We Wanna Be Friends With Bourbon Master, Tom Bulleit

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In 1987, Bulleit Bourbon founder Tom Bulleit—a Vietnam veteran and former attorney—recreated his great-great-grandfather's whiskey recipe with a few tweaks, creating one of the best American bourbons ever produced. 

Consistently ranked in the top 10th percentile of the world's best whiskeys, every bottle of Bulleit is aged for at least six years. Also in his repertoire: a coveted bottle of ten-year bourbon and a rye whiskey launched in 2011 and created specifically for San Francisco bartenders! 

We caught up with Mr. Bulleit at the Clock Bar in Union Square where he spun stories, fielded questions, and expressed his love for the city by the bay.

7x7: How did you get into the distilling business?

TB: I always wanted to develop a bourbon recipe, like my great-great grandfather Augustus Bulleit, and other family members down through the generations. I told my father, "I want to make bourbon, like grandpa." Dad said, "You  will join the service, and you will go to law school. " So I did. And while I was in Vietnam, I convinced my sergeant to let me take the LSAT in Da Nang in 1968.

7x7: How did you find time to study while fighting a war in Vietnam?

TB: I have no recollection of studying for the LSAT. As a side note, I have no recollection of studying in undergraduate, either. But for the LSAT, we drove a Jeep there, I took my pistol off, put it on the desk, and took the test. I guess I passed, because they admitted me to law school on the GI Bill when I got out of the service. When people ask me how to prepare for the LSAT, I say, "Take a pistol. It worked for me."

7x7: What is your absolute, hands-down, favorite thing to drink in San Francisco?

TB: Probably the Revolver, invented at Bourbon and Branch about 10 years ago. We've tracked it to maybe 400 bars across the country. It's a version of the Manhattan, made with bourbon, orange bitters, and coffee liqueur. 

7x7: What is your favorite San Francisco story?

TB: I love San Francisco. My wife and I have been coming here for 28 years. It's our "Same Time Next Year" place. Anyway, we come to San Francisco every year, we stay at the Mark Hopkins, and we actually rent the movie and watch it together. Well, a while back, I lost my wedding ring in the bottling house. So my wife had been maybe married to the bottling house for a few months when we came to San Francisco. I went to Shreve's and met a delightful young woman named Maria, and I told her that story [about the movie]. She suggested we engrave that on the inside of the ring. So my ring says, 'Same Time Next Year,' along with our wedding anniversary.

7x7: If you could share a fifth of your best bourbon with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?

TB: Oh that's easy. With my beloved father, whom I sorely miss. He is the best man I've ever known, by far. He was a disabled veteran of World War II. He taught me some of life's most valuable lessons, not with words, but with actions. And I never thanked him for it.

For instance, sometimes people forget that soldiers are not the ones who started the war. So, when we came back from Vietnam, a lot of us were resentful and hurt at being treated badly for - in essence - trying to stay alive. But you know what? My dad lost an eye in the war, and he never had a resentful bone in his body. He was just happy he had survived. And I thought, if he wasn't resentful, I have no right to be resentful. Unfortunately it took me until I was 45 to realize that. I have never been a quick study.

7x7: What's the biggest lesson you've learned from the distilling business?

TB: The very essence of patience. Whiskey is the opposite of "just in time." Our whiskies are aged for six years, ten years, so it really teaches patience.   

7x7: What is your favorite hangover remedy?

TB: Responsible drinking.

7x7: That's called prevention.

TB: Prevention can be a remedy.

7x7: What's next for Bulleit?

TB: More of the same. We'll keep on keeping on. You may not know this, but the reason we started making our rye whiskey is because bartenders in San Francisco asked us to. So we'll probably come back here and ask what we should do next.

As far as what's new - we're now on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and we're building a new distillery in Shelbyville, which is between Lexington and Louisville. It is quite possibly the most eco-friendly building in the distilling industry. It's also earthquake-proof, and we'll all be safe in there after the zombies take over.

7x7: So, it's zombie-proof?

TB: Honey, you do know zombies aren't real, don't you?

7x7: You do know San Francisco believes in zombies, don't you?

TB: You know, I've been binge-watching The Walking Dead, and it's one of the most poignant morality plays I've ever seen. If you follow traditional Judeo-Christian values and morals, you die. If you adopt a survival mentality, it turns out to be the right decision.

7x7: What is your favorite Bulleit cocktail recipe?

TB: Like a true Southern gentleman, I drink it on the rocks. My mother would add water and call it a highball. My aunt, who was a Catholic nun, drank it straight. But the best Bulleit cocktail is my wife Betsy's recipe, which I just call The Betsy. Some people call it the BLT, for Bulleit, lemon, and tonic, or Betsy's Little Treat. To be perfectly honest, it doesn't make any sense. The flavors are not intuitive at all. But the lemon pulls just the right stuff out. It doesn't work as well with lime, but sometimes bartenders will put some bitters in there, and that's good.

Quick fire round: 

Manhattan or Old Fashioned: Manhattan

Lyft or Uber: Uber - because Betsy put the app on my phone.

Brunch or Happy Hour: Brunch. I think I'm showing my age.

Fisherman's Wharf or Lombard Street: Nob Hill

Three words that describe your feelings about San Francisco: How about seven? I left my heart in San Francisco.

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