Exclusive Interview: Bulleit Frontier Whiskey to Plant One Million Trees with American Forests

Bulleit Bourbon Barrels. Courtesy Bulleit and American Forests.

The Bourbon Review sat down for an exclusive interview with Sophie Kelly of Diageo and Eric Sprague of American Forests to discuss their new partnership committed to planting one million trees across America in the next five years.

“Hmm… getting lots of oak on this one.” If you’ve ever sat down to a bourbon tasting, you’ll know that notes like oak, caramel, and vanilla are among the most noticeable when sipping America’s Native Spirit. All bourbon must be aged in new charred oak – which means that thousands of trees are felled every year for your favorite pour.

“Without white oak trees, there’s really no bourbon,” says Sophie Kelly, Senior Vice President of the Whiskey Portfolio in North America for Diageo. “In particular, the white oak gives a delicious toasty vanilla caramel in Bulleit Bourbon and Bulleit Rye, and as it matures the wood naturally contracts and expands through Kentucky’s four distinct seasons, bringing forward wood sugars and tannins to enhance the whiskey’s flavors, not to mention a beautiful color.”

It’s the importance of these white oak trees that led Bulleit, a brand already known for community outreach, to their newest project with American Forests. Today, they’ve announced a groundbreaking commitment to plant one million trees across America over the next five years.

The Bourbon Review sat down (virtually, of course) with Sophie Kelly, Senior Vice President of the Whiskey Portfolio in North America, Diageo and Eric Sprague, Vice President of Forest Restoration, American Forests, to talk about the new venture for both entities.

For Bulleit, the commitment to the environment begins at home – and their new Shelbyville visitor’s experience and new carbon neutral Lebanon Distillery are both proof of that commitment.

“In building out the Visitor Center Experience that we finished in 2019, we focused on that experience being true to the brand, built by the bartenders, and as part of that having strong environmental and community commitments,” said Kelly. “We eliminated single use plastic from our bar, source locally grown organic cocktail garnishes, and have an onsite garden that we built with The University of Kentucky. Most recently, we announced probably our biggest achievement, the Lebanon Distillery which is carbon neutral, probably the largest in the United States.”

With this environmental consciousness already at the forefront of the Bulleit brand, its no surprise they’re raising their own bar to plant one million trees with American Forests, the oldest national nonprofit conservation organization in the United States and a leader in forestry innovation.

“Our relationship with American Forests is a natural evolution from of our commitment to really taking our responsibility to preserve natural resources for future generations to a longstanding relationship to impact the industry and local communities,” says Kelly.

The discussions began over a year ago, and evolved into the plan the two are announcing today. The planting will span cities, existing forests, and more across the country.

“It’s very exciting for us, for sure,” says Sprague. “We’ve been working with Bulleit and Diageo, having conversations to set the stage for what this could look like for well over a year now, and I’m really excited by what’s come out of those conversations.”

“White oak forests benefit every aspect of our lives, from providing clean air and water to the amazing smells and flavors in a glass of bourbon,” said Jad Daley, President and CEO of American Forests. “This great new partnership with Bulleit will give back to these forests by taking care of white oak forests for long-term health and resilience.”

“Our partnership includes a million trees over five years, and a lot of those trees are going to go into some large landscapes – big former mines or existing forests that are unhealthy. But also tree will go into cities, so there’s two sides to this project, which is why I love it – its very holistic and shows all the benefits that trees can provide,” said Sprague.

“While Sophie has described why the oak is the king of the bourbon world, but it’s also the king of the forest in the United States. It’s the most ecologically important tree in the United States, for a number of reasons. One, it provides critical habitat and food, up to 7,000 acorns in one year, and populations of bear, turkeys, and more feed off that. There was a study done in the Mid-Atlantic that showed that white oaks really beautiful flaky bark as it matures can create habitats for up to 500 species of butterfly.”

Sprague goes on to list even more benefits of these trees, broken down below.

  • Carbon Sequestration:
    • 645,400 metric tons of carbon dioxide will be stored over the next 100 years, equal to removing the emissions from driving 140,000 cars over one year.**
  • Air Purification: 
    • An average of 74,000 pounds of air pollutants will be removed from the air per year. For fine particles like dust, this benefit is equal to removing 1,000 cars from the road.
  • Water Conservation:
    • An average of 75 million gallons of runoff will be conserved per year, equal to the volume of water stored by 114 Olympic sized swimming pools.
  • Providing Vital Wildlife Habitat:
    • Roughly 2,000 acres of critical forest across several states in the Eastern U.S. will be restored.

But beyond the ecological, tree cover in cities can have far-reaching implications about the quality of life of the citizens from neighborhood to neighborhood.

“In our two pilot cities, New York and Louisville, we’re working on developing plans to come in and help the improve the urban tree canopy cover throughout the city. Oftentimes tree canopy is absent from some of the most important and vulnerable populations in a city, so we’re working to bring that life-giving support that trees provide with regards to improving air pollution, high temperatures, etc,” said Sprague.

“If you take a look at a map of cities across the country and look a map of income, and race, and economic opportunity, when you overlay a map of tree canopy, it’s almost a perfect correlation,” he continues. “In places where you have high income, you have trees – and so on. Trees are life-giving infrastructure. They cool down homes on hot days, they knock pollutants out of the air that cause asthma and lung cancer, just critical life-giving infrastructure that are absent from some of the most vulnerable populations that we have. So the tree equity label is meant to identify that its a priority for America, and we’re excited to work with Diageo and Bulleit who recognize that its got to be urgent for us to deliver these projects across the country to do it in a way that’s also addressing this lack of equitable distribution of tree canopy across our cities.”

“I don’t think that all these things would have been possible if we as a company weren’t so passionate about protecting and preserving our natural resources,” said Kelly. “That has enabled us to forge partnerships that will make a real difference.”

Link here to learn more about Bulleit Frontier Fund.

Caroline Paulus
Caroline Paulus is the Senior Editor for The Bourbon Review. She lives and writes in Lexington, Kentucky. Follow her on Instagram @misswhiskeyhistorian to keep up with her latest in bourbon news - and a few old finds, too.