SHELBYVILLE, Ky.—If Tom Bulleit didn’t buy a lottery ticket on March 14, he should have. As the founder of Bulleit Distilling Co. welcomed a crowd of about 200 to the ultra-modern, Diageo-backed distillery that day, he mentioned that Tuesday was not only his birthday, but his 30th wedding anniversary. 2017 also just happens to mark 30 years since the longtime lawyer revived his family’s whiskey business.
If the next Powerball number is 30, credit Bulleit with your share of the win.
Heaven knows he was busy crediting everyone else for the success of his Bulleit Frontier Whiskeys: family and friends who supported him, the spirits giant that bought the brand and gave it international wings, architects, engineers and construction workers who designed and built the $115 million facility, bartenders who turned drinkers onto said whiskeys—even lowly spirits journalists who wrote about Bulleit booze. He is, if anything, a gracious and friendly guy.
“As you can imagine, this is somewhat surreal for me,” Bulleit said. Recalling the first time he glimpsed the distillery’s fully constructed buildings from a distance, the ex-Marine and colon-cancer survivor said he asked himself, “How did this happen? This is absolutely incredible.”
The answer, of course, is drinkers like his liquor. In 2016, year-over-year sales of Bulleit whiskeys rose 29 percent, pushing six-bottle case sales past the 1 million mark for the first time. By comparison, it took Maker’s Mark 40 years to reach that case number.
Deirdre Mahlan, president of Diageo North America, said that despite the new modular distillery’s 1.8 million proof-gallon capacity, “we are already exploring expansion opportunities. Based on increased sales of Bulleit, we are looking at doing this sooner than later.”
Set on 300 acres of Shelby County countryside, the new distillery’s modern structures are brand-new, hospital clean and detailed with the precision of an amusement park. Expanding here would pose no problems, especially if, as Mahlan said, Diageo adds visitors’ experience in Shelbyville to complement its existing tour at the historic Stitzel-Weller campus in Shively.
During a brief tour, reporters weren’t allowed to photograph the distillery’s control room, which is fully computerized. No dials, knobs or switches here, just an array of flat-screen monitors detailing the grinding, fermenting, distillation and bottling the 15 to 20 million bushels of Shelby County grain delivered here annually. For now, only bourbon is in production, and no timeline was given for rye.
The new distillery fills about 720 charred oak barrels each day, about half the volume produced at Jim Beam’s Clermont plant. Instead of using ricks, barrels are palette stacked 25-feet high in four, single-story warehouses holding 55,000 barrels each. If you’re not a bourbon nerd, just know that that’s a lot. Most warehouses at major distilleries hold about 20,000 barrels. Last year, Heaven Hill opened a 56,000-barrel house in Cox’s Creek, where others of the same size are under construction.
Bourbon is a boomin’, ain’t she!
In its effort to operate with minimal environmental impact, the spent mash is sent to a 50,000-gallon centrifuge that separates the spent grain from the backset. Backset is used in future fermentations and the grain is dried for livestock feed supplement. The site also employs the first industrial solar panel array in Shelby County, which collects enough energy to run all on-site mobile equipment.
Yep, we were impressed. Hopefully visitors will soon be allowed to see what we saw.