Boom, Tariffs, & Rye: Talking Whiskey Business With Bulleit’s Ed Bello

By Gustaf Vincoeur |

This week, Bulleit introduced a new expression, 12-Year-Old Straight American Whiskey. The bottle, an ultra-premium rye, hits upon several current trends in the American Whisky market—which is nothing new for the brand. Since, the brand’s 1991 reintroduction to the market, they have embodied the highs and lows of the Cocktail Renaissance and Bourbon Boom. So, when Neat Pour needed some insight into the state of American whiskey, we sat down with Ed Bello, Bulleit Frontier Whiskey US & Global Brand Director.

The State of Bourbon

Bello was pleased with the current American whiskey category. “The industry is in a great place. We’ve had a great run,” he declared to Neat Pour. “The category still has an enormous amount of runway to continue to grow for many years. It’s vibrant from a consumer standpoint; more women and diverse drinkers are drinking whiskey and this will continue to fuel growth.”

In fact, Bello was adamant that the rumors of a whiskey bubble close-to-bursting are greatly exaggerated. He pointed out that the peak American bourbon consumption was not in recent years, but in the 1970’s. At that zenith, about 30mn bottles were sold annually as opposed to the current number of about 21mn.

“If you look at the trajectory of bourbon, the Bourbon Renaissance is only at about two thirds of bourbon at its peak. Plus the population’s considerably larger now,” he explained.

Rocking Rye

The distiller’s most recent attempt to tap into that growing market is the Bulleit Rye 12-Year-Old Straight American Whiskey. The limited release, 46% expression is only the fifth addition to Bulleit’s range, belying loads about the house’s strategy.

Priced at an an MSRP of $49 a bottle, the 12-Year Old follows the brand’s longstanding positioning philosophy.

“Bulleit sits in a wonderful place: super premium, great liquid, great value. That’s our sweet spot,” observed Bello. “We do have wonderful ultra premium expression [like the new rye]. They are also at a wonderful price, we don’t charge like others.”

The new release also builds on the distillery’s foresight to hopping on the rye wagon early. Virtually dead at the turn of the 21st century, the spirit is now one of the industry’s fastest growing sectors.

Bulleit Rye 12-Year-Old Straight American Whiskey (Courtesy Diageo)

Bulleit’s bourbon whiskey contains a notably high amount of rye (about 28%)in their mash bill which provided a foothold among rye fans. However, the brand credits bartender demand for the launch of their original rye whiskey expression in 2011.

“The rye segment, the rye category. The bartender and cocktail culture came back in San Francisco around 2006, 2007… and, the rye resurgence accompanied that,” he recalled. “We were lucky enough to talk with a lot of bartenders over there and ask them what they wanted. They wanted ‘rye, rye, rye.’ So, we launched one.”

Bello said that the category rose from ‘nothing’ to a pillar of the company in less than a decade. He believes that the evolution is natural. “Consumers come into bourbon, they want to explore and rye is a natural place,” he elaborated. “The bartenders also built [its popularity] off the back of cocktails like the rye manhattan.”

Tariffs

The Trump administration’s ongoing trade wars provided an inevitable turn in the discussion. Retaliatory tariffs, a side-effect of the trade wars, are currently clobbering whiskey exports. (Whiskey tariffs are 25% in the EU and 10% in Canada.) According to DSCUS, from January-June 2018, US whiskey exports were up 28%; whereas, in the six months after the tariffs were imposed, exports reversed course and dropped to -8.2%.

“I don’t comment on politics, but I can talk about the bar business, “ remarked Bello, “We were growing at 25-30%—you name the country—for the last three years overseas. Over the last six months, that has come to a screeching halt. The tariff has made our products a little less attractive from a price point.”

Despite the market fluctuations, the whiskey man said he’d rather remain focused on mashes and marketing.

“I certainly hope that the respective leaders can come to some conclusion. When the consumer wins, we all win. But, I leave that to them,” he professed. “From our perspective, we will continue to do what we do which is give the consumer a good product at a good price.”

The Other Players

Diageo, like most of the industry, has also been keeping an eye overlapping categories.

For example, the low and no proof movement are clearly on the radar. “That’s a real consumer trend, a real consumer need. More and more bartenders out there are making wonderful low proof cocktails,” noted Bello.

Of course, the legalities surrounding bourbon dictate that it must be bottled at 40% ABV or higher. So, the point, is somewhat moot in this case.

“By regulation, we can not be low proof,” declared Bello. “[We bottle at 45%] and I’m proudly there.” 

Likewise, when asked about the hoopla surrounding marijuana legalization, Bello simply stated, “I am proudly focused on being the best damn bourbon and rye out there.”

However, when it came to declining American beer sales (down for the last five consecutive years), the brand chief was happy to chime in.

“My hypothesis, I don’t really have data on this… I think what’s happening is that you’re seeing cocktails continue to grow and become a part of how people drink,” he offered. “The spirits business taking share from beer.”

Bello believes that much of the market shift can be attributed specifically to the accessibility and diversity of cocktails’ flavor profiles. 

“It’s a personal thing for consumers. As they become more educated, they drink it more ways,” he told NP. “You’ll always have the aficionados who drink it neat, but you’ll see more and more consumers drink it in different ways.”

The Bourbon Trail

Along with the Bourbon Boom, recent years have seen a new emphasis placed on distillery visits, often framed within the context of the Kentucky’s Whiskey Trail. 

Bulleit embraced this trend also. After cutting the ribbon on their long-awaited distillery, the brand shifted their focus to building a state-of-the-art visitor center in Shelbyville, KY. The facility is slated to open on June 1.

Architect’s rendering of the new visitor center (Courtesy Diageo)

“For Bulleit, it’s marketing. There is nothing better than someone who visits and sees the product and the farm,” exuded Bello. “There’s nothing like someone going down there and seeing it in person. We love those type of experiences. We’re in the people business.”

However, Bulleit is just one of 16 stops on Kentucky’s distillery circuit. Conceptually, the goal is that a rising tide lifts all shifts. Consequently, the push is not just hyping one single distillery.

“The Bourbon Trail is critical to the industry and the brand. We’re ultimately a Kentucky business. We live there and have family there,” implored Bello. “We want Kentucky to be like Napa Valley. It generates jobs and tax revenue for the state we operate in. It’s not a direct revenue generator for my brand, but it is important to the state—which is important to us.”

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