How Bulleit is Building Their Bourbon Future

Bulleit Distilling Co whiskey and grain. Photography by
Bulleit Distilling Co whiskey and grain. Photography by

As one of the most universally liked bourbons in the market today, Bulleit has distinguished itself among the competition in a comparably short time. It has become the first reached-for bottle of bartenders, and for many bourbon lovers, it is one of the most popular everyday bottles at home.

Bulleit is a few years away from a major milestone: making the switch from sourced whiskey to house distilled whiskey. But changing distilleries can be like playing the Super Bowl in another climate: it can drastically alter the outcome if you’re not prepared.

With this is mind, Bulleit invited The Bourbon Review to Shelbyville, Ky for a behind the scenes probe of their new distillery which opened in early 2017 and its leadership, and ask every question we could think of about how they’ll continue to produce the same whiskey in the future, so that the bottle you buy today will taste the same as the bottle you buy in a decade.

The Bulleit Distilling Co. ribbon-cutting event, Tuesday, March 14, 2017, in Shelbyville, Ky. (Brian Bohannon/AP Images for Bulleit Distilling Co.)
The Bulleit Distilling Co. ribbon-cutting event, Tuesday, March 14, 2017, in Shelbyville, Ky. (Brian Bohannon/AP Images for Bulleit Distilling Co.)

New Distilling Digs

When we think about distilleries making the change from sourced whiskey to house distillation, it’s a logical leap to assume that there will be a change to the final product. In essence, you’re going from baking in someone else’s oven with their ingredients, to baking in your own oven with your own ingredients. And like ovens, no two stills are exactly alike.

At the moment, the brand’s bourbon is made in partnership with other distilleries (they aren’t allowed to reveal which ones due to contracts, but the internet is rife with information on what isn’t a very well-kept secret). Like many of the other spirits likely stocking your favorite bar, Bulleit started with sourcing its liquid as they planned how and where to build their own distillery.

Bulleit headed off many of the problems that could come from changing distilleries later by setting their own rigorous standards of quality. “Sourcing liquid is more of a partnership,” explains whiskey blender Eboni Major.

“We purchase all the materials for the distillery. Everything from the grains, to the yeast, to the barrels–it’s all selected by us. We provide it to them, including the recipe, and it is made to our specifications. It’s exactly what we want, or we don’t take it.” That control has included standardizations and tweaks to everything about the whiskey-making process over the years, as Bulleit has set out to create continuity. “We do the sensory analysis and we request still modifications to get those flavors,” Eboni explains. “Anything from dropping temperature, to how many days you ferment, to your condenser temperature. We’ve asked distillers to change their cleaning schedules, to add in more cleaning, to install more equipment.”

There are admittedly things you cannot change, like the greater structure of the still itself. But that’s where the new distillery is important. It has been largely up to Bulleit engineers to replicate many of the conditions the brand’s current distilling partners use, while giving the distillery and blending teams added enhancements to allow for better control over problem areas they frequently see in trying to distill whiskey with those signature flavors. On the front end, the team tastes for off-notes and distillation errors. “Our role is to pinpoint and describe what the problem is,” says Master Blender Andrew MacKay.

Major and MacKay are, in many ways, the first and last lines of defense in keeping Bulleit the same, batch after batch. MacKay has more than two decades of whiskey experience dating back to his time at Seagram. Together with Major, who graduated Alabama A&M University with a degree in food science and technology, they are a complementary duo bringing together long-standing expertise and fresh thinking.All of this, in the end, funnels down to what the blending team needs to create Bulleit in the same style year after year. Like many whiskeys, the entire annual supply of Bulleit is created from a single formula, which is launched in the early summer.

So each year MacKay and Major and the blending team are sourcing different flavor profiles from their stocks of aging bourbon, and combining them to create an identical snapshot of the previous year’s batch. With two mashbills and five yeast strains, Bulleit is the result of careful blending of dominant members of the stable with smaller quantities of others that are meant to accent the rest of the batch. It’s similar to using spices: they’re enhancing one whiskey’s flavor with another’s, the way you might use rosemary to enhance garlic bread.

A complex and thorough coding system labels every batch and every barrel in a way that allows the blenders to compose cheat sheets each year of proposed final blends. There may be tweaks–MacKay mentioned that he’s seen one batch take nearly 100 tries to perfect–but that’s part of the job. And it’s part of the job that’s been taken into account since the very beginning.

Bulleit Visitors Center Rendering. Photo Courtesy Bulleit.

Custom Designed for Success

While a science and an art, there’s more to creating continuity of taste than blending well, and that comes in the other operations at the new distillery.

Bulleit is a massive brand within the bourbon world, and its whiskeys have not so quietly become major staples, both at home and in the bartending world.

But for the immense footprint both of the new Shelbyville distillery and its soon-to-open state of the art Visitor Experience, Bulleit really isn’t more than a few dozen people making whiskey. The distillery suspects that by summer, when the Visitor Experience is also up and running at full speed, the total number of employees across all specialties and all shifts will max out around 45.

This smaller employee count allows for some sweeping policies. Site manager Jessica Chen, who helps to run the day-to-day operations at Bulleit Distilling Co., took us on a driving tour of the expanded grounds, where she pointed out a long section of greenway and back road leading to Guist Creek that, last spring, the team cleaned up. “We have a lot of people who live in Shelbyville, so it means a lot for the community to know that this is our home too.” Chen also saw to the installation of water bottle filling stations, including the construction areas, to reduce disposable water bottles on site as Bulleit is committed to ongoing efforts aimed at benefitting the welfare of the land.

The public hasn’t seen much of Bulleit Distilling Co. yet, but after passing the corn fields and driving through a quick security check, the first thing that greets you is a series of solar panels. In the construction of this facility they’ve focused on sustainable practices as one of the major tenets of their efficiency.

Part of how the team can stay so small is the impact of technology: a new distillery, designed to give distillery workers maximum control, oversight, and precision over each step of the process. A central control room on the first floor, which looks like a brighter version of a mock-up for a modern Bat Cave, is arrayed with multiple large monitors and computer screens. It shows the managing employees everything that’s going on in the distillery, from grain intake through the end of distillation.

“It’s a lot of technology,” explains veteran Diageo distiller Dwayne Kozlowski, “a lot of automation, but that doesn’t mean we set that automation and forget about it. The guys are touching it, going out and taking the samples, doing their proofs and stuff like that. They are paying close attention and giving it their loving care to make sure they’re making quality distillate.”

To say Kozlowski understands what great distilling takes is an understatement. He’s been in the business for nearly three decades, starting back with Seagram’s. At Crown Royal, he held several positions, including distillery team leader, warehouse manager and Crown Royal Distillery ambassador.

Another thing that Bulleit is doing that may differ from some other distilleries: they’re giving their team a more well-rounded set of distillation skills. It seems like common sense, but allowing someone who works the stills to see how other areas of the distillery run is a good way to increase efficiency and decrease error.

“If day in, day out you were only mashing, you might get a little bored with that,” explains distillery team lead Charisse Wood. “If you were taking just the granary, the incentive to be tight on your tolerance and quality is a little less. If the grain is dusty, you’re going to see that on the cooking side, so you know and have the understanding of what the impact is, which is a big deal.

”It’s also about seeing the people element, by diversifying skill sets, that Bulleit is making their workers more aware. But they’re also investing in a workforce whose talents will grow well beyond specialized duties.

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The Promise of Grain to Glass

And that investment in the human element extends beyond the distillery walls for Bulleit.

Bulleit is getting serious about local ingredients, and in conversations at every level, they’re focused on local farmers. They want the surrounding farmland to provide as much of the total grain needs as possible. In the new distillery’s hometown of Shelbyville, Ky., Bulleit has acquired or leased around 1,000 acres of adjacent farmland to grow their corn.

Bulleit has been shifting their production to local farmers, in part to help the local farming community, and in part to have a closer relationship with the farmers growing their grain.Kozlowski oversees much of this. In his previous work at Crown Royal in the small Canadian distilling town of Gimli, Kozlowski did much of the same, including inspection of the grain. He led us through the process, which he says he’s probably done a few thousand times.Kozlowski notes the quality of grain that local partners provide. “[The farmers] work hard here,” Kozlowski says. “I think what’s great about Bulleit and Shelbyville is that we have that partnership.

Vendome Copper Still at Bulleit in Shelbyville, Kentucky, 2017. Photo Courtesy Bulleit.

Just as Good, Every Time

Quality is everything. A few grains here, a few grains there may seem small, but they create flavors that can follow a whiskey all the way to the bottle. “There’s no tolerance for it when we’re testing this sort of stuff,” says Kozlowski. “We just can’t take it. Quality and consistency are our top priorities, and we don’t know what type of off flavors it’s going to give; it could give [future whiskey] sourness or bitterness.”

There are defects that can be aged out of whiskey, of course. But those mostly come from irregular or unique cuts made during the distillation process. “I think if you have something that’s a little grainy, a little green, maybe from the rye whatever. That sort of stuff, there’s a little more tolerance in it, and the barrel will do its magic and get it out.”

It all comes down to this: despite having new stills to worry about, Bulleit doesn’t see these two whiskey streams as necessarily different. They’re both simply supply lines to be monitored carefully, corrected if they deviate, and properly categorized so that, when it’s time to make the whiskey, they can be effectively used to make the product we know.

“With Bulleit, if we’re all trying to be tight and stick to these grain specs, fermentation specs, distillation specs,” Kozlowski explains, “then we are going to be as close as possible and as tight as we can be to make sure that we’re making that consistent bourbon in that flavor profile that we want.”

There’s a lot more to be done, and several years to go before a single drop of the in-house whiskey will see bottling. “This is the beginning,” Kozlowski says. He’s seeing these careful processes as the guardrails to keep them on the right track down the road. “You start with quality ingredients and then we have less headaches before it goes in the barrel. Seems minor, but to us it’s very, very critical. Good ingredients matched with some of the best blenders in the world equals great whiskey—plain and simple.”

Neat, on the rocks or however you enjoy your whiskey, Bulleit reminds you to please drink responsibly. Bulleit Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. 45% Alc/Vol. The Bulleit Distilling Co. Shelbyville, Ky.