It used to be that Jack Daniels was the only brown liquor that was guaranteed to be in any and every bar in America. But as the number of people who appreciate a good brown spirit have increased over the last decade, other go-to brands have been making their way onto the shelves. Over the past few years, Bulleit Bourbon has been giving Mr. Daniels a run for it’s shelf space.
Available most places you’ll visit, Bulleit Bourbon offers a remarkably consistent drink at a fair price point. That consistency and affordability has made Bulleit Bourbon my “reference spirit” — if someone wants to charge me more per shot, it has to be at least as delicious as this to make the cut.
I don’t often go full history lesson in a whiskey review, but Bulleit has one of the more interesting backstories I’ve heard.The brand name for Bulleit dates back to about 1830 in the United States. Around this time Augustus Bulleit, a French immigrant who came to New Orleans with his family around 1805, had moved to the Louisville, Kentucky area and opened a number of taverns. He created the original Bulleit Bourbon as a house whiskey for his barkeeps, but increased popularity caused him to start selling locally to other bars as well as exporting some back to New Orleans.
The original Bulleit Bourbon production died with Augustus in 1860, but (according to legend) the recipe was passed down through the family until his great grandson Tom Bulleit decided to resurrect the family business in 1987. Using the same name as the original, he built a successful whiskey business and ran it as an independent family-owned venture until Seagram purchased a controlling share of the business a decade later in 1997
After Seagram purchased the Bulleit brand, they moved production to their facility in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, the same location that makes the Four Roses brand. Seagrams was then later purchased by the British Diageo company (which also owns Johnnie Walker, Moët & Chandon, and Veuve Clicquot), and the distillery passed into the ownership of their Japanese subsidiary Kirin Brewing Company.
Production remained there until 2017 when Diageo opened a standalone distilling facility for Bulleit Burbon in Shelby County, Kentucky. Christened by Tom Bulleit on the 30th anniversary of starting the business, the facility produces 1.8 million proof gallons of product for Bulleit Burbon. While the primary manufacturing is located at this new facility, the bottling plant (and visitors center) is at the historic Stitzel–Weller Distillery in Shively.
Bulleit Bourbon may have been around since the beginning but by today’s standards the original recipe would actually have been branded as a rye whiskey, not a bourbon — it called for nearly 66% of the grains used in the mash to be rye. According to modern standards, brown liquors need at least 51% of the grains to be corn in order to be considered a bourbon. So in 1987, when Tom Bulleit resurrected the brand he re-calibrated the mixture to be more corn heavy, aged it for a longer period, and bottled it as the Bulleit Bourbon we know today.
Today’s Bulleit Bourbon uses a mixture of 68% corn, 28% rye, and 4% malted barley, which is a significantly higher rye content than most bourbons on the market today. After fermentation and distillation, the alcohol is aged for an unstated period of time — technically “straight” bourbon needs two years in the barrel, but the lack of that adjective means that it can be in the barrel for as little as an hour to qualify. Once properly aged (whatever that means to them) the finished spirit is cut with water and bottled at 45% ABV for the American market.
I’m not a guy that likes ostentatious packaging, so Bulleit Bourbon fits neatly within my comfort zone. There’s some styling to the bottle beyond the standard “round” shape, as the bottle is definitely wider than it is deep and has rounded shoulders and reminiscent of antique bottles. The company name “Bulleit Bourbon” is molded into the clear glass itself, with raised lettering near the top of the bottle.
The label is a long skinny rectangle that wraps around 3/4 of the bottle, offset at a slight angle to give the appearance that it was placed by hand. There are only two colors used, black and orange, a simple scheme that supports the story the bottle is trying to tell — that this is an ancient brand which relies on taste instead of marketing glitz.
The bottle is capped with a cork stopper with a black cap. I’m pretty sure it’s plastic, but I could be wrong.
On first pouring a glass of Bulleit Bourbon you’ll notice a warm aroma. To me it smelled almost like a campfire, oaky and a little bit spicy.
Those same flavors are present on the first sip, along with some smooth caramel flavors. The bourbon is balanced well — while there are some great flavors in the spirit, they are just bold enough to be present without overpowering the palette. It’s straddling that line perfectly and the result is a decidedly enjoyable sip.
The aftertaste isn’t quite as delicious. It’s not as harsh as some others, but there’s a bitter finish in my opinion. Not a deal-breaker, but if you’re picky about this aftertaste there are better bourbons out there.
It’s amazing what a little temperature change and dilution can do to a drink. Add an ice cube or two and the bold flavors in the drink are still present and enjoyable (if a little mellowed out), but the major benefit is that the sharp aftertaste has disappeared.
As the ice continues to dissolve into the drink it can get a little too watered down, to the point where it’s less “tamed” and more “drowned.” Since the flavors aren’t quite as bold as some other spirits, the taste more easily blends into the background of mixed (or watered down) drinks.
The improvement comes from a combination of the two elements, ice and temperature. Whiskey stones or similar things with a chilling effect won’t necessarily tame the aftertaste, so my recommendation is for one or two ice cubes at most in a standard shot of Bulleit Bourbon.
Adding some ice made the spirit better, but the added orange bitters (because I really don’t keep fresh oranges around that often) muddled with sugar turns this into a top notch drink that I could order all night long.
The mellowed but still notable flavors of the Bulleit Bourbon are accentuated by the orange flavor and the slightly bitter aftertaste has been completely replaced by a refreshing citrus-y note. The sugar also brings a little added sweetness to counteract the acidic bite of the bitters and alcohol. It’s a perfectly balanced drink, and the Bulleit Bourbon is the perfect base.
Bulleit Bourbon is my go-to spirit for making my beloved Kentucky Mule. It adds a warm smokey caramel tone to the bitter and sharp ginger beer and lemon. Bulleit does this better than almost any other bourbon I’ve ever tried, providing just the right flavors to make the drink absolutely perfect. The fact that the bottle is relatively inexpensive and that Bulleit produces such a prolific amount each year also means that I’m not shedding a tear using it in a mixed drink. There will always be more.
Bulleit Bourbon isn’t perfect. It has some tricks up its sleeve but while the flavors are enjoyable, they aren’t very complex. What you see on the first sip is what you get throughout.
I said at the beginning that this is my “reference spirit” and that’s for good reason. It’s a solid offering that works in just about any format, but while it’s good it definitely isn’t great. It lacks some of the complexity of a better well-aged single barrel bourbon, but is plenty delicious enough to add a little warmth and flavor to your day. And it won’t break the bank, either.
Owner: Diageo (UK)
Production: Kentucky, US
Grain bill: 68% corn, 28% rye, 4% malted barley
Aging: Charred oak barrels, unknown period of time
Proof: 45% ABV
Price: $27.99 / 750ml ($0.037 / ml)
Overall Rating: 3/5
The most averageist of the bourbons.