Bulleit Bourbon: The Birth of a Brand

The True Story of How the Brand Got its Start

I’ve known Tom Bulleit since the 1990s and it was under my watch at Seagram that Bulleit Bourbon was developed and launched. Tom is a terrific guy, a real gentleman, and a smart businessman.

I saw some Impact Databank sales information the other day and among the top 10 super-premium bourbon brands, Bulleit is second only to Maker’s Mark in case sales at 1.2 million 9-liter cases (Maker’s is at 1.5 million), but Bulleit’s growth from 2016 to 2017 was 12.7% compared to maker’s 4.7%.

What’s even more impressive is that in 2000 Bulleit sold 180,000 cases while Maker’s Mark sold 1.4 million. At this rate of growth, it is likely that Bulleit Bourbon will surpass Maker’s as the leading selling brand.

So, the brand’s remarkable achievement has been the result of Diageo’s and Tom Bulleit’s efforts. Its launch and positioning in the bourbon market was due to the folks at Seagram.

Its start has always been an enigma to me and I set out recently to get the full story and to refresh my memory.

Let’s go Down Seagram Memory Lane

If you’ve read my book (forgive the shameless self-promotion), you know that Seagram was a whisk(e)y company in a world of vodka, tequila and other non-whiskey products. Starting in the early to mid 90s, the company acquired the distribution rights to Absolut, and at the same time, Captain Morgan and Crown Royal were growing by double digits each month. By the mid to late 1990s Seagram had consolidated its whisk(e)y portfolio to Canadian Whiskies (Crown Royal, VO and its line extension), Seagram 7 Crown, and Scotch brands (Chivas Regal, The Glenlivet, and other single malt whiskies).

All other whiskey brands were sold or let out to pasture. This Included such terrific brands as Weller, Benchmark and my current favorite, Eagle Rare. The sole exception that comes to mind is Four Roses, which was doing very well as a bourbon brand in Japan but languished as a blended American whiskey in the US.

The puzzle to me as I look back on it is, with the portfolio changing and growing and many whiskies being sold, why did Seagram want a fledgling bourbon with a pretty awful package (at the time)?

The old Bulleit bottle

There’s another piece of the equation that may partially shed some light on this.

In 1995, Seagram bought 80 percent of the shares in entertainment conglomerate MCA Inc. for $8 billion. The company was now in a new business and Edgar Bronfman Jr. focused his attention there. As a result, the owner “overwatch” returned to Edgar M. Bronfman (the Chairman) assisted by John Bernbach, a long time Edgar Jr. friend, an advertising and media executive, and a Bronfman/Seagram advisor.

How Bulleit Came to Seagram

John played a crucial role. At dinner one night with an attorney friend from a prominent NYC law firm, John was told about Tom and the brand. He naturally assumed that since Seagram did not have a bourbon, Bulleit would make a strong addition to the overall portfolio. He brought the idea to both Edgar Jr. and the Chairman.

Both Bronfmans were said to have some reservations. The younger Bronfman was not happy with the packaging (see photo) while the Chairman had some reservations about the taste. But, both liked the idea of a bourbon in the House of Seagram.

But why? Bourbons had been removed from the fold, Crown Royal was on fire, Glenlivet and other single malts were doing nicely, and the company’s focus was on Absolut and the commitments to the Swedish owners.

There are lots of conjectures as to the answer. Perhaps Edgar Jr. was prescient and saw bourbon’s return as an opportunity. Maybe he wanted to show investors and the company that, despite the entertainment industry involvement, the spirits business was still top of mind. Conceivably the Chairman, now returned to the forefront of the booze business, was excited by the idea of a bourbon product that was outstanding.

My guess is that when John brought in his team (copywriter and art director), he showed the Bronfmans what the brand could become. Edgar Jr. in particular loved the work of these two gents.

Bulleit 10 year old bourbon

Chuck Cowdery—writer, blogger, historian, marketer, and arguably the most knowledgeable bourbon maven on the planet—has written more than anyone about Bulleit. So, I’ll let him provide a brief history as reported on his blog:

Bulleit bourbon was launched in 1995, the brainchild of Tom Bulleit, a Kentucky lawyer who, through his legal work, learned a lot about the growing international market for American whiskey. He contracted with the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, to make it. A few years later, he moved his operation over to Seagram. They created the current bottle and reformulated the product, moving its production to the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.

Tom Bulleit

From the moment Tom walked through the door, and up to the closing of the Seagram door, Tom was a key player in the development of the brand. He worked with the production folks on the recipe, with the agency on the brand’s positioning, and with marketing/packaging on the look and message of Bulleit.

To me, this was a bit unusual. While Seagram often welcomed brand acquisitions, with the exception of Absolut, the attitude was often (to paraphrase) “thanks, we love your brand, here’s your check, we’ll take it from here, and here’s the door…” But, all of us from the Bronfman’s on down, welcomed Tom’s involvement.

There’s probably a couple of reasons for that, mainly due to Tom’s personality and approach—he’s smart, has the brand in his DNA, a team player, and overall terrific person to work with. Neil Gallo, who ran the day-to-day development of the brand, told to me recently that Tom would often say to Seagram folks something like, “here’s my suggestion, use it or not as you see fit.” His ideas were almost always accepted.

From my standpoint, I loved Tom’s “outsider” views and the way he interacted with our people.

Tom Bulleit

The Bulleit Product

Whether there was a Bulleit Bourbon product on the market or otherwise available to be bought in the 19th Century, was irrelevant to us. Tom’s proposition was 1) the brand traced its origin to Augustus Bulleit (great-great-grandfather of Tom) and 2) with strong brand credentials, the brand could be a winner. We totally agreed.

The production folks were energized by the fact that they would be working on a new whiskey (a bourbon no less) and would be able to use the outstanding bourbon stocks they had. According to Art Peterson, who was VP of Quality Assurance and Technical Services, the team presented samples from mingling bond stocks from inventory. These went to Tom and the master distiller for approval. Ultimately, as was the case with all Seagram products, the final approval of the liquid came from the Chairman.

Tom, for his part, had his ancestors recipe in mind—a high rye content bourbon. What was produced was two-thirds corn and one-third rye. (The bourbon corn requirement is 51%). Today the brand’s recipe is very similar—68% corn, 28% rye, and 4% malted barley.

Here’s how the Bulleit website describes the product:

Inspired by his great-great-grandfather Augustus Bulleit, who made a high-rye whiskey between 1830-1860…

The Concept and the Packaging

John’s Bernbach’s team (with Tom and Neil’s involvement), came up with a simple yet powerful message. This isn’t just a bourbon, this is a Frontier Whiskey. A powerful slogan followed— “When men were men and whiskey was bourbon.” I loved it, approved it immediately then brought it to Edgar Jr. for his final okay.

The slogan is gone but the Frontier Whiskey is still prominent in the current Bulleit packaging.

To me, the Bulleit packaging that was developed by Sandstrom Partners in Portland Oregon captured the concept perfectly. All the elements were there—a flask shaped, apothecary-like bottle, embossed branding, cork closure and, a minimal wraparound label that is slightly askew as though it was hand applied.

About that label… It was put on deliberately misaligned because it fit the imagery and positioning of the brand. It is part of the brand’s personality. However, in almost all operating committee meetings someone from production would invariably say something like this: “Great news Arthur, we fixed the label. It’s now perfectly straight.” This “great news” was always met with a groan and a request to leave it alone.

The Reactions

Not everyone in the organization loved or cared about Bulleit. Most of those in sales welcomed the brand since it had the backing of the owners or because they saw an opportunity in the bourbon business. At the same time, there were many who felt that Bulleit detracted focus and attention from the phenomenal growth of Crown Royal—a known winner vs. an upstart. Besides, there were other brands in need of focus such as Absolut and Captain Morgan, both recognized winners.

The brand limped along from the mid-1990s until the end of the decade. Then the lights went out as Seagram was sold to Pernod-Ricard and Diageo. The brands were split up and Diageo acquired Bulleit Bourbon.

The situation for the brand changed appreciably. According to data I’ve seen, the returning growth of bourbon began in the mid-2000s. Unlike Seagram, Diageo, while strong in scotch, did not have much going for it in American whiskies, particularly bourbon. Dickel and Rebel Yell hardly fit the bill to compete with the rapidly growing brands. As a result, Diageo had nothing to lose and much to gain by pushing Bulleit and its unique package and positioning. I’m told that Diageo’s sales folks loved the brand and strongly focused on it.

Today

In 2017, to meet the demand of Bulleit, Diageo built a distillery in Shelbyville, Kentucky which will produce 1.8 million proof gallons annually, with the opportunity to expand further over time. It’s on a 300-acre campus with barrel houses at a cost $115 million.

At the current rate of growth of the brand, I wouldn’t be surprised if the expansion were to happen very soon.

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Lessons Learned

1. The role of focus

Seagram had strong and rapidly growing brands requiring concerted and sustained effort. Bulleit would have had to push itself to the forefront of the portfolio at the company. Even if Seagram had survived, I have my doubts as to whether Bulleit would be where it is today.

2. Managing a portfolio of brands

Diageo, seeing the emergence of a return to bourbon, had the good sense to back Bulleit at the expense of George Dickel (a Tennessee whiskey) and Rebel Yell (which was ultimately sold to Luxco in 1999). In short, Seagram’s roster of brands had no real room for Bulleit while Diageo did.

3. Hey marketing folks—don’t overthink it

I think there is a temptation among marketers to show relevance and authenticity by claiming a brand’s recipe dates back to 1830. It was smart to go a different route—just being inspired by Augustus Bulleit is sufficient. As a consumer, I care less about a brand’s history and background and more about what it is today.

*          *          *

I’d like to thank the following people who helped refresh my memory or otherwise corrected my recollection in writing this article. These included Neil Gallo, Rob Warren, John Bernbach, Greg Leonard, Sam Ellias, Art Peterson, and, of course, Tom Bulleit.

The Bulleit portfolio of brands
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On the Road to Success

Checking in with Bom Bom Brands

A little over a year ago I wrote about the launch of this interesting new product and Kevin Mowers, the person behind it. You can find the story here.

I caught up with Kevin recently and asked him how it was going and what his experiences were as a startup brand.

What I did not mention in the original story is that the Bom Bom team consists of Kevin and his wife Eva Maria. Both bring different skills to the brand and, it turns out, that she played a crucial role in the brand’s development, as you will see. So, this interview was with both of them.

Kevin and Eva Maria

 

BB: How is it going? What were the highlights of 2016?

Kevin: Great – keeping busy!  We launched mid-year in CT and then branched out into MA, DC and NY (Westchester County and Long Island). Our distributors did a great job getting BOM BOM into retailers while we were focused on getting BOM BOM into consumer’s hands. We did this through a lot of in-store and in-bar sampling promotions as well as showing the product at larger tasting and charity events. One of the most important things for us was to make sure we keep having fun and celebrating every victory and every milestone, however small.

BB: What are the biggest obstacles or challenges you face? What have you done about them?

Eva Maria: The biggest challenge for us, like for any new brand, has been awareness. Since we are not national, the typical PR and marketing playbooks were not relevant for us, as we needed a more market-by-market, grassroots approach. We have pushed ourselves to really think outside the box, leave our corporate models behind, and leverage local PR, especially bartender contests, magazine profiles and social media. There is still much, much more to do. As we grow into more markets, we’ll be able to expand our PR outreach accordingly and that’s a top priority for 2017.

BB: Many new product entrepreneurs have told me that the single most important element in developing their brands has been in-store tastings, as you’ve just mentioned. I’m not surprised that this would be particularly true for Bom Bom.

Kevin: Indeed. We love doing in-store tastings as it allows us to engage with consumers. For us it has been just as much about getting feedback (and new drink recipes!) from consumers as sharing the BOM BOM story. BOM BOM Coco Mochanut recently received 94 points by the International Review of Spirits, which means it is the highest in its category. As such, we love seeing the excited look on people’s faces after they’ve tried it, especially when they themselves start selling it to complete strangers in the stores for us!

BB: I’ve known you for a few years and watched the development and launch. But I never wrote about how Bom Bom came about in the first place. What’s the brand’s back-story?

Eva Maria: Like a lot of today’s modern romances we were introduced by a common friend — Tracy — Who to this day takes credit for our awesome relationship and by association, BOM BOM.

Kevin had spent the better part of his career designing great tasting products for the industry’s top players and so of course tried to impress me with his extensive knowledge of luxury spirits. But it wasn’t really doing it for me as I was never really into alcohol…. this was both a disappointment and a challenge to Kevin… and good thing for me (and our BOM BOM fans) that Kevin happens to love a good challenge.

After a few dates, Kevin changed his game and mixed up something special just for me, made with my favorite flavors — coffee, coconut and of course CHOCOLATE! And BOM BOM was born!

I loved it so much that I started asking him to make it for friends and with time it was a standing order from friends and friends of friends…. We were making it all of the time and decided to go for it and formed the company “BOM BOM Brands” to share our fun with the world!

BOM BOM is all about the right mix of flavors, having fun and being authentic.  Our business partnership really is the same idea…. we have very different skill sets and so together we’re able to accomplish what neither of us would be able to do on our own.

And, to make the deal even sweeter, Kevin’s wooing is still going strong after three wonderful years of marriage….

BB: What does the future hold for the brand – line extensions, geographic expansion, etc. What do you think will be coming down the road? 

Kevin: BOM BOM is all about having fun and being authentic. As all small companies, we are excited to bring this fun to additional markets but also cautious not to dilute our efforts and grow too fast. From a new product perspective, we have a few new innovations in the mix. As with Coco Mochanut, all of our new products will be great tasting and in fun, fashion-forward packaging.

Kevin making cocktails at an event/tasting
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Cops and Robbers

A most unusual brand-building agency

In my last posting about Bom Bom, an exciting new product in the cream liqueur category, I mentioned Cops and Robbers as the agency that developed the concept, branding and product strategy.

The agency name is a playful approach to duality and a kind of yin yang thinking whereby two opposite and conflicting forces are actually connected. In the case of Cops and Robbers the duality is the balance between insights and creativity, between strategy and creativity. It also reflects the two founders, Patricia Verdolino and Richie Beretta, who come at branding projects from different standpoints but whose output becomes a sharp strategic blend.

image-1Born and raised in Queens, New York, Patricia and Richie studied design, but most of their influences, inspiration, and approach to working with brands come from a combination of their cultural and musical backgrounds. They met when Patricia was a vocalist in the Metro Stylee group (I bet you’re gonna Google it) and Richie was a producer. Turns out they grew up in the same neighborhood.

Richie is still very much involved in music and he is the design and creativity side of the practice. Patricia is the strategic, insights and innovation side. She has worked at a number of well known and high profile agencies such as Landor, Future Brands, and Anomaly.

What makes them special?

When I was first introduced to them, they had done some work for a leading beverage company and my friend there described them as particularly unique at translating insights into strategies and action. She went on to say, “They understand the consumer and culture better than the large bureaucratic agencies and translate this understanding into innovation…true innovation, not copy cat.”

Here’s how they put it on their website:

Tired of being handcuffed to traditional agency models and deliverables they have formed Cops & Robbers, a multidisciplinary agency that’s part think tank part creative studio where collaboration, music, art, strategy, production, and design seamlessly merge for fully integrated brand solutions.

The Bom Bom Case Study

Kevin Mowers (founder of Liquid Innovations and Bom Bom) had an incredible cream liqueur that, in his view and others, coco-mochanutwas superior to Rumchata and Bailey’s. So check the box marked the liquid is great. But, who is the target market? What’s the brand? How do we appeal to them? What packaging should be used?

Cops and Robbers were given the brand development assignment and went about it in both a traditional and unorthodox manner.

They identified the millennial consumer but focused in on the 21 to 31 year old women. More than that, based on their insight work, they sharpened the focus on a particular segment of that group with a definable set of cultural and life style values. From what I’ve seen (and in the spirit of confidentiality) all I can say is they more than painted a picture of these consumers – they all but came alive in their presentation. Insightful, clear, and concise.

When they focused in on Bom Bom they covered the brand’s territory in terms of community, motivation, occasion, brand ‘friends,’ signature drink, flavor profile, motto and inspiration. The result was more than a roadmap; it was a travel guide.

Inspiration
Inspiration

The inspiration aspect is worth focusing on. Some people have looked at the Bom Bom packaging and told me either they “don’t get it” or “I’m not sure about it.” But hold on. If one of the consumer calls to action is to “release your inner kid,” then this works well.

Further, the design inspiration came from the contemporary fashion look inspired by Jeremy Scott, Pharrell Williams (BBC Ice Cream) and Moschino. It’s designed with the target audience in mind.

With the permission of Cops and Robbers, here is an excerpt from their presentation that sums up the brand and it’s marketing components:

BOM BOM is a part of a shift in spirits that’s not ashamed to break the serious rules of the game and just have some adult fun. Yeah, maybe that means acting irreverent like an anti-grown up and accepting that you really don’t give a (bleep) anyway. Boring is the enemy. BOM BOM is the cure.

Keep your eye on Bom Bom when it enters the market in early 2016. And, for that matter also keep your eye on Cops and Robbers. They are both going places.

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