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.

*          *          *

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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Move over, Tequila and Mezcal

100% Agave Spirits Made in India

Back in 2014, I wrote a number of articles about Desmond Nazareth and his Agave India products, as well as how agave made its way to India. (See articles here and here.) Recently, I learned that Desmond has joined forces with Martin Grassl, the founder of Porfidio tequila.

Here is how their joint venture is described on Old Town Liquor’s website.

The joint venture was created out of the mutual respect of two entrepreneurs of disparate backgrounds but with similar creative minds. They shared a profound admiration for a botanical wonder, the “tree of marvels” as the Spanish Conquistadors called the agave when they encountered it in Mexico.

The product is called SINGLE AGAVE® 100% AGAVE AMERICANA EDITION (Code Name: S3xA). It’s not made in Mexico but in southern India— the Deccan Plateau, a geographical area where the agaves grow. As the story goes… the agave was transplanted from Mexico to India by Queen Victoria for fencing off the railways of the Raj to stop Holy Cows from being crushed by trains. The Agave Americana is the producer’s way of celebrating that 100-year-old event by distilling the wild plants.

I spoke with Desmond Nazareth or DesmondJi, as his brand is called, and here are excerpts from the interview.

BB: How did your relationship with Martin Grassl and Porfidio come about? How did you and he meet?

DN: The relationship was born out of respect for each other’s achievements and each other’s product quality. Martin noticed articles about Indian agave spirits appearing around 2012 in the Mexican press and contacted me.

It was both Martin’s and my opinion that agave spirits— be it tequila, mezcal or other— are unique precisely because of the botanical uniqueness of the agave plant (“the inulin factor”), the true and only star of the equation, not because they are Mexican-made.

The idea, of course, is not new, as it simply mimics what Baron Rothschild did for the world of wines 50 years ago by creating the first non-French wines in Chile and Napa.  It was revolutionary idea at the time.

Both Martin and I strongly feel that Indian agave spirits, made in our craft distillery (India’s first), should be viewed in the same league as Mexican agave spirits like mezcal, by nature of being made from naturally grown and foraged agave plants, as opposed to plantation-grown agave plants. The fact that my products are made from 100% Agave Americana, rather than 100% Blue Agave, takes our premium products intentionally beyond tequila, along the lines of Mexico’s finest mezcals.

BB: This is a special edition product, how is it different from your other Agave brands?

DN: It differs in terms of product formulation from our other agave spirits products. Certain adjustments were made to the hydrolysis, fermentation and distillation process to create a product which is more attuned towards international taste profile preferences, rather than India’s domestic preferences. For this first special edition, a traditional process of heat hydrolysis has been used, the oven cooking method.

BB: Can you discuss the nature of the business relationship between the two companies?

DN: Single-Agave 100% Agave Americana is a joint venture product between DesmondJi and Porfidio. It forms part of Martin Grassl’s brainchild “world series” of non-Mexican made agave spirits, such as agave spirits made from Agave Cocuy (Venezuela), Agave Australis (Australia) and Agave Karoo (Africa). Agave spirits can be made wherever agave is grown, same as high quality wine can be made wherever appropriate grapes are grown. France certainly never liked the idea of the coming into existence of wines from Napa Valley, Barossa Valley and Mendoza, I guess it could not be helped, as it is the natural progression of things.

Agave India is essentially the ‘field-to-bottle’ producer of Indian craft spirits and Porfidio is a premium global co-branding and marketing partner We jointly decide what is an appropriate craft offering for the global market.

BB: Where do you see this joint venture going in the future?

The idea is to expand quickly into super-premium barrel aged expressions Indian Agave spirits, similar to Mexican Reposados and Añejos.  Ours is a step-by-step approach, with the Blanco-style expression simply a starting point.

BB: Tell us more about the story behind the idea— “the agave was transplanted from Mexico to India by Queen Victoria for fencing off the railways of the Raj to stop Holy Cows from being crushed by trains.”

DN: There are two happenstances which brought about the existence of Indian agave spirits. For one, the general nature of the so-called Colombian Exchange, by which the agave, among many other plants and animals, “went international.” In addition, the Agave Americana arrived in India as a cost-effective means of fencing off the British rails to protect its trains from killing or maiming animals.

While the British probably single-mindedly aimed at protecting their financial assets— their trains—the concept of this fencing idea was equally a culturally-sensitive decision by the British Crown in protecting India’s free-roaming Holy Cows, one of our spiritual and cultural assets.

So, the “agave solution” was embraced by the colonizers and the colonized, as benefiting both. Neither “them” nor “us” grasped the true dimension of this pivotal fencing decision as the Mesoamerica-sourced Agave Americana proliferated beyond anyone’s wildest expectations on Southern India’s fertile soils, the Deccan Plateau Highlands. Why the Empire chose the Agave Americana towards such purpose—used in Mexico to produce some of the finest Mezcal—rather than any other variety, is a mystery still to be fully uncovered by botanical historians. Whatever the reason for the choice, it unquestionably benefited us.

BB: Other than in the US are there other countries where you’re working together?

DN: The US is the world’s biggest market for agave spirits. So, we thought it a good idea to do the initial special edition product launch in the US. Our next target market is Japan and China, based on Porfidio’s existing distribution platforms in these countries.

Thank you, Desmond.

Indian Agave Americana
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Vietnam and Chivas Regal: A Salesman’s Story

A Journey to Open a New Market in 1994 (A True Story)

Ted McDonnell was a top-notch salesperson in the Asia-Pacific/Global Duty-Free division of Seagram Spirits and Wine Group. (SSWG or ‘swig’ as it was referred to.) Ted had spent his career living in Australia, Hong Kong, and Guam as a regional director fixing problems and building brands all over Asia-Pacific.

Then one day an outstanding opportunity came his way in the form of a job with Chivas Brothers. He no sooner got settled in London when he was told that among his first assignments was to go to Vietnam to do sales training on behalf of the brand. President Clinton opened the market to trade and management was anxious to expand opportunities in the emerging market.

His excitement was palpable and, as he waited for his visa, he gathered point of sale and training materials. As he scurried about making preparations—including attending a companywide meeting—he was not able to get his ticket and visa until the last minute.  He ended up collecting five boxes of gifts and items that the sales and marketing people could use. You can imagine the effort he put in to get the right stuff and when the week’s wait was over, he ran to his office and collected the visa and plane tickets.

While hoping to stay awake on the flight to see the approach to the country, he instead fell asleep and awoke as the plane landed in a dark and ominous looking airport surrounded by what appeared to be machine gun towers. As he disembarked he felt a bit of relief, when a Vietnamese man tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “Are you an American?”

He quickly said, “Oh no I’m British, I’m here with Chivas Regal Whisky.” The man smiled and said, “Would you please tell your American friends we wish they would come back, we’ve missed them.”

With this surprising start to his journey, he collected the five boxes, breezed through customs, and left the terminal to find his colleagues who were to meet him.

Hello Vietnam

Two problems got his immediate attention. Here he is at the airport of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and it’s basically an open-air cement building—hardly what he expected from the biggest city in the country. Second, there were well over 200 people waiting to greet deplaning passengers but no one was there for him. He waited and worried.

“You need taxi? My name is Tran,” said the young man who approached him. “No, I’m waiting for my friends to pick me up,” was Ted’s reply.

A few hours passed while he stopped people to ask if they knew where the Seagram office was in the city. After a while, Ted noticed Tran hanging around the terminal again. He decided to approach him.

“Tran, bring your car, I think we will go to the city. My friends forgot about me.” So, Tran is very happy, and goes to get his car. As Ted describes it, “The car is a little more than a shoe box and I had a hard time squeezing in with the five boxes, my computer bag and the one piece of luggage I had with me.” But off they went.

Tran is very quiet as they drive along a very dark road without much lights. As they are crossing a bridge, Tran stops the car and says, “I go back and get my friend. I go back and get my friend.” Ted nervously replies, “no, no, no… I’m paying you to take me to the city.” To which Tran says, “Yeah, I know I take you to the city… but first I go back and get my friend.”

The next thing Ted knows, Tran turns the car around and heads back to the airport. Only this time the road is deserted and no cars are on the highway.

Ted starts to get very nervous

“How come there are no other cars… how come I’m the only one on the highway and there is the airport… it’s getting dark…only the lights are on out front of the airport with three men standing there and I’m thinking this is it for me. I’m getting kidnapped, you’re never going to see me again and there’s going to be a letter to my family of some sort… I’m thinking I’ve got to get out of the taxi when we reach the airport. But before I can get my hand on the door this guy jumps in the front seat and smiles and says, ‘Hello Joe. How are you Joe?’ I said, ‘Uh, uh, good’ and we’re driving back toward the bridge.”

Picture this—Ted is stuck in the back street, wedged in among the 5 boxes, computer bag and luggage while Tran and his friend are getting angry and arguing with each other. The friend suddenly reaches into the glove box, turns around and points two things at Ted, one in each hand. He can barely see what it is but is sure it looks like a gun. Ted thinks, “Why the hell did I put myself in this fix?”

After a second or two, Tran’s friend says, “Richard Marx or Air Supply cassette player?” Ted starts laughing and so does Tran and his friend. He puts on Richard Marx and he says, “You sing, you sing for us.” Ted’s thinking, “I don’t sing, but if I don’t I may end up in a ditch so sing your friggin’ heart out.”

Now they’re tooling down the muddy roads and all singing Richard Marx and Air Supply in a bizarre (yet frightening for Ted) karaoke event. After a while, they slow down next to a house, the friend gets out and tells Ted to do the same. Ted protests; Tran’s friend is most insistent and mutters something about needing gas to get to the city.

Ted reluctantly leaves the car and is standing on the side of a dark road with all his gear, dressed in a blazer, gray slacks and white shirt. His fear has just gone up a notch or two.

Ted recollects: “But there, next to the little house were three little kids and an old lady that comes out the front door. She takes my hand and leads me inside, sits me down on a small stool. Now that could only be a small stool because if I stood up I think my head would have gone through the roof.” It turns out to be Tran’s family.

What follows is Vietnamese hospitality as Ted is served tea and some food as he begins to relax a bit. He even starts playing with the children and making duck and animal sounds while he waits for Tran to return. All the while he’s thinking that this is the craziest kidnapping ever.

At long last Tran appears and announces, “Okay we go now.” Ted is relieved and delighted and can’t wait to get to Ho Chi Minh City, a shower, and a comfortable Marriott bed. Goodbyes, smiles and happiness is shared all around. In fact, Ted is so happy, he lightens his load by opening one of the boxes and handing out Chivas Regal shirts.

Welcome to the city

“It’s the city, we’re coming to the city,” Tran joyfully announces.

So again, Ted is getting a little nervous being an American in Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City. He says, “Tran, ahh what street are we going to?” Tran answers, “I don’t know. I ask the policeman.” Before Ted can object, Tran is out of the car with my paper written in English. The officer looks at Ted and asks, “You Yankee?” he says.

Ted decides that it might be best to claim he’s British and puts on his bad English accent. To which the officer replies, “Ahh too bad … I love baseball, I love the Yankees.” He goes on to inform Ted and Tran that the street they need is too small for the car and they need to take two nearby tricycles. The officer offers to watch the taxi while they head off.

So, they get into the tricycles, with the boxes and other gear, ride down narrow roads, just barely missing other bikes and Ted is thinking what the hell is going on. There are bright neon signs but all are in Vietnamese. Finally, they pull over to a really dark and dingy building and over the doorway it says Marriott Hotel.

Ted is elated but still a bit worried. He goes inside, finds the desk clerk, who fortunately speaks English and asks about Seagram, the colleagues he’s supposed to meet, and Chivas Regal. The man replies no—he has no idea who these people or companies are. Ted says, “I’m looking for the Marriott, maybe it’s a little bigger than this.” To which the desk clerk replies, “Ooh you want the other Marriott.” He writes down the address for Tran in Vietnamese. They collect his stuff and put it in the tricycles, go back through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and find their taxi and the policeman. Once again Ted opens a box and hands out more t-shirts to the smiling policeman.

Off they go to the address and twenty minutes later they arrive at a decent looking hotel but certainly not a Marriott. It doesn’t take long for him to learn that it’s the wrong place and they need the Marriott by the water. He is assured that it’s close by. Off they go.

As Ted describes it:

“I was happy when he said, ‘Not far from here.’ Okay. We’re so close I can almost taste the Marriott air. It was hot, it was steaming. I was so tired, it was like 24 hours since I last slept. It had to be about 11 o’clock by then. So here I am, we’re back in the car we’re driving to the next place. Nearly half an hour passes—not five minutes—and we finally pull up to another hotel but something didn’t feel right.”

Ted goes in and asks about Seagram, his colleagues, and Chivas and receives no, no, and no in reply. By now he’s questioning his sanity, his belief in God, and thinks that he’s still sleeping on the plane and this is a dream, or worse, a nightmare. And, things get interesting.

He asks the clerk for a phone so he can call one of his colleagues. He gives the man and Tran the number and they look at each other quizzically. They speak animatedly in Vietnamese. Finally, Tran turns to Ted and says, “Your friend is not here.” To which Ted replies, “I know you already told me he’s not here.”

Tran explains further, “No, your friend is in Ho Chi Minh City… in the south.” “Well where am I”, asks Ted.

“You’re in the North, you’re in Hanoi,” he learns from Tran.

Ted, takes out his plane ticket and looks at it. Sure enough, the ticket and documents he grabbed at the last minute say Hanoi, but the phone number is for Ho Chi Minh City, 700 miles away.

Ted asks, “Tran why didn’t you tell me that when you had the paper?”

Tran replies, “I don’t read English.”

“So why did you have the paper, Tran?”

“Because you gave it to me.”

Ted sits down in the lobby, is about to cry but decides he might just as well laugh. Then realizes what he has to do next.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Join us next time for the continuing saga of Ted McDonnell, Chivas Regal and the trip south to Ho Chi Minh City, aka, Saigon.

By the way, Ted is the CEO of Liberty Lighthouse Group an international alcohol sales and marketing agency. Their mission is to help develop new brands or to further support established brands throughout Asia/Pacific and other Global markets.

Ted McDonnell in full Chivas Regal attire
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