The Bulleit Distilling Company in Shelbyville, Kentucky is now the newest and 17th stop on the world famous Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Bulleit Frontier Whiskey has come a long way since its founding some 30 plus years ago by Tom Bulleit Jr. in 1987.
Bulleit’s tagline “Frontier Whiskey” takes on a whole new meaning as this millennial aged bourbon has grown up. When you picture the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey bottle with its signature black and orange crooked label it makes you think of a rough and tumble old time western frontier. Now with the opening of the new visitor center and distillery you’ll find the story has kind of flipped to where frontier is looking forward, not back. This brand new 300 acre facility that was a corn field five years ago is now a state-of-the art visitor center, warehouse and distillery operation.
Definition of Frontier (Whiskey)
frontier [fron·tier | \ ˌfrən-ˈtir]: a region that forms the margin of settled or developed territory (then)
frontier [fron·tier | \ ˌfrən-ˈtir]: the farthermost limits of knowledge or achievement in a particular subject (now)
Bulleit Bourbon Frontier Whiskey has had quite a journey over its lifetime. It started out as a standalone brand in 1987 as an early entry to the high rye bourbon category. This was at a time before bourbon was a lifestyle thing as is today. 10 years later in 1997 it was sold to Seagrams. When Seagrams was split up the Bulleit brand became a part of the Diageo whiskey portfolio in 2001 and has been thriving ever since.
In May of 2014 Diageo announced it had purchased 300 acres in Shelbyville, Kentucky to build a brand new distillery in the heart of bourbon country. It didn’t say what brand would be distilled there but by the August groundbreaking it was clear that this would be the future distilling home for Bulleit bourbon and rye whiskey. Diageo held a ribbon cutting for the grand opening of distillery operations in March of 2018 and then this week it all culminates with the grand opening of the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Visitor Experience Center.
“We wanted the Bulleit Distilling Co. Visitor Experience to be reflective of our approach to flipping the script on the whiskey category by curating an immersive, personalized consumer journey steeped in design, technology and of course, our delicious family of high rye whiskeys,” said Sophie Kelly, Sr. Vice President of Whisk(e)y at Diageo North America. “From our work with Oceanic Global to ensure we’re making sustainable, environmentally conscious decisions, to partnering with The University of Kentucky to bring an organic garnish garden to our cocktail bar, we’re continuing to make friends on the modern frontier to help us bring consumers amazing experiences.”
Bulleit Whiskey – Distillery, Barrel Warehouses and Visitor Center
The $150 million investment includes the distillery, barrel warehouses and now the visitor center.
When it comes to distilling this facility is all business. It now runs around the clock 24/7. Grains come in by tractor trailer where they are weighed and tested for quality control. In an effort to support the local community all 1.8 million proof gallons produced annually are distilled from 100% Shelby County corn. The rye, wheat and malted barley are trucked in from other areas. Rye in particular simply does not grow well in this region.
If you are expecting a traditional Kentucky distillery tour experience where you can stick your finger in the bubbling fermentation tank and taste the corn, rye and malted barley you won’t find that here. What you will find is a modern state-of-the-art distillery and barreling operation. You can get close to the fermentation tanks but each of the 20,000 gallon stainless steel tanks are closed top to keep the process as controlled and efficient as possible. The 40.7 foot tall Vendome Copper & Brass Works column still is state of the art. You can see a portion of it but you won’t see it from top to bottom like many tours. What you will see next to the still is one of the coolest features at the distillery. The doubler used in production to raise the proof up to barreling level actually came from the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Stitzel-Weller Distillery in downtown Louisville. The long dormant doubler was refurbished by Vendome and moved to its new Shelby County home. It’s great to see this equipment come back to life.
The barrel warehouses are also state of the art built for consistent whiskey flavor and safety. Though we didn’t get to walk through one we did get a lesson on how they work. Instead of stick built ricks these barrels are placed on pallets. As you can see from the photos they are what many would call a single story barrel warehouse with six barrels to a pallet stacked six barrels high (see the photos below.) On a side note the bung isn’t on the side in a stave its placed on top in the center of the barrel head. This may not be as historically sexy as a rickhouse but it is super efficient and when it comes time for bottling the pallets can be easily and safely moved by forklift six barrels at a time. The warehouses are not mechanically heated or cooled as they are designed to take advantage of the local climate.
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These modern barrel warehouses were also built with safety and the environment in mind. Each one can hold 55,000 barrels of whiskey. If there ever was a catastrophic failure the building can retain up to 60% of the distilled spirits inside the building. In other words, if the barrel warehouse collapsed very little whiskey would get out of the building. Barrels are pretty tough so its not likely that all the barrels would fall apart or leak. For what does make it outside of the building the earth around the building has been excavated to where the liquid would be retained on the property therefore reducing the likelyhood that it would ever make it to the local water supply. Which is very important since the distillery is practically surrounded by a 317 acre reservoir. If you are into bass fishing the marina is literally right across the street from the visitor center.
The Visitor Center Experience
And finally, there’s the visitor center. Once the distillery and warehouses were built construction moved on to the visitor center. Watch the video and you can hear lots of details from Kelly. The visitor center mirrors the design on Bulleit Bourbon bottles – simple, rustic and lots of orange. Kelly says the visitor experience was designed for bartenders, partners and guests.
The visitor center features a cocktail bar created in partnership with the United States Bartender’s Guild where Bulleit will collaborate with Katie Renshaw, “The World Class 2019 U.S. Bartender of the Year.” This is where they will create signature cocktails that provide visitors with a premium and innovative experience at the distillery.
The distillery will also feature an organic cocktail garden developed with The University of Kentucky. Together U of K and Bulleit will integrate local, sustainable options into the bar program by building a greenhouse on the property to provide ingredients and garnishes for the cocktail bar.
The tasting room will leverage technology to provide guests an experience with a heightened multi-sensory tasting experience that goes beyond standard tastings through immersive sensory elements like olfactory balls and a timed light-and-soundscape. The experience is intended to enhance the flavors that make Bulleit high-rye whiskeys so unique.
And of course bottles of Bulleit Bourbon and Rye will be available for sale. If you’re buying a bottle during your visit you can make your own custom label using the 43″ touchscreen drafting table to design a customized Bulleit label. You can see a quick image of this in the video. If you read the fine print in the video this label says, “Life is too short for bad bourbon.” Truer words were never spoken or in this case typed.
In addition, in an effort to work towards Diageo’s commitment to 100% renewable electricity by 2030 you’ll notice a number of solar panels. They provide the energy to power the lights on the grounds and to open and close the gates. They’ll continue to add more solar panels as time goes on.
The new Bulleit Distilling Company Visitor Center will be a part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail when it officially opens the public on Tuesday June 25, 2019.
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Bulleit Distilling Company Grand Opening Photo Gallery
Click any photo to enlarge.