Bulleit Bourbon at a Crossroads Amid Sexual Abuse Allegations
Sales are up. But behind the scenes, the Bulleit family is reckoning with its own #MeToo moment
The whisk(e)y world is built on stories of recipes passed down from generation to generation within families that would eventually become dynasties.
It’s all a bit fanciful, because the real stories are often more complex and, sometimes, even troubling.
In the case of Bulleit, there’s quite a tale to tell. There’s a great-great grandfather who made whiskey, his great-great-grandson who became a lawyer in Lexington but dreamed of resurrecting his family’s heritage, and of course the family-run business he built that became a huge global success and a bourbon staple at every bar.
That’s the story they’ll tell you at a distillery or at a tasting — but it hides a lot of painful truths.
Most recently, after extensive allegations of physical and sexual abuse by his daughter, the founder of Bulleit whiskey is moving aside at the company as a spokesperson and the public face of the brand.
Two years ago, the Washington Post reported that Hollis Bulleit — daughter of founder Tom Bulleit and a global brand ambassador for the brand — had been fired from the company, previously a family-owned business that had been purchased by drinks giant Diageo.
In a series of Facebook posts, Hollis claimed she had been let go due to homophobia. She also accused now-parent company Diageo of not providing appropriate protection or safeguards. (Her Facebook post is no longer available).
Diageo, meanwhile, had until then been seen as an LGBT-friendly place to work — for example, the Human Rights Campaign has the company a perfect 100/100 in their Corporate Equality Index.
Before Hollis left the company, Diageo claimed they had offered her a multi-year contract. But at the same time, the Bulleit family seemed to be erasing their daughter from the brand history, at least according to the Post article; on the other hand, Hollis was still considered by the drinks industry at large to be a public face for the whiskey (a role she had played for nearly two decades). For her work within the industry, she was awarded a 2014 Dame Hall of Fame induction at Tales of the Cocktail.
In the midst of the conflict, the Lexington Herald Leader reported that Hollis and Diageo had reached a “mutually acceptable resolution” in early 2018, and the matter — at least to the general public and drinking community — seemed resolved.
But Hollis (who now goes by Hollis B Worth) started making new Facebook posts this year alluding to past sexual abuse and her father’s alleged domestic violence. On August 13th, she released a more detailed summary of her family history, accusing her father directly of sexual abuse, homophobia, pedophilia and being forced to pose for naked photos as a young child. It’s a long, harrowing read and one where she directly referenced Diageo and the company’s continued association with Tom Bulleit.
Before the public Facebook posts, sometime around July, Diageo asked the Bulleit founder to step back from representing the brand in public; this seemed to be a response to letters from Hollis and her lawyers to the company that had laid out more detailed accusations.
However, Worth recently told the drinks publication Neat Pour she was unaware of her father’s recent “benching” by Diageo and questioned why the brand or Tom’s attorneys had not reached out to her directly about the recent move.
In a series of emails with InsideHook, Hollis expanded on this.
“It is unclear as to what [Diageo’s] internal investigation entailed; but I know one thing I was never approached,” she wrote in an email. “After over a month of not hearing a word from Diageo, I find it hard to believe that, upon consulting experts in the sexual abuse field, Diageo would think it was okay or respectful for me to hear about any movement in our situation first from a reporter.”
She continues: “It is my belief that Tom Bulleit will continue to receive his consulting salary even while being temporarily benched, along with royalties based on case sales. And of course, Diageo will continue to profit. In addition, having Tom ‘step away’ does not change internal policy or the corporate environment that allowed these abuses to occur. I believe that Diageo is distracting the public instead of proposing real solutions and have again misjudged the intelligence of the consumer in a post #metoo society.”
(Hollis also refuted the idea suggested by a recent Herald-Leader article that she was urging a boycott of Bulleit. “I never asked for boycotts,” she told us.)
As someone active on drinks/bar professionals/bar media Facebook groups, I can attest that several bartenders have voluntarily boycotted Bulleit (and will explain to customers their reasons, if asked). Other posters on these boards, however, have expressed that this recent move by Diageo was a “step in the right direction” for the brand and seemed open to continue serving the whiskey.
Tom Bulleit has denied all accusations. In a recent statement, he said he has “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.” He also claimed the abuse claims are “monetarily motivated.”
In statement sent to InsideHook, a spokesperson for Diageo says they “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. While it would be impossible for us to determine the veracity of these claims, given their nature it was decided Mr. Bulleit would step back from his brand ambassadorship role.”
Diageo also reiterated both its preference to extend Hollis a contract (a long and equally troubling/detailed look at that process can be found here) and its commitment to a corporate culture that “supports inclusivity and does not discriminate on any basis, including sexual orientation.”
According to the Herald Leader, sales of Bulleit are up eight percent this year, and a $10 million visitor center recently opened at the company’s new $115 million distillery.
And for most people, that’s sadly where the story ends.