Bulleit, a Kentucky bourbon and whiskey distiller, is a family company. Even after the brand was bought by international beverage giant Diageo, founder Tom Bulleit employed his daughter, Hollis, who worked on the brand’s sales, marketing and innovation teams, acting as a global brand ambassador and earning herself the title “The First Lady of Bourbon.” Until December, that is, when she says she was abruptly fired.
In a scathing series of Facebook posts last week, Bulleit, a lesbian, alleged she was kicked out of the family business due to homophobia.
Neither Bulleit nor Diageo responded to requests for comment. But according to Bulleit’s Facebook posts, here’s what happened: She says that her partner, Cher, had been systematically excluded from family and company events over the years. When Bulleit brought Cher home to the family Thanksgiving last year, the pair was uninvited via text from Christmas. Then, two days before Christmas, Bulleit received an email telling her that she would no longer be employed by the company.
“Because family was business and intertwined with a global corporation, I find it odd that I did not benefit from the departments and safeguards that are put into place to either intervene or provide mediation or educational diversity training as would be the expected protocol for employees in this type of situation,” Bulleit wrote on Facebook. “In light of my experience, I do not understand how the company I worked for is on many of the top 10/ 50/ 100 “best places” for LGBTQIA employees to work.” (Diageo has earned perfect scores as a “Best Place to Work for LGBT Equality” from the Human Rights Campaign for nine consecutive years.)
It was a complicated and messy breakup, exacerbated by the fact that Bulleit’s last name is a brand. She hoped to start her own brand of bourbon, but she says intellectual property laws would prohibit her from using her own name because of consumer confusion. And because the brand is so famous, people can’t help but constantly ask her about her old job.
“I literally lost my name and the worth that comes with it,” she wrote. “Even in the smallest of ways, for example: I cannot go out in public in Kentucky and use my credit card, because then people want to talk about Bulleit bourbon (of which I have been legally instructed not to represent).”
In a statement sent to several news outlets, Diageo disputed Hollis Bulleit’s accusations, and said that her contract had simply expired. “It is unfortunate that we were not able to come to terms on the multi-year contract that we recently offered to Hollis,” the statement reads. “However, to insinuate that the failure to do so was due to bias of any kind is simply unfair and inaccurate. We are very proud of our long track record of work, through many of our brands, to support the LGBT community. We are appreciative of Hollis’s past efforts on behalf of the brand and the industry.” (It should also be noted that Diageo has been trimming brand ambassadors: About 40 people were let go last year when Diageo axed its much-admired Masters of Whiskey ambassador and mentorship program, though some were later hired back.)
Beyond the loss of a job, Bulleit wrote in a different Facebook post that she is being “erased publicly” by the Bulleit brand and Diageo. She and Cher were not invited to the grand opening of the Bulleit distillery near Shelbyville, Ky., in March, even though her stepbrother and his girlfriend, who don’t work for the distillery, were.
A recent Inc.com story, celebrating Bulleit Bourbon’s 30 years in the industry, referred to Tom Bulleit’s wife, Betsy, as “the unsung hero behind Bulleit Bourbon,” and despite extensive quotes from Tom and Betsy, didn’t mention Hollis by name, dropping in an offhand comment that, “Tom’s daughter helped in the 1990s, sending faxes all over the world to try to put together deals.”
But to anyone who attended the annual Tales of the Cocktail spirits convention in New Orleans or Bulleit events in Washington and elsewhere, Hollis was the face of the brand, flitting around the room, talking and joking with Bulleit drinkers. Her father would talk with bourbon fans, too, of course, but Hollis stood out, and not just because of her bright vintage clothes and quirky statement hats and fascinators. She is a funny conversationalist who put people at ease, and she could chat with bartenders about cocktails as well as members of the public.
“Attending more whiskey events than she can count, Hollis attracts attention at every one,” noted a 2010 story in Tasting Panel. “‘The consumer fans, the whiskey geeks, they’re the Trekkies of our industry,’ she muses. ‘When people find out I am a Bulleit, not simply a brand rep, they line up for my autograph. I think they see me as the Buffy of the whiskey world.’”
Bulleit was inducted into Tales of the Cocktail’s Dame Hall of Fame in 2014 for her achievements as Bulleit Bourbon’s global ambassador.
Part of the reason both Tom and Hollis Bulleit have hosted so many events is because Bulleit is relatively new in terms of major whiskey brands. Sure, Tom Bulleit says that the bourbon is a 19th-century family recipe, passed down from his great-great-grandfather, but it wasn’t distilled until 1987, and didn’t become widely available until after Seagram bought the brand in 1997 and began producing it at its Lawrenceburg, Ky., distillery. So the Bulleits established their reputation not just with the high-rye content bourbon (and later rye whiskey) that bore their name, but by meeting and greeting all over the country. Hollis became a fixture at places like Camp Runamok, a bourbon-focused summer camp for bartenders in Kentucky, where she handed out handmade buttons and painted Bulleit bottles. (She received a master’s degree in fine and studio arts from New York University.) And Bulleit, through excellent marketing and even better whiskey, grew to be one of the top-selling bourbons in the country, even though, until this year, it never had its own distillery.
Bourbon and whiskey have, for many years, been a boys’ club. Kentucky got its first female master distiller — Marianne Barnes of Castle & Key — only last year. But while women have gained a toehold in the industry, especially as the number of female consumers of brown liquor continues to rise, it’s still rare to find an LGBT woman in the whiskey world. Bulleit said in her Facebook post that she came out a decade ago; in 2011, she was featured in the lesbian magazine Curve, under the headline “Hollis Bulleit’s Sapphic Speakeasy.”
Given Hollis Bulleit’s standing in the spirits community, her story quickly sparked a backlash on the Internet. Users shared her posts using the hashtags #whereshollis and #Hollisismyhero. Comments under her Facebook posts promised to boycott Bulleit’s whiskey and Diageo products. One Twitter user posted a video of himself dumping out a bottle of Bulleit Bourbon.
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