Despite years spent in the industry, Tony Bagnulo had never distilled gin and never launched a brand. Naturally, his Bulrush Gin became a smash.
By now you’ve more than likely heard of Bulrush Gin; perhaps you’ve even tasted it. The local’s gin of choice, it boasts its Lowcountry cred with every sip, approaching the classic juniper note with a Carolina-inspired twist of lavender and citrus. Area bars and restaurants have been quick to respond, with Bulrush cocktails showing up on menus from Bluffton to Hilton Head.
But as much as the Lowcountry has embraced its hometown spirit, and as much as craft spirits have grown in the last few years, Bulrush Gin was never a sure thing. In fact, it very nearly never left founder Tony Bagnulo’s kitchen. The end almost came in the middle of 2015, as Bagnulo and his wife were preparing to take the first sip of a business venture that represented something of a Hail Mary.
After 15 years of bouncing around the country as a liquor marketer, pinballing between New York and Atlanta with a stop in Fort Lauderdale, he’d landed on Hilton Head Island, where he’d recently been let go from the job that brought him here.
Undeterred, he chose to stay. “Once you land in a place like the Lowcountry,” he said, “you don’t want to move.”
But staying meant finding his own road forward. His was Bulrush Gin. It was a risky move, seeing as he’d never formulated a gin before, much less distilled one. And despite years in marketing, he’d never launched a brand from scratch.
Nonetheless, armed with a little knowledge gleaned from his days in the industry and backed by his friends at Six & Twenty Distillery, he put his own money into the first batch of Bulrush Gin, all 300 gallons of it.
And now came time to taste.
In celebration of the grand unveiling, he purchased the finest tonic and the freshest limes for a release party consisting of his wife and himself. He chose to ignore the odd aromas coming off the first pour, something he attributes to an “entrepreneurial delusion.”
“My wife took a sip and the look on her face was just No. She’s a very candid woman, and she just told me, ‘This is awful,’” Bagnulo recalled. “At that point, I thought I was done.”
He would be proven spectacularly wrong in the first of many happy accidents that have come to define Bulrush’s rise to prominence in the Lowcountry.
That first bad batch was still running through Bagnulo’s mind hours later when inspiration hit.
The base of Bulrush’s recipe came from an old Dutch manuscript Bagnulo had come across from the 1860s, one that he likens to finding the Holy Grail. Among the directions in this antique tome’s arcane spiritual alchemy was a litany of ingredients and botanicals, including licorice.
“In my mind, licorice was star anise. That’s not licorice. Licorice is that actual licorice root,” he said. Realizing his error, he got on the phone to his distiller the next morning at 6:00 a.m. with good news and bad news. “The bad news was we had a really bad gin. The good news was we had a really good anisette.”
The even better news was that after the disastrous batch, Bagnulo leaned hard into perfecting the ingredients of his gin. He now carefully sources his ingredients, drawing them locally when the season allows, from regionally harvested ginger to lavender from the upstate. He’s even released a batch using satsumas from his neighbor’s tree. The mandarin sweetness of the satsumas adds a decidedly citrusy tone to Bulrush, one of many flavor notes that sets it apart.
“The thing that people love about gin is also the thing that people dislike about gin, and that’s that heavy juniper-piney flavor,” he said. “We’re a proper gin, so we have that. But I wanted to make something that had a little bit more lavender, a little bit more citrus and generally be more approachable than your old-style types of gins.”
Creating that approachability calls for a carefully curated array of ingredients, and Bulrush combines an entire world of botanicals in each bottle. Juniper and angelica from Bulgaria, cassia from Indonesia, cardamom and orris root from India, and licorice root (not star anise) from China intermingle with ginger and lavender from South Carolina and Georgia.
“We spend a lot of time perusing farmers markets,” Bagnulo said. “A lot of it is sourcing botanicals on nose and taste so that it’s going to have the same notes as what you’ve been using before.”
And if you want to hear about a happy accident, ask Bagnulo how he wound up sourcing his coriander.
“When we made one of the first batches, I screwed up and had the coriander shipped to my house instead of the distillery,” he said with a laugh. Since they were distilling the next day, there wasn’t time to have it sent to Six & Twenty, where Bulrush is distilled, so Bagnulo had to improvise. “We just started driving around and found this Indian market that has the best coriander in the world. They just had bags and bags of it. It was a hundred times better than anything we could have ordered.”
From strong roots
The name Bulrush was carefully chosen to reflect the brand’s Lowcountry roots and partially inspired by Bagnulo’s background in landscape architecture. (“I love plants,” he explained simply.) These reedy, aquatic plants are found in all parts of the Lowcountry, making their way into Gullah crafts and lining the shores of rivers and lagoons.
And like any plant, Bulrush has strong roots, but can adapt to grow anywhere. The same can be said for its namesake gin. Already the spirit has infiltrated nearly every restaurant worth visiting in lower Beaufort County, has made inroads into Georgia through Savannah, and is popping up on liquor store shelves everywhere in between and beyond in both states.
And, it’s also available in Ohio, for some reason.
“A good friend of mine I’ve known literally since we were seven is the craft spirits distributor for a big distributor in Ohio. He reached out and asked if I knew any brands that wanted to launch in Ohio. And as it happens, I did,” Bagnulo said. “The good thing about Ohio we’ve found is that when you say things like Hilton Head and Lowcountry, they know what that means.”
But don’t think Bulrush has forgotten where it comes from. Over a Bulrush gin and tonic, lightly flavored with wildflower honey, at Bluffton’s FARM, General Manager Josh Heaton recalled a time when that personal touch made a huge difference for him.
Bulrush had recently released a limited run of Bourbon Barrel Gin aged in Six & Twenty barrels, and Heaton was having a hard time fielding questions from guests about the unique product. “All I had to do was shoot Tony a text saying, ‘A guest has a question about the bourbon barrels. Please don’t make me Google it,’” Heaton said. “The guest I was talking to just ate [that] up, that I could just text the guy who owned it.
“When we find a really good product with a really cool story behind it, and you can shake hands with the guy who built it, that’s what we’re all about.”
For Bagnulo, as wide as Bulrush Gin reaches, it will still always be about where it’s rooted.
“We celebrate the spirit of the Lowcountry,” he said. “We try to celebrate the culture around here, from the food to the lifestyle to the notion of getting on a boat and hanging out. We’re probably one of the few gins you would ever drink on the May River sandbar.”
And to think, it all started with a happy accident.
1 ¼ oz Bulrush Gin
2 Basil leaves
1 Slice cucumber
2 oz Fresh lime juice
¼ oz Simple syrup
1 Dash tonic
Add lime juice, one shredded basil leaf, and cucumbers to shaker and muddle. Add Bulrush Gin, ice, and simple syrup to shaker. Shake vigorously then pour all ingredients into rocks glass. Top with a dash of tonic. Garnish with second basil leaf.
Bulrush Satsuma Coupe
1 ¼ oz Bulrush Gin
¼ oz Orange curacao (or Grand Marnier)
1 Satsuma orange (or mandarin orange)
2 Dashes of orange bitters
Add ice, Bulrush Gin, orange curaçao, and juice from one satsuma orange to a shaker. Shake vigorously. Strain into coupe or martini glass. Add 2 dashes of orange bitters.
Written by Barry Kaufman
Photography by Michael Hrizuk