EXCLUSIVE: Hollis B. Worth Opens Up About Bulleit, Diageo Split

By B.E. Mintz |

Hollis B.Worth, (née Anne Hollister Bulleit) is known to thousands in the spirits industry as the “First Lady of Bourbon” and as the face of the Bulleit brand that is named after her family. 

For 20 years, Worth has been behind some of the company’s most successful moves, including their mercurial rise in the craft bartending community. She was one of the creative forces behind the brand’s unique packaging, and responsible for the brand’s embrace of art in marketing.

“In the mixology community, everyone knows and loves Hollis,” exclaimed former Master of Whisky, Dr. Tom Turner.

But, in 2017 she and Bulleit’s parent company, Diageo, parted ways. It wasn’t amicable. 

In her first interview since the split, Hollis talked with Neat Pour about an alleged pattern of homophobic harassment that started in her own family and bled into her work environment at Diageo, the $12 billion multinational beverage company that also owns about 30 other brands including Tanqueray, Johnnie Walker, Ketel One, and Smirnoff.

Neat Pour reviewed recorded phone calls, dozens of memos, job reports, emails, affidavits, and internal communications; interviews with 20 individuals including former Diageo ambassadors, distillery employees, affiliated sales staff, and industry gatekeepers, all of which supports Worth’s account of what happened when she asked to be separated from her main accused harasser: Tom Bulleit, her father and the founder of the Bulleit brand. 

Bulleit Bourbon, Diageo, and Taylor Communications, publicist for the brand and Tom Bulleit, repeatedly denied requests for comment from Neat Pour. 

BUILDING A HISTORY

Bulleit’s current marketing is focused on the story that Tom “revived an old family bourbon recipe” from his great-great-grandfather Augustus Bulleit. Yet, the product we currently drink reportedly owes more to the Bronfman family than the elder Bulleit.

In 1997, ten years after Bulleit founded the brand and almost two years after Worth began working at the distillery as her father’s first and only employee, Bronfman owned Seagrams bought Bulleit Whiskey and implemented changes to the bourbon and the marketing.

“Edgar Bronfman Sr. invested in scotch; he built those classic distilleries up,” explained Worth. “But, I think Junior wanted to build a name with bourbon. So, Senior and his distiller pushed a high rye [a close relative of barley, a dominant ingredient in Scotch] product. They also decided to waste the heads and tails [of the distilling process], something that they do with Scotch [but at the time, rare for bourbons].”

Many of these details were corroborated by Tom Bulleit in a draft affidavit written for an unrelated legal dispute about the brand.

“Bronfman, Sr., master of whiskey blending, influenced the Bulleit Bourbon recipe by imposing his unique ‘mingling’ philosophy on the bourbon-making process used at Seagram’s Four Roses Distillery, where Bulleit Bourbon is produced,” he wrote in part.

Tom Bulleit also credited Seagrams team of Art Peterson, Jim Rutlege, John Rhea, and Neil Gallo with “selecting a yeast, a mash bill, and mingling codes” in the document.

Bulleit tried to reconcile the official brand story with the new formula, writing, “Today, the recipe for Bulleit Bourbon is 68% corn, 28% rye and 4% barley malt, which carries forward Augustus Bulleit’s recipe of 2/3 corn and 1/3 rye.”

Seagrams not only offered feedback on the grain mix, they also began to transform the marketing and brand identity of Bulleit products. They commissioned the now recognizable apothecary style bottle, for example. And they pushed the family history narrative. 

The original Bulleit bottles and materials focused Kentucky’s equestrian culture, featuring a line drawing of a horse, no mention was made of history or tradition. However, the new package included a story about Augustus Bulleit.

Worth also noticed her father’s sudden emphasis on family lore. “Tom took me on a trip to Indiana in ’97 to see his dad’s home. Tom also took me to a cemetery and showed me a grave that he told me was my grandfather’s fathers’ and then said, [my great great grandfather] ’Augustus knew a thing about bourbon,’” she recalled. 

“I thought, ‘I’m 23 and I work at a distillery. Why am I just hearing about this now!’ I’m not saying that it’s not true, but it’s not something I grew up with.”

HOME & ROAD

Worth said she had always sensed that her family wouldn’t be receptive of her sexuality — something she grappled with as a child. 

Looking back on her early youth, Worth said that the first lesbians she met lived across the street. “I knew from a young age that I was drawn to them. I wanted to see how they worked together. That was my first inkling of ‘Maybe I’m gay,’” she told NP. “ But, every time their dog barked, my father would scream ‘those fucking dykes are at it again.’ He called one a ‘bull dyke,’ ‘hedonist,’ and ‘thug.’”

“I was in Kentucky; you just didn’t talk about some things.”

Worth said she learned to keep some thoughts to herself. “I was in Kentucky; you just didn’t talk about some things.”

While home for break from Smith, she told her father she was bisexual.

“I told him that I was bisexual and he told me that I was going to hell,” she recounted. “That was a very strong statement to hear from him. We didn’t go to church a lot and he didn’t really say things like that—ever.

From then on, her trips home involved abuse, she said.

On one trip home, having shaved her head, her stepmother would not speak to her until it grew back. Family friends made surprise visits to lecture her.

“It was weird. People would come over who didn’t normally and they would sit me down to tell me that I looked, ‘too feminist,’ ‘too gay.’ That I looked like an ‘Auschwitz survivor.’” She theorized, “It was like they were calling in the troops to let me know it was not okay. Tom would sit there and say nothing while they said nasty things to me.”

When Tom took a role as a consultant and brand ambassador shortly after selling to Seagrams Worth saw it as her chance to try something new. She travelled internationally.

“I was briefly married to man but the divorce was longer than the marriage,” said Worth. “It turns out it is really hard to pick a good man when you are gay. I felt a lot of pressure from Tom and Betsy to fit in to keep my family.”

In 2005, she was living in New York, where she opened a children’s mural business after getting a Masters of art at NYU.

“I periodically checked in with Tom to see if the brand team had work for me. I worked a couple Whiskey Fest unpaid; I kind of needed to prove to them that I could do this. Then, I signed a six month contract, did a program called ‘Bulleit Frontier Roundup.’”

Soon, Worth carved out a role as a brand ambassador at a time that role was pivotal to the brand. Neat Pour spoke with nine ambassadors, salespeople, and bartenders working on the West Coast at that time. They all relayed a similar story of Hollis as the brand’s identity. 

In the mid-00’s, the brand was still small, selling around 80,000 cases in 2006 according to industry reports. The brand’s current success is widely credited to a marketing push on the West Coast in the subsequent years.

Tom Bulleit echoed that sentiment in a June 2017 interview with Paste. “[San Francisco] is really where Bulleit was to a very considerable extent, grew up and was built,” he stated. “Northern California is our best market.”

“At that time, Bulleit was just a blip on the map. We weren’t selling that many cases, we were just building that brand. It was very much an unknown at first,” said Barry, an employee of a Diageo affiliated distributor who asked to be referred to by his nickname for fear of endangering his job in the industry.

“In our area [the West Coast], a very small group had met Tom or knew Tom. For what we were building in that area, it was very much Hollis. She was the face of the brand. I never once worked with another Diageo person regarding Bulleit.”

The analysis was shared by West Coast cocktail icon, Rocky Yeh. He said simply, “Hollis built that brand on the West Coast and it spread from there.”

When Bulleit expanded its range, Hollis was one of the “primary designers of the Bulleit Rye package” according to the draft affidavit by Tom Bulleit. According to a 2010 job report, she provided the Pantone colors for the bottle’s label and the cap’s lettering, consulted on the label’s language, and created the sales story to explain the choices.

Nationally, Worth became a fixture in the early days at the high profile industry events like Camp Runamok, Tales of the Cocktail, and Whiskey Fests. Travel logs show that she visited thousands of accounts over her tenure.

COMING OUT

Despite Worth’s strong performance for the company, relations with her father got worse she said. In 2007, Worth met her spouse Cher Worth. After the relationship became serious, she decided to come out.

“I knew that I needed to have a job first. I knew that I needed to be in a serious relationship also for Tom and Betsy to take it seriously,” she remembered. “I told Tom that I was a lesbian.”

According to Worth, Tom was “very vocal about Cher not being in the family” and introduced her as “Hollis’ special friend” carefully avoiding words like partner or girlfriend. Cher was rarely included in family gatherings.

“A few months after coming out, my father tried to push me back into the closet.”

In one instance, he told her that he’d talked to his wife’s trainer, who was a lesbian. 

“Tom made a point that he was repeating the trainer’s exact words of ‘I love you and I want you to be happy,’” Worth said. She interpreted that in a “maybe with time, my father could grow to accept my sexuality and my relationship with Cher”

This effort was short lived according to her.

“A few months after coming out, my father tried to push me back into the closet. He told me not to tell Diageo, not to hold hands in the street,” she lamented.

Worth said that she and Tom and Betsy Bullet grew increasingly distant, talking less and less. “I noticed that before I came out Tom was really helpful. Then, it became a cycle where we had one good conversation and one bad,” she said. I stopped staying at their house when I was working in Kentucky.”

But the episode that really severed the relationship took place in the spring of 2010 Worth remembered. One evening at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, both father and daughter were working a promotion together Tom lost his temper.

“He grabbed my arm and kind of manhandled me to the side and started getting in my face and yelling at me not to mess it up,” she stated. “I got home and I had finger prints up on my arm and it wasn’t the first time. I was used to it, but Cher explained to me that this was not normal, this was abuse.”

“I told her that she needed to be in a safer work situation,” Cher intervened. “I was scared because I could not protect her.”

“I said to her that her father was not a safe person for her to be around. He shouldn’t be allowed to do that in public or in private… but what made it even worse for me is that he got away with it with witnesses present.”

“A TOXIC WORK ENVIRONMENT”

Worth said that following the talk with her wife, she called corporate and asked that she and her father split up their responsibilities into regions so that they wouldn’t interact professionally.

“At first, I wanted to protect the relationship, so I pitched it like, ‘Hey, You have two Bulleits. We can do twice as much work,” Worth said, recalling that she offered to take the West Coast while her father kept Kentucky and the East Coast. “We were still pretending that the family relationship was good though.”

But Diageo’s work culture was not particularly attuned to issues like this according to several former employees.

“The market blitzes were an old boys’ club,” said Teresea Menendez-Meyers, a Master of Whiskey, the elite whiskey ambassador program that Diageo ended in 2016.

Three women who previously worked for Diageo used the term “boy’s club” to describe sales trips. They shared stories of lewd texts, discrimination based on gender, and excessive drinking by others.

Worth’s experiences were often similar. Neat Pour viewed text messages from a bartender who apologized for physically assaulting Worth in front of a crowd during a different sales trip in March 2013. The offender blamed being “over-served.”

Likewise, in a 2010 memo to Diageo management, she complained about being left by herself in car after the sales excursion made an unscheduled stop at a strip club. The subsection titled, “Request of Future Diageo Presence/Support” also mentions being forced to care for an egregiously drunk colleague early in the morning as well as being set up on unsolicited dates. 

In response to that memo, Diageo demanded that Worth recant her reports of the events before they offered her a new contract, she said.

The same culture of denial was apparent in the corporation’s handling of Worth’s familial conflicts according to many of her colleagues.

“There was definitely a clear line drawn and it seemed like nobody was going to be talking about Hollis—and definitely not Cher for that matter,” said Barry. He recalled a visit to Tom Bulleit’s house in Kentucky. He didn’t see any pictures of Worth, save a photo from her wedding to a man — almost a decade after the divorce and well into her domestic partnership with Cher.

Dr. Tom Turner, a former MoW, told Neat Pour that as time progressed, Hollis was discussed less and less by Tom Bulleit. “As time passed, I learned that talking about Hollis was something that we just didn’t do.”

Every source interviewed by Neat Pour noted a similar protocol. Menendez-Meyers also noted that when she raised the topic of Hollis to Tom Bulleit, the topic got changed. 

“The mixologists in market loved her! But, to the other MoW’s, she was a joke,” said Turner. “When we were at meetings and when we were out, there were always these comments about ‘crazy Hollis’ among my colleagues. It was not about celebrating her difference, it was about mocking her difference.”

Turner added that by mid-decade, it became clear to him and other brand representatives that Worth had been replaced as heir apparent by her brother Tucker, then a teenager. “Hollis was less and less talked about and Tucker got more discussed,” he lamented. “Everyone sort of sensed that Hollis’ time was putting in time until Tucker reached 21. It was kind of an open nudge, nudge, wink, wink.”

The outsider status did not go unnoticed by Worth herself. Ultimately, she decided to take action, setting up a meeting with two senior Diageo management and the brand’s PR team.

According to Worth’s records, she often regularly worked without contract—and consequently, timely payment. In 2010, Worth’s contract took six months to extend; in 2012, she had to work one to two months without pay while a new contract was tied up in negotiations; in 2014, she worked two months without pay while another contract was negotiated.

“In 2014, I pretty much knew that something needed to change and I was on borrowed time. In 2015, I went in and I talked to Diageo,” she stated. “I told them, ‘You people need to understand that Tom is homophobic. I don’t have a relationship with him, it’s affecting my job.’ It was very easy to drive this point home. I asked Diageo, ‘Have you seen any photos of me as an adult at Tom’s house?’”

“I asked for my own whiskey. ‘That’s why I’m still here,’ I said. ‘I’m the only queer woman right now. Tom can play the conservatives, I can help you play the liberal end.’ The next day they sent me to Boston and had someone shadow me. They started trying to fire me literally the next day.”

“THE FAMILY IS THE BRAND”

Worth’s final contract with Diageo covered January 1, 2015 through December 31, 2016. However, in 2016, the brand first cancelled a planned Worth trip to Kansas and then cleared her schedule altogether.

In a recording of a May 2016 conversation between Worth and a senior Bulleit executive, the issue is addressed. The exec stated that he was open to renewing her contract, but explained that they“benched” her due to the conflict with her father.

“The things that I’ve heard are disparaging comments about the family,” said the Diageo exec referencing a quip Worth made about her family at a training event. “Frankly, the family name and the brand are one and the same in my book and that’s absolute.”

Over the course of several calls reviewed by Neat Pour, the corporation appears enmeshed in the family conflict, though the executive told Worth her father had “nothing to do with this [decision]. This is a Diageo decision.”

In multiple conversations with Diageo, Worth expressed her passion for the product and her desire to keep working for the brand. The corporation agreed to negotiate a new, five-year contract with her, provided that she did not disparage her family in public.

Worth attempted one final reconciliation with her father. In June 2016, she tried to sort out the issues during a phone call with Tom and Betsy Bulleit. However, the core issues remained.

During the call, listened to by NP, Tom Bulleit declared, “I know my daughter. I know the woman that she has grown up to be less.”

Despite having barely seen his daughter over the last six years, he suggested she might have bipolar disorder. He offered to help her financially, but attached conditions. Quoting two friends, he ultimately had a demand: “Hollis Bulleit, may be bipolar and she’s having peaks and valleys in her life and that will cause her to be unhappy and that will cause her to have difficulty having relationships, maintaining [them]… We want you in the next few weeks and on an ongoing basis to seek medical attention [in Kentucky].”

Worth responded by noting that she had spent the past two years in treatment, was diagnosed as “recovering C-PTSD” due to childhood trauma and she was able to maintain plenty of friendships.

Bulleit replied by dismissing her doctors’ diagnosis. “I have to say, to be quite frank, that sounds like more of the same. Obviously, we haven’t been in contact for two years; so, I don’t know; maybe things have changed dramatically.” He then followed up by lamenting that his daughter does not go to Al-Anon meetings or the Catholic Church.

Despite the strained conversation, Worth agreed to give a relationship with her father a final shot she recalled. A few weeks later, Diageo formally reopened contract negotiations with her. in 2016.

As confirmed by multiple emails, in mid-January 2017, Worth’s attorney began negotiating a new deal. However, at this time, Tom Bulleit independently began working on a contract for his daughter—without her permission.

In March of 2017, Diageo sent Worth another proposed contract for exponentially more work and less pay according to records. After demanding her father’s removal from the process, negotiations with Diageo continued in a stop-and-go fashion documented in a series of emails.

Instead of moving forward with Diageo for a new work contract, Worth requested compensation for severance, unpaid overtime, and damages incurred on the job.

After receiving an offer that did not include severances or damages in July 2017, Worth posted to Facebook of stating her opinion that her father is homophobic and Diageo facilitated the discrimination by looking the other way.

The corporation responded quickly, releasing a statement of their own. In the response, they labelled her statements as “false,” “untrue,” and “inaccurate.” The company denied any past knowledge of the issues. 

“Diageo was surprised and concerned to learn of Hollis’ allegations, which came after our negotiations failed to produce a contract acceptable to Hollis. The concerns she raises are not consistent with our experience of the family, but of course will be examined,” read their statement.

A review of numerous communications between Worth and Diageo dated between 2015 and 2017 reveals that this is untrue. In conversations recorded prior to that statement, Worth explicitly expresses her grievances and Diageo representatives acknowledge them.

Yet, the negotiations resumed. In January 2018, Worth and Diageo announced a deal. Neat Pour verified that the resolution agreement provided payment equal to the failed five year deal as well as unpaid overtime. The agreement also included confidentiality and non-disparagement clauses. Worth believes that Diageo violated that clauses and consequently felt comfortable speaking to Neat Pour.

TODAY

Today, Worth’s imprint on the brand is still visible. At the prestigious 2019 Diageo World Class competition, one of the featured submissions was named, “The Hollis Fizz.” The artistic elements that she pushed are still utilized in Bulliet’s branding. Likewise, her work on the West Coast is still touted as the foundation of the brand.

Cher and Hollis Worth

Her influence is still felt in the bartending community, where many bars and consultants dropped Bulleit. 

“I just chose not to partner or work with Diageo. Before I would again, I’d like to see Diageo say, ‘Here are the steps that we’re taking to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.’ Then, issue Hollis an apology,” said Yeh. “I’d like to see them live up to their policy of being an LGBTQ friendly corporation.”

Indeed, Diageo does trumpet their embrace of the LGBTQ community. The company recently put out a release celebrating their perfect score of 100 in the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) Corporate Equality Index. Diageo is also a ‘Platinum’ or top tier donor to the group.

However, HRC has many vocal critics in the LGBTQ community. They frequently point out that the Corporate Equality Index also awarded perfect scores to Chevron, Goldman Sachs, Monsanto.

“It’s a corporation. It’s self serving. Diversity is important when they want a product to be diverse and it’s not diverse when it doesn’t suit the market. I was in meetings where female Masters of Whiskey were asking for marketing materials geared towards women. And they had no interest,” said Turner. “Smirnoff caters to the LGBTQ market. Bulleit does not; that’s not the brand and they have no interest. I, myself, asked them to sponsor the gay rodeo several times and they had no interest.”

Worth lives with Cher currently and is pursuing her artistic talents. After the alleged breach of her resolution agreement, her attorneys once again are in contact with her former employer.

The multi-decade experience has made Worth reflective. “My story is one about erasure and omission,” she mused in a prepared statement. “The only way to prove those things is by talking about the events that I should have been at, the photos that I should have been in, what the history does not say, and the acknowledgements that have gone by the wayside. It is talking about how my father should have treated me and how that company could have treated me.”

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