes a very good mint julep, if that’s your thing, and it’s great in an Old Fashioned as well.
Bulleit bourbon is designed to get casual bourbon drinkers to pick it up off the shelves and give it a try. That’s a credit to those who designed the bottle and created the sales campaign. But the drink itself is what gets people to come back to it after that first taste, which is a credit to the distillers who took that old recipe and brought it to the modern era. Whether or not this is the recipe dating from the mid-1800s or something more recent in origin, it is a great-tasting bourbon with the looks to match.