If you’ve ever met Tom Bulleit, the man behind his namesake bourbon and rye whiskies, you know he personifies the classic Southern gentleman: genteel, charming, funny, engaging and smart. A visit to his office at Louisville’s legendary Stitzel-Weller Distillery is akin to a back porch session with an old friend, even when you’re one of 25 in a tour group. He wants you to feel at home, enjoy his stories and like his products.
None of that’s hard to do. Everything about the Bulleit brand is approachable: its founder, its deliberately misapplied-cockeyed labels on its bottles and the liquid within them. Yet that wholesale approachability is actually the lone dislike I have with Bulleit Bourbon: It’s too easy going, too mannerly, not remotely rough and tough as its Frontier Whiskey (the phrase embossed into its old-time bottles) implies. Not that I fancy the harsh edges of rotgut or the bite and burn of every high proof whiskey, but I do like a little edge, and Bulleit Bourbon is free of it. It’s as polished and smooth as Tom Bulleit himself.
Entry is soft, presenting a good dose of oak, modest caramel, a smidge of char and just a spot of fruit and spice. That shortfall in spice is a somewhat surprising since it’s a high-rye bourbon (mash bill is 68 percent corn, 28 percent rye and 4 percent malted barley). The absence of rye notes is even prominent at midpalate, where such tingling usually tangles with my taste buds. (Bulleit Rye, I should note, does that job exceptionally well.) A few more sips delivers some cinnamon and even a little leather, but with each sip the finish is gentle and clean, without burn or new flavor notes, just straightforward and simple. It is 90 proof after all, so it’s not as though I expected a big punch in the mouth. But there are bourbons of similar proof and cost that serve up more character.
It’s just fine to drink neat; no one will ever call it hot or beg for ice. In fact, I’d discourage rocks altogether as dilution takes too quick a toll on its oaky backbone. But in cocktails, it does surprisingly well—especially for a guy who prefers 100 proof bourbon in mixed drinks. Shaken with ice in a bourbon bee (honey syrup and lemon juice), it stood up nicely, responding perfectly to the jolt of citric acid. In an old fashioned, it also performed well, especially when paired with sorghum syrup rather than simple syrup. The more rustic sugar source really highlights Bulleit’s ever-present barrel notes.
That Bulleit Bourbon is such an incredible seller should surprise no one. It is well made and predictably rock solid. And though it doesn’t deliver the flavor thrills I seek, there are clearly millions of consumers who appreciate that softer presentation. That’s a good thing, and if that’s the market parent company Diageo is after, then it’s hit the mark.
I’m not the only one wishing (expecting, really) that when Bulleit’s Shelbyville, Ky., distillery starts making whiskey next year, it’ll produce some higher-proof expressions and some rare barrel-aged experiments. But given that Bulleit’s 10-year expression checks in at a modest 91 proof, that may not be in the offing. Until then, I’ll still enjoy this reliable drinker when offered a glass.
My score: 78 points.