I remember a time, just a few years ago, when I would try to order Bulleit at a bar or restaurant and the bartender or server would look back at me with total confusion. “I’m sorry, Bulleit what now?” was was a common response to my order. People just didn’t know. It just wasn’t readily available.

That’s simply not the case anymore. Bulleit Bourbon is no longer some up-and-coming craft whiskey brand that few people know about. It’s everywhere. Nowadays, if you can’t spot the trademark Bulleit bottles with their slightly askew labels sitting on the shelf of your favorite bar, it’s the exception, not the rule. But what’s really interesting is how the brand achieved this, how it went from this modest word-of-mouth spirit to the whiskey sitting at the cool kids table.

I first fell in love with Bulleit three years ago, and I’ve had a front row seat for this Bulleit boom ever since. After my first Bulleit Bourbon review, I was hooked. I cut single malt Scotch completely out of my rotation. Bulleit Rye became my go-to drink of choice, and it didn’t stop with me. Friends and family followed suit. I championed the brand in part because I love the taste, but also because MANjr and Bulleit have had some pretty fun times together.

There was that time we hung out with Isaiah Washington and his wife after the Pan African Film Festival and just talked around a table and sipped Bulleit Bourbon 10 Year in the back of a restaurant. Washington was like me, a Macallan man, but he made the switch to Bulleit and didn’t look back.

There was the trip to Austin for SXSW back in 2013, when my love for Bulleit Rye & Coke was first established. From Chef Ben Ford’s cookbook launch party in a Beverly Hills backyard to the Bulleit Woody event last night at the Coolhaus in Culver City, my experiences with the brand have always been positive. That’s why I push Bulleit like I’m some heavy duty shareholder or something. For me, it’s a quality product that’s been paired with quality experience, and I genuinely want to share this vibe with other people.

That’s why the brand has grown so much in the past few years. Just a couple weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal ran a story about it:

Sales of Diageo’s craft-style Bulleit bourbon—inherited in 2001 when it bought Seagram Co.’s wine-and-spirits portfolio—rose 35%, stripping out currency fluctuations, in the year ended June 30, making it the company’s fastest-growing unflavored North American whiskey. Mr. Menezes has said Diageo aimed to build Bulleit through word-of-mouth, creating “a lot of experiential stuff” and working with bartenders rather than doing large-scale TV advertising.

“I want to make sure Bulleit stays with the hipsters in Williamsburg and does not become a mass brand,” Mr. Menezes said on a January conference call.

And you know what? It worked. It totally worked. You know about the brand because someone who liked it told you about it. You don’t see big billboards or huge print ads or any TV coverage whatsoever. Bulleit has built up brand loyalty by creating brand champions who associate a good product with a good time. It’s a really smart way to market to a generation that craves authenticity over hype, craft quality over mass production.

Last night’s event is just another example of this clever marketing strategy at work. The mission was simple: cultivate an atmosphere where friendly people can enjoy craft culture at work, expose them to quality products and create brand champion converts who spread the good word.

The Bulleit Woody at the Coolhaus in Culver

It starts with the location. Coolhaus in Culver City is an ice cream shop that started as an art project. Co-Founder Natasha Case toyed with the idea of Farchitecture or “Food + Architecture” as a way of “bringing architecture to the people.” She partnered with Freya Estreller and started creating uniquely flavored ice cream sandwiches inspired by architecture and architecture movements. They capitalized on the food truck craze, bought a busted postal van on Craigslist and used it to serve ice cream sandwiches at Coachella. Quality product paired with a good time experience led to media attention that was amplified to new levels through Twitter and other social outlets. Now they’re blowing up. Multiple store fronts. Fleets of trucks in multiple states. Prepackaged in-store products. Catered events for celebrities. You get the idea.

Coolhaus served up seriously tasty sammies last night. The menu was full of tough choices. I mean you really couldn’t go wrong with cookie options like choco chip, double chocolate, snickerdoodle and gluten-free coconut almond supporting ice cream options like fried chicken and waffles, salted chocolate, dirty mint chip, vanilla bean, seasonal sorbet or whiskey lucky charms. I went for the chicken and waffles ice cream on peanut butter cookie. It tasted as amazing as it sounds.

But all this craft culture goodness didn’t stop with desert. The main event was the showcasing of the Bulleit Woody, a trailer designed by Brad Ford that features a fully stocked Bulleit bar and 150 year old wood that’s been repurposed from Bulleit barrels. The trailer was originally created as a Neiman Marcus Fantasy Gift Guide item. It came with a year’s supply of Bulleit and a price tag of $150,000. This thing became so popular at events that Bulleit had three more trailers produced to cater to demand.

And what would a Bulleit event be without tasty Bulleit cocktails? Here’s what was on the menu:

BLT (Bulleit, Lemon & Tonic)
1.3 oz. Bulleit® Bourbon
2 lemon wedges
3 oz. tonic
Preparation: Build in a rocks glass, serve over ice.

Bulleit Revolver
1.33 oz Bulleit Bourbon
0.33 oz Coffee liqueur
2 dashes Orange bitters
Orange peel
Preparation: Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir until well chilled and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a wide strip of orange peel.

It doesn’t get much hipper than a well-designed trailer serving whiskey cocktails to bloggers and media folk in the back parking lot of an architectually inspired ice cream sandwich spot. The craft culture was on display all around. Good times were had. Brand champions were made. Stories will be shared.

It’s a brilliant strategy that has worked wonders. It has worked and will continue to work on me, my friends and family, bars and restaurants in LA and the entire whiskey marketplace in America. It’s cool to be hip, but you can’t manufacture hipness with mass production and overexposure. The hipness needs to drip slowly and gather up over time before it spills over and covers everything like it’s always been there. That’s a difficult, calculated and balance-dependent marketing play, but there’s no denying that Bulleit has executed it to perfection.

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