October 2010

Up Front with Hollis Bulleit

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Hollis Bulleit grew up in Kentucky—no surprise, since her father, and the four generations preceding him, were the creators of Bulleit Bourbon. But it wouldn’t be until decades later that she would become an active part of that world.

“Some of my first life’s lessons,” Hollis says, speaking of growing up in the South, “was to learn the art of hosting. It’s about making people feel welcome, making them feel at home, be entertained.”

Hollis Bulleit, sixth generation, Bulleit Bourbon.

Another Southern rite of passage, explains Bulleit, is to have ‘lots of moms.’

“I grew up with a bio-mom and a step-mom, but I also had about a dozen other ‘moms’ who wanted to make sure I was taken care of; the South is all about taking care of others and telling good stories. I moved to Los Angeles because I wanted to be on the cutting edge of cocktail trends and infuse the movement with some good ol’ Kentucky stories, Southern flair, and a message to enjoy brown spirits responsibly.”

She may have taken a left turn at Lexington, but the 36 year old continues to be the perfect hostess and ultimately, the Global Ambassador for Bulleit Bourbon. “My dad [Tom Bulleit] taught me: it’s about the other person. We’re in the relationship business. We truly care.”

So, as a guest in her downtown Los Angeles loft, an antique-infused two-story that looks more like a speakeasy circa 1931 than an apartment, I am welcomed with food, drink and good company.

“Once you’re in my home, you’re friend and family,” she smiles broadly, her eyes sparkling, her hair in a neat beehive up-do. She looks like she walked off the set of Mad Men.

Hollis is an accomplished artist, a flamboyant costume model and collector of vintage apparel, a brilliant conversationalist and, oh yes, an expert on bourbon. As the voice and face of Bulleit Bourbon, she travels the world educating and training consumers and the trade, assembling comparative tastings or just “hanging out with the Masters of Whiskey.”

Hollis, who attended the prestigious Smith College and Brandeis University in the Boston area and then graduated with a Masters of Art degree from NYU, developed an uncanny signature style of art. Her visuals mimic such legends as Lichtenstein, Beardsley and Fritz Lang among others. She cleverly managed to insert images of herself within her versions of these iconic works. She notes, “I combine myself with bourbon as I do with my art.”

“The Mint Julep, made correctly, should taste refreshing and look like a trophy,” claims Hollis Bullei

After leaving Smith, Hollis began working at the Bulleit distillery, in the role of executive assistant to her father. “I may not have grown up with bourbon, but I came of age and matured with Bulleit.”

It was worth the wait. With L.A. as home base, she is fully engaged in the business, traveling to all the right accounts at the right time.

“The more bartenders and mixologists I meet, the more I see of a new breed of creative people who understand the texture and artistry of drink-making. There is also a growing passion for bourbon. Whether it’s my brand or some other, bourbon is an American product, but it’s an American product we have to wait for—one of the few things impatient Americans have to wait for at all. But it’s worth it.”

As a 1920s flapper, Hollis Bulleit strikes a pose on her four-poster bed, a mint julep in hand and a bottle of Bulleit on her nightstand.

Claiming that “bourbon is a food pairing in a drink,” Hollis recognizes that cocktail culture is hers to interpret through her brand. “We’re living in an era when spirits have a life of their own. The choices we have in making bourbon cocktails is as vast as the complex number of ingredients and characteristics that you discover in nosing and tasting each bourbon. If you detect ginger, then by all means, add ginger syrup to your recipe; if you taste peach, then add a peach purée. In Bulleit, you’ll find wood tones, floral nuances, stone fruit, cinnamon, pepper and clove.

With its high rye content, spicy edge and dry finish, Bulleit lacks phenolics, which translates to no harsh kick and a long, smooth finish. “It’s a marriage of flavors, not a masking,” she adds. Noting that Bulleit is America’s fastest-growing small-batch bourbon, Hollis modestly points out, “it’s just me and my dad on the road preaching its virtues.”

Attending more whiskey events than she can count, Hollis attracts attention at every one. “The consumer fans, the whiskey geeks, they’re the Trekkies of our industry,” she muses. “When people find out I am a Bulleit, not simply a brand rep, they line up for my autograph. I think they see me as the Buffy of the whiskey world.”

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