Wednesday, July 21, 2010

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An Evening with Hollis Bulleit

Sassy broads drink bourbon
~ Hollis Bulleit

Dressed to the nines, a line of Los Angelenos was already snaking from the velvet rope outside the bar into the nearby alley. The companion on my elbow strode confidently to the front of the line in a 1920’s style flapper outfit and feathered hat. As she handed her card to the doorman, I caught a flash of a familiar burnt orange logo. Moments later, one of his colleagues rushed to the door sporting a well-cut shirt and one of those scarves adopted in recent years among the self-consciously hip in Los Angeles and New York. “Well,” he exclaimed, “I thought I was fabulous…until you showed up.” With that, the rope was drawn aside, the line left behind, and we were whisked into the iron and velvet bosom of the underground bar within.

Hollis Bulleit had arrived at the Edison.

Tonight was the once monthly Radio Room at one of Los Angeles’ destination cocktail bars and even with the crowd dressed in their interpretations of Prohibition-era couture, Bulleit stood out. She alone, of all the patrons, rocked the flapper look like she was born to it. Hollis and her father Tom are those Bulleits — the family that makes frontier whiskey — and she was holding court tonight with a large table of friends. The waitstaff brought out sliders, grilled cheese sandwiches, even milk and cookies (Hollis had ordered one of everything), but the Edison crafts some of the better drinks in Los Angeles and I was there to see what they were doing with the Bulleit family’s bourbon.

See, Bulleit isn’t just any bourbon for me: it’s our house bourbon. At any given time, I’ll have dozens of bourbons around the house, from a variety of Four Roses offerings, handles of Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark to Booker’s, Evan Williams 12-year, and a host of corn-heavy sipping whiskeys aged in charred oak. Bulleit, with its hefty dose of rye in the grain bill, has a mellow bite that lets it mix well in a lot of cocktails. But perhaps one of my favorite ways to enjoy it is on its own with maybe a single ice cube or a splash of water, especially if I’m retiring to the patio for cigars and the day’s papers.

Testament to our fondness for the bourbon, many of the homemade syrups, tinctures, and pre-batched cocktails around the Whiskey Forge are put up in old Bulleit bottles. With its distinctive oval footprint, the bottle looks almost like an oversized hip flask. Hollis tells me that the design was inspired by bottles found on antiquing trips with her father. Me? I like their old-timey look and especially the satisfying tttthhhwunk each time I prize out its cork.

As an ambassador for the family’s bourbon, Hollis is on the road about 180 days a year. Occasionally, she gets to appear with Tom, but tonight she’s solo. Her father’s popularity, she tells me, means that he gets to travel to Las Vegas while Hollis works Reno. “But they love me in Reno,” she beams. I can see why. I’m starting to myself.

Earlier that evening when I asked her to tell me about the bourbon market out West, she eagerly broke out a pen a paper and began constructing an xy axis to place Bulleit in a dreamcatcher graph of competitors’ bourbons. “Here it’s hot and spicy.” She writes in two well-known brands. “But these are more mellow at this end.” Maker’s Mark goes there. More points get filled in. I ask her about Bulleit. Veering from the bourbon data points I suspect were provided by the marketing team, she looks up with a quick smile, then back down almost bashfully. “Bulleit is somewhere,” she says, “between Mae West and Marilyn Monroe.”

“So women drink bourbon?” Two can tease. I know full well women drink bourbon. My own mother taught me how to craft a Manhattan when I was just old enough to know such things.

“Of course!” Her eyes flash.

“What sort of woman would do such a thing?” We’re on a roll.

“Sassy broads,” she informs me, “drink bourbon.”

I’m no sassy broad, but some of my best friends are. I’m seeing Hollis again this week in New Orleans during Tales of the Cocktail and I’m eager to see the sass she and her father have cooked up.

Bulleit Frontier Whiskey
$19.99/750ml at Trader Joe’s in San Diego (higher elsewhere)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It sounds like you had the "Hollis Experience"! She always leaves you wanting more . . . .