Bulleit Bourbon is what we refer to as our “reference spirit” here on Thirty One Whiskey — it’s a solid, middle of the road, 3-out-of 5 stars bourbon. It’s well-priced and consistent in quality, so we can use it as a marker to compare against other spirits (be they better or worse than Bulleit). But Bulleit doesn’t just make corn based spirits — in fact, their 95 Rye version has 0% corn. So naturally, we needed to see how it stacks up against it’s reference spirit peer.
The brand name for Bulleit dates back to about 1830 in the United States. Around this time, a French immigrant named Augustus Bulleit moved to the Louisville, Kentucky area and opened a number of taverns. Bulleit had moved to Louisville after first immigrating to New Orleans with his family around 1805, and he had created the original Bulleit Bourbon as a house whiskey for his barkeeps; however, 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 has historically been a “high rye” bourbon, meaning that a significant portion of the grain bill for the spirit came from rye instead of the traditional corn. For their rye offering, however, pretty much all of their grains in this bottle are rye — 95% in fact (hence the name). The remaining 5% is malted barley.
Once the whiskey is mashed, fermented, and distilled, the resulting spirit is aged for an undisclosed period of time. As a “straight” rye whiskey, this should be aged for a minimum of two years, but that could be longer depending on the specific desired flavors.
I’m not a guy that likes ostentatious packaging, so I appreciate Bulleit’s aesthetic. 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 reminiscent of antique bottles. The company name 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 green, 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.
When I poured the first glass, I smelled something I didn’t expect: green apples. But not an overpowering and overwhelming green apple aroma, instead it’s a sweet and inviting level of apple that seems to be mixed in with some cinnamon spice, vanilla, and caramel. Normally with a rye, I’d expect some bread-like notes but here that’s almost completely replaced by the fruity aspects.
That said, you absolutely know that you’re drinking a rye when you take a sip. The apple notes continue into the flavor of the spirit and are probably the most notable aspect, but then those fresh-baked rye bread tones that I expect come in as a supporting role. There’s definitely as bit of the traditional peppery spice mixed in here, but it’s not overpowering and instead a bit more subtle. On repeated trips to the glass, you’ll notice some honey sweetness in there as well.
When you add a bit of ice, you’ll usually see the more delicate and subtle flavors drop out of the conversation, and that’s exactly what is going on here.
Once the ice goes in the glass, the green apple runs for the hills. What’s left tastes like you drizzled some honey on a slice of fresh rye bread, which is a still a delicious and welcome flavor — and pretty common for a rye whiskey.
When taken both neat and with a bit of ice, there’s no bitterness that I can detect and that pepper that you usually expect from a rye whiskey isn’t nearly as overpowering as you might expect from something that’s 95% rye based. It’s pretty well balanced as it sits in the bottle.
As a cocktail, this works really well. There’s a good balance to the drink, with the sweet honey and peppery spice of the rye balancing nicely with the angostura bitters and the cherry flavor. Adding a bit of sugar really helps to bring the whole thing together.
That said, there’s nothing really exciting going on here either. There’s a little more peppery spice than you would normally see with a bourbon, but overall that’s the extent of the changes. There’s not a lot of uniqueness that this whiskey brings to the table.
I think in this case, I actually get a little bit of the apple fruity flavor back in the mix. Not only does the vanilla and caramel mix really well with the ginger, but that apple adds a new layer to the mix that enhances the experience considerably.
Beyond just the usual mixing of flavors, there’s also the pepper spice in there that does a great job adding some depth and some complexity to the cocktail without being overpowering. It’s definitely a more fruit-forward take on the cocktail, but it’s one that works.
Usually I look to Bulleit to be the definition of “middle of the road,” but in this case I think they actually went above. This is a pretty darn good experience for the price you pay, bringing not only that expected rye spice but also some other tricks to the party that make it a worthwhile thing to try out.
|Bulleit Rye Whiskey|
Produced By: BulleitOwned By: Diageo
Production Location: Kentucky, United States
Classification: Straight Rye Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 45% ABV
Price: $21.99 / 750 ml
Overall Rating: 4/5
Bite the bullet and grab a bottle. You won’t regret it.