Bourbon Industry

After abuse claims by daughter, Ky. bourbon legend no longer representing brand he founded

In the wake of allegations by his daughter of physical and sexual abuse, Tom Bulleit has been removed as the public face of one of the biggest brands in bourbon.

In July, Diageo, which owns Bulleit Bourbon and Rye, asked Tom Bulleit, a Lexington lawyer, to “step back” from representing Bulleit publicly. The company, which is headquartered in Great Britain, is a global spirits empire with a lot at stake: Bulleit has become one of the top-selling American whiskey brands in the world and in July broke ground on a $130 million distillery in Lebanon, its third in Kentucky.

The move to bench the brand’s founder came after Hollis B. Worth (formerly Bulleit) accused her father of childhood abuse in a letter to the company.

“Diageo learned of claims of abuse, directed at her father, through a recent letter from Ms. Worth’s (née Bulleit) attorney. These claims had not been previously brought to Diageo’s attention by Ms. Worth or anyone else,” the company said in a statement to the Herald-Leader. “While it would be impossible for us to determine the veracity of these claims, given their nature, it was decided that Mr. Bulleit would step back from his brand ambassadorship role. Mr. Bulleit strenuously denies his daughter’s claims.”

On Facebook on Aug. 13, Hollis Worth also said she suffered sexual and physical abuse. The post is public and had been shared over 300 times by 5 p.m. Friday.

“My father, Tom Bulleit, sexually abused me until I was 18 years old,” Worth said in the post. “It has been my opinion that he is homophobic, but it is a fact that he is a pedophile. Diageo knows all of this and has continued to back this man. From a young age I was touched and fondled inappropriately, posed for photos naked against my will, explicit sexual language was used when communicating with me, and I was shown age-inappropriate sexual media in several forms. I was groomed by all of my parents to never say no to this man.”

Worth, who said she suffers from Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the childhood abuse, also said her father has used her diagnosis “to disparage me and to limit my future career. Therefore it is abuse upon abuse. This cycle of abuse must stop. Diageo needs to stop backing a criminal. Tom needs to stop stealing my life from me. It is time for the liquor industry to be under the microscope as part of the national #metoo & #timesup discussions.”

In an email to the Herald-Leader, Worth said that she confronted her father about the abuse when she was 19. “He did not dispute it,” she said.

Tom Bulleit said Friday that “Hollis did not confront me about anything when she was 19 or at any time. At 19 she was a successful student and athlete at Smith College, we communicated almost daily, and she was very happy.”

She said that through an attorney she warned Diageo in 2017 “that there was more to my story about Tom. Diageo did not push the subject. My present attorney sent a confidential letter to Diageo on June 25th specifying the abuse. Diageo responded with a letter on June 28th with a letter saying that they were going to investigate. We have not heard from them since.”

A spokesperson for Diageo said the company took Worth’s claims about her father seriously and began an internal investigation after receiving the letter.

The company found no indication that anyone at Diageo was previously aware of such claims, according to a spokesperson for the company.

Tom Bulleit, founder of the Bulleit brand, with a bottle of Bulleit Bourbon Barrel Strength, in his home in Lexington. Charles Bertram 2016 staff file photo

But about week after receiving the letter, Tom Bulleit and Diageo agreed that it would be appropriate for him to step back.

“I have willingly agreed to step back from my ambassadorship role while we honor our commitment to our customers, the LGBTQ community and our family to pause and demonstrate the falsity of Hollis’s accusations in full transparency and good faith,” Tom Bulleit said in a statement.

“Needless to say, I’m greatly saddened by the false accusations. We have been very supportive of Hollis and Cher throughout their relationship and now marriage. Our support has been generous in love as well as financially. We are prejudiced toward nobody, as our very public lives have demonstrated over several decades. There are many hundreds if not thousands of publicly available and online photos of Hollis, as a happy and loving daughter, with me, as her proud father.”

In an interview, Tom Bulleit said, “The accusations are terrible. They’re false, but they need to be addressed. And they are. Through documents that I’ve sent to Diageo that illustrates no foundation for this.”

Nevertheless, the allegations have become “a distraction to the brand and for Tom,” a company spokesperson said.

bulleit bottles
Bulleit bourbon’s corporate parent, Diageo, said in 2017 that a contract dispute was to blame for the split with brand ambassor Hollis Bulleit, who said she was fired for being gay. Diageo denies that. Associated Press

There are no plans to rename the bourbon or the distilleries. Tom Bulleit said he hopes to return eventually but it isn’t clear when or if that will happen.

The company said that since “stepping back,” Tom Bulleit has not performed any work for the brand, including participating in brand or sales activities, consulting for the brand or greeting visitors at the Bulleit Distillery visitor center. However, he has a personal office there and visits occasionally.

Worth said she was unaware of Diageo’s action.

Asked what she would like to see as an outcome of going public, Worth said: “I would like for Tom Bulleit to be held responsible. For Diageo to clean up the comments that have been said about me that are in my opinion disparaging. An apology would be a start. I would like for some internal policy-making changes at Diageo to happen around LGBTQ and sexual harassment, and for those policies to extend beyond Diageo that are in effect for the third-party vendors, consultants, and ambassadors that Diageo hires. I would like for my unpaid use of my name and likeness to be rectified plus a fair and equal pay portion of the royalty payments that I helped to earn.”

She also alleged in other Facebook posts at least one sexual assault, not involving her father, that happened while on the job for Bulleit Bourbon. The company said it investigated the incident and could not substantiate the claims.

Previous disputes

Until the end of 2016, Worth was a contract employee for Bulleit as a brand ambassador, often appearing in tandem with her father at events such as Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans.

Bulleit Bourbon ambassador Hollis Bulleit parlayed eye-catching costumes to stand out at events such as Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans in 2013, where she was named to the Dame Hall of Fame. Herald-Leader

After a contract dispute, she alleged in 2017 that she was pushed out because she is a lesbian, something Diageo has denied repeatedly. In January 2018, Worth and Diageo announced they had “reached a mutually acceptable resolution of Ms. Bulleit’s relationship with Diageo. Both parties are pleased to move forward, and wish each other success in future endeavors.”

Afterward, neither side publicly commented until earlier this year, when Worth began posting new allegations on Facebook and gave an interview to a spirits industry web site that alleged “a pattern of homophobic harassment” at the company.

Diageo said in a statement this week to the Herald-Leader: “We continue to be deeply disappointed by Hollis Worth’s false statements and inferences about Diageo, many of which have been shown to be untrue. When Ms. Worth’s last brand ambassador contract was set to expire at the end of 2016, we worked to extend her role, but ultimately, we were unable to come to terms on her future involvement with the brand.

“Diageo’s long track record demonstrates the depth of our dedication to creating a culture that supports inclusivity and does not discriminate on any basis, including sexual orientation. Our Bulleit brand stands for the same values and ethics. Indeed, we were aware of Ms. Worth’s LGBTIQIA+ identity for some ten years.”

The company, which had more than $15.6 billion in sales last year, also owns Guinness beer, Johnnie Walker scotch, Crown Royal whiskey, Ciroc Vodka, Tanqueray gin, Captain Morgan rum, Baileys liqueur, J&B Scotch, Don Julio tequila and many more.

Although there has been widespread support for Hollis Worth on social media, the allegations do not seem to have hurt sales of Diageo’s bourbon so far, which has become a big brand for the company, meriting increased investment.

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Tourism tax incentives were approved for a $10 million visitors’ experience at the $115 million Bulleit Bourbon distillery in Shelbyville. Jonathan Palmer Herald-Leader

The company reported on July 25 that Bulleit net sales were up 8 percent and that the brand continued to gain share in the U.S. whiskey market. Diageo opened a $10 million visitors center at its new $115 million distillery in Shelby County and owns the former Stitzel Weller distillery in Louisville that is a storage facility as well as a stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, highlighting Bulleit, plus bourbons I.W. Harper and Blade and Bow.

“Over the years, Bulleit now has grown to be, I’m told, the fourth largest American whiskey in the world,” Tom Bulleit said. “Jack Daniel’s is first, Jim Beam is second, Maker’s Mark is third, and Bulleit is fourth. This brand that I started has brought hundreds of millions in investment to Kentucky, and hundreds and hundreds of jobs.”

But in her Facebook post, Worth urged her supporters to boycott Bulleit, citing inaction from the company: “Up until this point, Diageo has chosen to back the wrong Bulleit. But that doesn’t mean that you have to.”

New allegations

Tom Bulleit said he believes the abuse claims are “monetarily motivated. She’s made demands on us, on Diageo. ... I think she decided to do her own thing, I don’t think that’s worked out, and I think she’s frustrated. It’s difficult to know exactly what her motivations are.”

In late April, Worth’s attorney sent a letter to Tom Bulleit “demanding he pay her $10 million,” the Diageo spokesperson said.

Worth confirmed the letter and said, “$10 million is less than one half of $25 million of what Tom Bulleit made in royalties off of the brand as of 2016. Two people worked on Bulleit for Diageo - I was one of them. I felt like it was generous to ask for less than half of the profits based on outdated information. In addition, I was one of the original creators of the brand.”

Bulleit bourbon bottles made their way down an assembly line to be sealed and labeled at Stitzel Weller in Louisville in 2015. Parent company Diageo has since opened another distillery and visitors center in Shelbyvile and broke ground on another in Lebanon. William DeShazer

She said her father did not respond; instead, she heard from Tom Bulleit’s attorney, who “invited us to sue them at which point they promised to aggressively fight us on the matters at hand. We have not heard from his counsel since. In my opinion Tom Bulleit escalated the situation to an unnecessary degree, especially when my attorney’s letter to him asked him to approach these new conversations as a way of possibly healing and moving forward. ”

Diageo, through a spokesperson, denied that it had pressured Worth to be quiet about her abuse claims.

“Diageo asked to meet with her within a few days of the re-launched posts and she declined. We were very concerned. It was in violation of the agreement, and content was concerning,” the spokesperson said. The company consulted experts in childhood abuse and attorneys with experience in prosecuting such cases.

In the end, Diageo and Tom Bulleit decided he could not continue to publicly appear for the brand, but they did not announce it because Worth had not yet chosen to make the information public.