Daughter's allegation affects reputation of Bulleit bourbon brand

By April Hall

Untangling the family from the business can be difficult when your name is on millions of bottles every year.

Recently Hollis Bulleit, called “The First Lady of Bourbon” for her work as brand ambassador for the spirit her father created, posted a scathing statement on Facebook in which she claimed she was ostracized from her family and ultimately lost her job with Bulleit Bourbon because she came out as a lesbian and brought her girlfriend, Cher, home for Thanksgiving.

The story broke on Queerty, a “news and entertainment site for LGBTQ millennials,” but has now spread to international media outlets, including The Washington Post and Forbes. Since the story broke, Hollis Bulleit has declined interview requests.

Family consultant Dennis Jaffe says that when the family business is involved, grievances between family members tend to get aired publicly.

“This is an example of how these things get tied between the business and family,” Jaffe says. “It’s one thing if it’s private in the family, then it’s not about company policy.”

When a family business and name are so closely related, Jaffe says, both the business and family should defend themselves. Diageo, the international beverage company that owns Bulleit, has not recognized the controversy on any social media or on its own website. However, a spokesperson for Diageo emailed Family Business the company's official statement:

In advance of Hollis’ contract expiring in 2016, we offered her a multi-year extension. Despite it being an increase versus her previous arrangement, we were unfortunately not able to reach agreement with her on this new contract. Any implication that she was fired, or that failure to agree to terms on this contract was due to her LGBT identity, is simply false. We are very proud of our long track record of work, through many of our brands, to support the LGBT community. We are also appreciative of Hollis’s past efforts on behalf of the brand and the industry.

There are boundary lines between what a family can and can’t do when it comes to personal behavior, Jaffe says, noting that claims of homophobia or discrimination could damage both business and family. Tom Bulleit, Hollis’ father, is still the face of Bulleit whiskey in both courting new business and serving as brand ambassador.

Jaffe says if the family wants to try to save face, it's better to speak out sooner rather than later. The Bulleit family has not acknowledged Hollis' accusations in any public way.

“Now this is a public issue about the reputation of the company and the family,” Jaffe says. “If they want to defend themselves, they need to go out and defend.”

If, instead, Hollis is making her claims in preparation for an employee lawsuit, or alleging unfair labor practices, that’s different, he says. That would play out in court.