The release has been rumored throughout the world of whiskey bloggers for months, ever since a label was approved by federal authorities.
But only a few have actually tasted it. Among those who have: the judges at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition who in March awarded the new Bulleit a gold medal. The regular Bulleit was awarded a double gold.
With a deeper color, as would be expected from an unwatered-down version, Bulleit Bourbon Barrel Strength delivers more intense notes of butterscotch, fruit and pears, and oak than the orange-label 90-proof version.
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Doug Kragel, master of whiskey for Diageo’s North American whiskey portfolio, said that the flavor reflects the high-rye mashbill.
“Barrel strength just accentuates that even more,” Kragel said. “You smell a lot of the barrel wood coming out in the caramel-butterscotch notes. That fruity note … comes from the rye itself. It’s really interesting to see and taste this now in this strength. There are so many people who are asking for it. And high-proof whiskey has become so popular right now.”
Higher alcohol by volume gives whiskey more astringency and a bigger mouth-feel, Kragel said. “And you get access to so many more flavors if you can get past the initial shock of that high spirit. I think that’s why for the connoisseurs this is the next step for them.”
The first 3,000 cases of barrel-strength will be released in Kentucky with 750ml bottles, priced at about $49.99, hitting shelves this week. A 375ml version, priced at $29.99, will be available only in the Stitzel-Weller gift shop.
Tom Bulleit, founder of the brand, said the barrel strength version was created in response to bartenders — “our partners in chemistry,” Bulleit called them — who asked for it.
Bulleit said that as he travels around the country promoting his whiskeys he often asks what fans would like to see.
“Almost uniformly they say ‘we expect you all to make straight whiskeys,’” Bulleit said. “Flavored whiskeys are an absolutely wonderful category … but not our deal. So that doesn’t leave a lot of room to do a lot of things.”
So instead of adding cinnamon or apple or peach flavor, Bulleit has “pulled back,” he said. “We pull back our chemistry and let (bartenders) start earlier.”
Bulleit said he expects fans will want to drink the new bourbon straight or with a little ice and bartenders will see myriad possibilities for cocktails, which can benefit from the stronger flavor.
The bourbon, which is stored at Diageo’s campus in Louisville on the site of the former Stitzel-Weller distillery, is made by batching barrels that are 5 to 8 years old to meet Bulleit’s taste profile. But instead of the normal processing, the barrel strength version isn’t chill filtered and isn’t watered down to a specific proof. It’s bottled at Stitzel-Weller.
Bulleit, who is beginning a juggernaut brand promotion with stops planned in Eastern Europe, South America and France, said he believes the international market will be stronger than the domestic eventually. The brand, which has a strong following already in Great Britain and Germany, is launching in bars and restaurants in about 40 countries, he said.
In North America, Bulleit is one of the fastest-growing premium bourbon brands, moving from 35,000 cases in sales eight years ago to approaching 1 million cases today. In January, Diageo reported that Bulleit sales were up 27 percent in the U.S. for the first six months of the fiscal year.
This is the fourth version of Bulleit, following original, rye and 10-year-old bourbon. A barrel strength version of rye is a possibility down the road. The rye is produced under long-term contract by MGP in Lawrenceburg, Ind., and the bourbon has been contract-distilled in Kentucky.
Diageo, which also owns George Dickel, Johnnie Walker, Crown Royal, Bushmills, Smirnoff, Baileys, Captain Morgan, Tanqueray and Guinness, is building a $115 million Bulleit distillery in Shelbyville that is scheduled to begin operation by the end of the year. Two finished warehouses are already storing barrels of bourbon; six to 12 are planned.