Discussing the Bulleit name can feel like walking into a foggy field with randomly placed landmines. Whether due to controversy surrounding Thomas E. Bulleit, the mere association with its parent company (see: Eboni Major, Redemption), or the gossip surrounding its current bourbon source, there’s no shortage of head-scratching to find when navigating the brand. Even their locations are scattered; the visitor’s center is at the minimally operational Stitzel-Weller distillery, the recently built carbon neutral Bulleit distillery opened in Lebanon in 2021, and the bottling location is over in Plainfield, Illinois.
For the sake of focus, I’m going to limit my usual scope to where the name came from and what we do know about the bourbon. Bulleit was founded by the aforementioned Thomas E. Bulleit in 1987, meaning it’s similar to Woodford Reserve in the sense that it’s fairly recent despite being so ubiquitous. That and the two don’t have any core products that are distilled and aged strictly in-house. Marketed as high-rye, “frontier whiskey,” it’s meant to call back to Thomas’ great-great-grandfather Augustus Bulleit, an alleged Louisville tavern keeper who produced whiskey between 1830 and 1860.
Initial bottlings of Bulleit were sourced from the Ancient Age distillery (now Buffalo Trace) before switching to Four Roses for a few years. The source of more recent (and ongoing) bottlings of the standard orange label are undisclosed, with Jim Beam, Brown-Forman, and Barton being among the speculated parties. Although the disclosed mash bill (68% corn, 28% rye, 4% malted barley) might point to Four Roses (assuming a 50/50 mix of their two mash bills), it’s ultimately hearsay.
So what are we left with in the standard orange label? A NAS bourbon carrying a $25-$30 MSRP and…not much else. Perhaps a pour can help clue us in. Let’s take a look.
Nose: Bright and mildly sweet with a slightly grassy (maybe sassafras) and yeast-like backbone. Light brown sugar and pine with hints of wood and baking spices. Maybe a vague trace of citrus (orange), vegetal notes, and either raw almonds or peanuts. The sweeter aromas slowly come together to give this a light, mellow personality.
Palate: Thin and light. Hot cinnamon springs to mind while the mildest brown sugar and black pepper notes slip in. A whisper of wood begins to present like peanuts, but it’s not distinct enough to pinpoint. Red Hots with far less heat and sugar.
Finish: Watery and a touch dry. Pepper spice slowly and gently creeps up with herbal hints here and there (possibly basil). Otherwise it’s clean and a touch effervescent.
Coming back to Bulleit feels like revisiting my first exposures to whiskey through bourbon. By that, I mean trying mostly average to above average stuff, with this landing closer to the former. There are marks of something more enjoyable, but none of them feel distinct or developed enough to pick Bulleit over its many competitors. Even in cocktails, Bulleit seems to struggle thanks to its lower ABV and light profile.
I understand why many drinkers are fond of Bulleit. It’s available, affordable, and unchallenging; an ideal gateway whiskey if nothing else. The same can be said for a host of bourbons, each of which occupy a key section of the market: the common drinker. Although I struggle to think of a scenario where I’d choose Bulleit over other bottles, that doesn’t mean it’s bad—just unremarkable.