GuildSomm

Tracking Bourbon’s Modern-Day Revival

Bryce Wiatrak explores American bourbon’s contemporary growth trajectory—via GuildSomm

Photo credit: iStock.

Written by Bryce Wiatrak

At the time of his 2004 book Bourbon, Straight, Charles Cowdery noted that the consumption of bourbon had fallen every single year since 1978. While bourbon and whiskey became America’s preeminent libation in the pre-Prohibition and post-WWII eras, they slowly lost favor to white spirits before nosediving in the 1970s. Cowdery subsequently questioned when the “elusive Bourbon Renaissance” long murmured to be on the horizon would arrive. He asks, “Is it finally here? Or is recent heighted interest in bourbon whiskey just the last gasp of a drink on its way to oblivion, barely kept alive as a novelty like mead or applejack?” Pessimism aside, retrospect proves the answer to both his questions to be no. The early 2000s observed a brief and minor uptick in bourbon interest, before leveling back to its doldrums. Some posit, and Cowdery implies, that the years immediately following 9/11 brought renewed interest in the category, as happens with “occasional bursts of patriotism.” But that likely wasn’t the ultimate catalyst. In truth, it wouldn’t be until the mid to late 2000s, with America on the cusp on recession, that bourbon’s fortunes would change.

According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association 2019 Economic Impact Study, the total value of Kentucky’s inventoried bourbon stock leapt in 2006 from under $800 million (where it had hovered for several decades) to over $1 billion in 2007, continuing to climb to 1.55 billion in 2013. Production followed, with roughly one million barrels of bourbon filled in 2011 for the first time since 1973. By 2015, production approached two million. As of 2012, distilleries provided 2,400 jobs in Kentucky and $272 million dollars in personal income—not including adjacent industries, such as grain farming, distribution and transport companies, food services, and the like.

There are various hypotheses on what reversed the spirit’s fate. MS Scott Harper suggests it rode on the coattails of its Old World counterpart. The apotheosis of age-designated single malt over blended Scotch whisky was still relatively recent by the turn of the millennium, and its pricing accelerated to the point where it alienated much of its consumer base. According to Harper, bourbon seized the opportunity. “As those prices skyrocketed, you saw people saying, ‘Hey, there’s another whiskey that’s native and less expensive. Let’s give it a go.’”

His fellow Kentucky resident MS Brett Davis argues that bartenders and the craft cocktail movement powered the shift from white to brown spirits. “When the cocktail culture hit, that led to using all those great spirits from the past, including whiskeys, and going away from all those juice-mixed cocktails,” he says. “They were drinking Manhattans. They were drinking Old Fashioneds. And that led them to drinking straight whiskey.” Though gradual, the transition is mirrored in American popular culture. We closed out the nineties with Carrie Bradshaw sipping Cosmopolitans. By the end of the aughts, we watched Don Draper make himself an Old Fashioned circa 11 am. The face of whiskey is no longer tethered to saloons in the Wild West or good ole boys singing “this will be the day that I die.” Instead, it’s Mila Kunis promoting Jim Beam, or Matthew McConaughey advertising Wild Turkey. “You’re seeing this on TV during the Super Bowl, which you didn’t see five years ago,” says Colleen Thomas, Director of Member and Public Affairs at the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. “It was unheard of 20 years ago.”

Over the course of its renaissance, bourbon has transcended itself as a mere spirit to lean into its repositioning as a lifestyle as well. Taking a chapter from Napa’s playbook, Kentucky distilleries have invested heavily in establishing robust hospitality programs. Their efforts were further rewarded in 2016 when a change in Kentucky legislation allowed for the sale of cocktails and by-the-glass pours on site, with many distilleries today sporting full-blown bar programs. “Now people are not just spending an hour on the tour, in the gift shop, and out the door—they can spend an entire afternoon,” explains Thomas. Downtown Louisville’s Whiskey Row, which long lay dormant, has been revived as both a production center and a visitor attraction. Beyond spreading the gospel of bourbon and educating its enthusiasts, the move also helps the bottom line. “It actually changed business plans for distilleries that were being built. It gave a lot of the craft distilleries another revenue stream while they’re aging their bourbon,” says Thomas. For craft and established distilleries alike, the addition of bourbon tourism provides further stability to their businesses should the market shy away from the product itself.

Kentucky law now allows for the direct shipment of liquor to other states as well. Long banned, the policy change opens the prospect of bourbon clubs akin to those of wineries. “I think in the next couple years, you’re going to see a real revolution on how people buy and learn about their bourbon,” predicts Thomas—with online and out-of-state sales spearheading that campaign.

But bourbon is leaving Kentucky in other ways, too. Unlike its subcategory Tennessee Whiskey, which must come from Tennessee, bourbon is not legally tied to Kentucky. “I believe Kentucky Bourbon is one word,” says Eric Gregory, President of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. “You can make bourbon anywhere in the United States, but if you want to sell it, it better have Kentucky’s name on the label.” Kentucky and bourbon in tandem undeniably boast powerful marketing clout. Nevertheless, several successful bourbon brands are bottling the spirit in every corner of the United States—from California to Utah to New York. Changes in several state micro-distillery laws have allowed savvy craft industries to emerge. In Tennessee, for example, before a 2009 bill paved the way for smaller scale operations, only three distilleries existed in the state: Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel, and Prichard’s (which snuck in via a loophole in 1997). The state now counts more than 40 distilleries within its bounds, with those focusing on whiskey generally concentrated around the center.

On an international scale, global interest in bourbon predated the domestic resurgence by a handful of years and further triggered its rebound. Exports of Kentucky whiskey have effectively quadrupled over the course of the 21st century, valued at $96 million in 2000 and $381 million in 2017. “We started opening up global markets that really never had been available to bourbon before,” says Gregory. “I think we’ve barely scratched the surface.” Present top customers are Spain, Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany. While it’s easy to dismiss bourbon’s appeal as that of nostalgia or Americanism, its massive worldwide success suggests a much wider-reaching value to the brand at large.

Bourbon’s numbers over the last decade are nothing short of triumphant—squashing Cowdery’s now laughable fears the spirit might surrender itself to the near annals of history alongside mead and applejack. But, in many regards, the full effects of bourbon’s revival are only recently beginning to reveal themselves, and they extend far beyond finance. This article considers three developments in the beverage landscape in light of bourbon’s comeback, and the challenges that have arisen in this new environment.

In With the Old

Before the bourbon boom, there was the bourbon bust. As the American whiskey market continued to decelerate, supply far outpaced demand, and barrels would pile up and get lost in their rickhouses. By the mid 1990s, a few ambitious contenders found a silver lining to the golden glut.

“There was bulk whiskey available everywhere, because people had excess whiskey—especially old whiskey that was getting older,” remembers Julian Van Winkle III. His family sold its Stitzel-Weller Distillery in 1972, but he and his father continued to buy barrels of their bourbon back from the new ownership, before Stitzel-Weller ceased operations altogether in 1992. While they may have no longer owned the equipment, the Van Winkles retained their eponymous Old Rip Van Winkle label. They started with a 10-year, then a 12-year, and in 1989 released a 15-year-old bottling. In 1994 and 1998, respectively, Julian III released 20- and 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle, named after his late grandfather. “Nobody was selling old whiskey back at that time,” so Pappy’s became somewhat of an anomaly. For a while, it was a hand-sell for Julian III—years on the road getting his whiskeys in front of chefs, sommeliers, winemakers, bartenders, and distributors.

Eventually, the delicacy attracted a following. Van Winkle’s distributor in Chicago submitted Pappy’s to the Beverage Tasting Institute, whose reviews were published in Wine Enthusiast. This is the same era that gave birth to many cult wineries in the Napa Valley, ones whose high-impact flavors catered to the likes of Robert Parker, and whose high prices could be afforded by the dot-com boomers. Scores mattered, and Pappy’s long-aged, hyper-concentrated offerings earned top marks.

During those same years, Joseph Magliocco also looked to navigate the depressed landscape for American whiskey. His family was involved in wine and spirits distribution, and in 1978, the summer before his senior year at Yale, Magliocco was tasked with offloading $50,000-worth of Michter’s gold-plated King Tut mini commemorative bottles, a supposed tie-in with the Temple of Dendur’s installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that year. The job proved difficult, and Magliocco never forgot the Michter’s name.

When launching his own wine and spirits import and distribution company, Chatham Imports, in the mid-1990s, he recalled the experience. “I thought that as a little company trying to cut through the clutter and break in . . . there might be a better chance of establishing ourselves with really going after niches.” While vodka flew off the shelves, nothing was more niche at the time than rye whiskey. Magliocco’s mentor Dick Newman, former president of Austin Nichols (which makes Wild Turkey), advised him, “Rye sales are so bad, are so almost non-existent, you’ve got to do bourbon, too.” Rye happened to have been a specialty for Michter’s, which since Magliocco’s last encounter had gone defunct. He purchased the trademark and resurrected the label in Kentucky, rather than Pennsylvania, the company’s historic home.

While the decision to abandon the Keystone for the Bluegrass State was agonizing, it was the only practical option. “Kentucky was awash with really good whiskey then,” Magliocco explains. “When people heard that we wanted 10-year or older stuff, they were really happy. When they heard we wanted rye, they were thrilled, because they couldn’t get rid of it.” Magliocco started with a 10-year rye and bourbon for Michter’s, whose range now includes highly allocated 20- and 25-year-old products, as well as easier to find younger whiskeys.

Both Magliocco and Van Winkle chose a fortuitous time to enter the aged whiskey business. “There was little-to-no market for age-statement American whiskeys. There was little-to-no market for expensive American whiskeys,” says Magliocco. Yet both managed to capitalize on the opportunity, before their suppliers realized the worth of their own product. But their successes in galvanizing an aged whiskey market required them to adapt to new realities.

“I wasn’t putting anything away for the future,” explains Van Winkle. While there were more Stitzel-Weller barrels to purchase, he realized the family would need its own production to create a sustainable business. In 2002, he joined forces with Buffalo Trace, which in 1999 had purchased Weller, a former brand of his family’s, from Diageo. Also a wheated bourbon (a bourbon that replaces rye for wheat as a secondary grain, and one of the factors Van Winkle attributes to his spirits’ longevity), Weller already derived from the same mash bill as Pappy’s, albeit released younger. Buffalo Trace wanted a luxury label, and nothing could touch the mystique of Pappy’s. But Buffalo Trace also offered the production capacity to allow Pappy’s to survive and prosper. In short, the move proved mutually beneficial.

By the early 2000s, Magliocco also knew he couldn’t scarf up old whiskey barrels forever. “We went to a Kentucky distiller that was operating under capacity. In those days, almost everybody was. And a number of days per year were Michter’s days.” The aim was to formulate a spirit in the same vein as those Michter’s was sourcing before. A decade later, Magliocco was able to take distillation into his own hands. “In 2012, we had the resources to buy and build our own distillery.” By 2014, he’d purchased a column still to allow increased production at the facility in Shively, just outside of Louisville. The company now operates a second, more visitor-friendly distillery downtown, while also developing a 145-acre storage center in Springfield.

Today, more names have entered the pantheon of ultra-luxe aged American whiskeys. A recent article from Punch deems Willett “the only modern brand that manages to transcend Pappy van Winkle” with its exceedingly rare private releases. Its origin story is a familiar one: Even Kulsveen buying a historic label from his father-in-law in 1984, while stockpiling old barrels of bourbon until the time was ripe to bottle and sell. And yet with the field gaining more players, the game of premium old whiskeys might be the riskiest of all. When distilling a spirit meant to be set aside for a half-generation or longer, how do you predict consumer response—a quarter century down the line?

An average barrel of bourbon is emptied at six years of age, and only 16% of Kentucky’s total inventory is currently older than that. “It’s money just sitting there. You have to have really deep pockets, so you don’t go about doing that unless you have a very wealthy and profitable partner,” says Van Winkle. While the Buffalo Trace partnership does provide some cushion, Van Winkle still approaches the future of Pappy’s conservatively. “The demand keeps rising faster than the supply,” he shares. “People think we hold back inventory to keep our prices up, but we don’t.” Along with selling everything it makes, Pappy’s has gradually increased production. Van Winkle estimates roughly 2,000 cases of Pappy’s were released in 2002, in comparison to 9,500 in 2018. Still, that’s far beneath consumer demand.

The sky-high price tags aren’t, however, coming from his orders. “That evil internet has really screwed things up as far as the poor people who want to buy a decent bottle of whiskey. They have to pay hundreds, sometimes thousands for it,” Van Winkle quips. While Pappy’s will regularly be sold in the mid-quadruple digits on the secondary market, its suggested retail price remains between $60 and $280. It’s a challenge to find Pappy’s with those numbers attached—some liquor stores might raffle their allocations off; other small outlets in Kentucky might stick with the SRP. Buffalo Trace used to sell some on site, but “that produced arguments in the gift shop when the truck would show up,” says Van Winkle.

The secondary market, fueled largely by online channels, has also yielded problems with counterfeiting. “I think the industry has a love-hate relationship with the secondary market,” explains Colleen Thomas. Despite all of its negatives, she finds the environment moves product. “It’s a driver of popularity,” she says. “It’s an influencer.” While bourbon has long built its image on nostalgia and accessibility—a democratizing spirit of sorts—having a tier so stratospherically above the rest, even if not so intentioned by the distilleries themselves, certainly has helped raise bourbon’s tides. 

Diverging Craft Models

While cult producers cannot magically conjure two-decade-old bourbon in a pinch, nor can the production of even the most entry-level bourbons be hastened. Whiskey is largely defined by its aging; bringing a new product to market cannot be done in the timeframe possible for vodka or gin, or at least not with the same business model. The TTB necessitates that straight bourbon whiskey be aged in barrel a minimum of two years prior to release, but many will multiply that requirement. Jim Beam’s white label, for example, is comprised of spirits aged an average of four years. So when discovering a new bottle of bourbon from a young distillery advertised as “established 2018,” there’s good reason to scratch your head.

Such a mathematical conundrum might nonetheless seem more and more common within the last decade.  The American Craft Spirits Association listed 1,835 craft distilleries in the United States in 2018. Its report continues to demonstrate impressive growth for the category, with 15.5% more craft distilleries than in 2017, and nearly three-fold the number than in 2013. Of today’s craft distilleries, only 47 are in Kentucky—distilleries in California, New York, Washington, and Texas number in the triple digits. Of course, most of these young companies aren’t making bourbon, or necessarily even brown spirits. And for those who do, what can they do besides twiddle their thumbs while their first batch of whiskey turns amber in barrel?

Today’s producers of craft bourbon follow several different business plans to help turn a profit in their early years—some not even requiring the purchase of a still. Perhaps one of the most typical is that of non-distiller producers, or NDPs. As the name suggests, rather than distilling their own spirits, NDPs source their liquid from other companies. In the case of bourbon, the product will be bought in barrel, and often aged further at a separate facility owned by the NDP and blended to its specifications. The practice isn’t exclusive to whiskey production. One particular macro-distillery, Midwest Grain Products (MGP) in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, has provided material to myriad notable American producers. A 2014 Daily Beast article lists as diverse MGP clients as Bulleit (owned by Diageo) and Utah-based whiskey label High West, along with producers of vodka and gin. Craft producer Templeton found itself entangled in a legal battle for purportedly deceptive marketing, its bottles implying distillation in the company’s native Iowa rather than Indiana. A settlement required a refund of up to $6 per bottle for any customer and changing the label to read “distilled in Indiana.”

While easily scandalized, the concept of NDPs isn’t unfamiliar to the world of bourbon. Indeed, such a model hardly diverges from many of the producers pedaling premium aged bourbon. Even large, established distilleries have long swapped barrels when convenient. “We’ve had distilleries in Kentucky that have contracted with each other for everything from production to storage for 100 years,” notes Eric Gregory. In Bourbon Curious, Fred Minnick suggests public outcry lies more with misrepresentation than with the actual whiskeys, and such scrutiny didn’t surface before the advent of internet and social media, before which people were less aware of what they were actually drinking. It’s not to say MGP and other distilleries aren’t supplying quality spirits. For many craft producers, the goal is to indistinguishably match the profile of their supplier should they outgrow the NDP-phase of their businesses.

Woodford Reserve fermenters. Photo courtesy of Woodford Reserve.

So is the case with Angel’s Envy, one of the first major success stories in the craft spirits movement. Founded in 2010 by Wes Henderson and his father Lincoln, whose lauded career at Brown-Forman included such accomplishments as the creation of the Woodford Reserve and Gentleman Jack brands, Angel’s Envy’s timing was serendipitous. Not only was the company founded right in the early days of bourbon’s boom, sourcing for NDPs was somewhat simpler back then. Wes was able to secure around 1,000 barrels of high-quality aged bourbon, something his son, Production Manager Kyle Henderson, believes would be unlikely today. “That kind of quantity doesn’t exist for sale anymore,” Kyle explains. They didn’t necessarily anticipate a decade’s worth of expansion for the bourbon market, but as Kyle admits, “We were going to make it work whether whiskey was growing or not.”

For Angel’s Envy, that initial NDP stage was essential for the company’s evolution. “There were a lot of craft facilities that did the opposite of what we did,” Kyle recalls—those that started from scratch distilling their own spirits. “They didn’t get as large of a distribution network as quickly as we did because they were batch-trialing small things.” Angel’s Envy, on the other hand, quickly found its footing, and soon after, the Hendersons realized they needed to move on from the NDP model. “When we were absolutely demolishing projected sales plans in year two and year three, we realized . . . this is serious, and we’re not going to be able to live just on bulk market [which was] quickly drying up.”

Instead, the company transitioned to contract distilling—working with partners to create a recipe precisely to its specifications. It was during this period that Angel’s Envy meticulously reigned in its mash bill, yeast strains, fermentation and distillation temperatures, and so on. “At this moment, 100% of the product in the bottle is contract production,” explains Kyle. “Most people haven’t been able to notice a difference in there, because we very, very carefully crafted what we’re trying to do.” Three years ago, Angel’s Envy continued to phase three, its own distillery. While consumers have yet to taste Angel’s Envy made at the Angel’s Envy facility, the Hendersons hope the changeover will be indiscernible.

Like Angel’s Envy during its second phase, many craft brands will not only look to larger distilleries to source whiskey but also to carry out production following their proprietary formulas. Within the last several years, a business model has emerged for a distillery whose primary revenue stream is derived from distilling for others. One such enterprise is Bardstown Bourbon Company, first conceptualized in 2013, with construction beginning two years later on a state-of-the-art production complex. With Master Distiller Steve Nally (formerly at Maker’s Mark) at the helm, Bardstown Bourbon Company now makes whiskey for a smattering of respected labels, including High West, Jefferson’s, and Nelson’s Green Brier (Belle Meade Bourbon). Whereas large distilleries might yield their entire range from a selection of mash bills that can be counted on a single hand, Bardstown Bourbon Company was designed for flexibility, distilling upwards of 40 mash bills for its clients, in addition to its own new brand. In essence, Bardstown Bourbon Company has created the spirits equivalent of a wine custom crush facility, also offering a visitor center and full-scale restaurant with a whiskey list where guests can taste Bardstown’s own products, those of its clients, and other highly sought-after spirits.

The startup capital required to launch a new, fully-functioning distillery is immense. “Doing a distillery is actually more expensive than a similar size winery or similar size brewery,” says Joseph Magliocco. “Our stuff gets to 140 proof, so it’s explosive.” Literally. With distilleries and their rickhouses proving highly flammable (just this month, a 45,000-barrel Jim Beam rickhouse erupted in flames), every precaution must be taken to keep employees and product safe—which means a much costlier barrier to entry. Magliocco remembers that when buying his first forklift, the going rate in Kentucky was $35,000. But “an explosion-proof one, like you’d need at the distillery, was $90,000.”

It’s no wonder NDPs and custom distilling appear to be the only viable solution. Nonetheless, some craft distilleries with the proper financial backing will play the waiting game for their whiskeys to mature. A historic label revived in 2014 by Corky and Carson Taylor, Peerless waited until 2017 to release its first whiskey, a rye, which it distilled. Another highly anticipated label founded in 2014, Castle & Key has survived off its vodka and gin, leaving its rye and bourbon to fully mature before hitting the market—likely in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

As with many craft breweries, some question if success for craft distilleries necessitates cannibalization of the movement itself. So many of the most recognizable names in craft distilling no longer meet the most obvious definition of their category. In 2019 alone, majority stakes have been purchased in such bourbon producers as Louisville’s Rabbit Hole by Pernod Ricard and Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Nashville by Constellation, who’d already acquired High West in 2016. Angel’s Envy was bought by Bacardi in 2015. Does a craft distillery wishing to scale up require acquisition? Not necessarily, and some manage to find their own path to the black without corporate investment. But bourbon doesn’t stigmatize large-scale production centers to the same degree that wine or beer might (the vast majority of bourbons at a fine liquor store will likely still hail from half a dozen distilleries). While the wine world might share a collective sigh upon the corporatization of a family-owned winery, bourbon seems to wade less tempestuous waters. For one, the product is sturdier. MS Brett Davis notes, “When you think about American whiskey, what are you going to do to it? How are you going to hurt it?” He goes on to praise the industry’s efforts for continuity. “They’re being smart, because they keep the teams in place,” he says. There are worse destinies to be dealt to a young company, and shedding a craft business model doesn’t necessarily lead to shaking off the craft image.

The Next Big Thing

Angel’s Envy doesn’t quite produce bourbon as we know it. Of his late grandfather, Lincoln, Kyle recalls, “He didn’t want to put his name on something that somebody else had done. He didn’t want to just take a whiskey from another distillery and slap a label on it, and go, ‘Oh, here’s mine.’” Learning from his time at Brown-Forman stationed at Glenmorangie, Lincoln decided to apply the popular Scotch practice of secondary finishing in used vessels to bourbon. At the time, Kyle can only recollect one other American whiskey to go through secondary finishing, the Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece Bourbon, finished in PX Sherry casks. That product today sells for roughly $200, and much higher than the Hendersons hoped to launch Angel’s Envy. They, too, tried Sherry casks, as well as Madeira, Sauternes, and Ruby Port. The Port barrels won out, mostly a pragmatic decision due to their ready availability. “It was the best option we had at the time. . . . Had we gotten ahold of Sherry barrels first, there’s a strong possibility maybe we would have done a Sherry finish from the start instead of a Port finish,” says Kyle. Accordingly, their labels by law must read “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Port Wine Casks” (their rye, similarly, is finished in rum barrels sourced from the Caribbean).

Woodford Reserve. Photo credit: iStock.

Kyle believes launching Angel’s Envy today would be much more difficult than it was just a decade ago. “It’s hard to get the first consumer, get them to try in that environment.” With the eruption of craft distilleries across the country, he says, “There’s just so much noise.” Certainly having a distinctive product helped Angel’s Envy cut through the cacophony and find its early audience. Other distilleries soon followed suit. WhistlePig, Rabbit Hole, and Woodford Reserve all offer their own spirits with secondary finishes, and Nelson’s Green Brier sells a collection of Belle Meade Bourbons finished in Madeira, Cognac, and Sherry casks.

To earn attention today, does a distillery need a gimmick? For some, the blueprint is firmly set in stone. “Innovation and change isn’t tweaking and tinkering. That’s been done—we’ve been tinkering with the spirit for 200 years,” suggests Brent Elliott, Master Distiller at Four Roses. At first glance, the legal requirements for bourbon appear rather narrow: a minimum 51% corn mash bill, production within the United States, aging in charred, new oak barrels, distillation to a maximum 160 proof, barreling at a maximum 125 proof, and bottling at minimum 80 proof. Yet, within the category, a shockingly wide spectrum of bourbon styles exist. Distillers can work with several inflection points in the production process to distinguish one product from the next. The other 49% of the mash bill, the grains’ origins, fermentation and distillation temperatures, yeast strains, heat cycling the rickhouse, barrel placement within the rickhouse, length of aging—toying with any of these factors and more can yield a different final spirit, not to mention that any given barrel of bourbon, even if filled with the exact same batch of new make, is likely to develop a personality of its own.

While the Kentucky Distillers’ Association doesn’t provide metrics on the growth of bourbon’s subcategories, it seems that with the boom, every variety of bourbon is on the up. Like secondary finished bourbons and Angel’s Envy’s, many have observed a rise in the popularity of wheated bourbons, often attributed to the association with Pappy’s. Bourbon’s close sibling, rye whiskey (which requires a minimum 51% rye mash bill), has also seemingly made a return, typically within the same portfolios of bourbon producers. For many traditionalists, bottled-in-bond whiskeys—produced from a single distillation season, by the same distiller at the same distillery, aged a minimum four years in a bonded warehouse, and bottled at precisely 100 proof—have become the poison of choice. For the less conservative, more experimental interpretations of whiskey have found some footing. At least anecdotally, most every type of American whiskey might be praised as the next big thing.

For Don McGrew and April Elston, who work in research and development at Beam Suntory, predicting the next big thing is in a way part of their job. The task is hardly as simple as jumping on the bandwagon of whatever people are drinking or whatever is proving fruitful for their peers. “Sometimes they’re definitely market-trend driven, and sometimes it’s just, ‘You know what, we feel this is the right innovation white space we need to be going after,’” Elston explains of developing a new product. While many of their projects are in response to the market, that’s hardly the only consideration. Elston recites a Henry Ford quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Even should people accurately gauge what they want, product development can be an incredibly lengthy process. Just like a new craft distillery can’t whip up its own aged bourbon from the outset, it’s difficult to respond to trends with new offerings in a timely manner. Some companies have explored shortcuts. “People are using smaller casks, or Frankenstein whiskey processes, where they’re putting stuff into reactors,” explains McGrew. But for Beam Suntory, McGrew describes the philosophy as, “Let’s stay true to what we are and let time be the judge and utilize inventory we do have on hand.”

Thankfully, McGrew and Elston have plenty of inventory to play with, Beam Suntory stocking numerous experiments in its pipeline. Both McGrew and Elston have been in their department for many years, and some of their projects will develop over the better part of a decade or longer, in addition to those of their colleagues and predecessors. Elston clarifies their approach of catering existing projects in development to the market, rather than the reverse. “We know that we need something in this category to start, and as it develops over time, you start to see, what are the notes it develops? You can start to then tailor them to current market,” she says.

Both are excited to see one of their recent triumphs, Legent, finally reach the shelves this past spring. A product first conceptualized upon Jim Beam’s acquisition by Suntory in 2014, Legent begins as bourbon, before it undergoes secondary aging in both Oloroso and red wine barrels. Subsequently, they’re blended, as is customary for Japanese whisky. The result is utterly singular, which is already a victory in its own right.

What Now?

After more than a decade of growth, it’s natural to wonder when the repetition of history will strike and bourbon’s ebb begin. In a recent article for Forbes, Fred Minnick puts forth five possible finales to the bourbon boom: tariffs, the emerging conscious sobriety movement, scandal (such as wide-scale tax fraud by the distilleries), accidents (such as rickhouse collapses and fires) leading to enhanced government regulation, and inter-distillery fighting destroying the industry’s collaborative approach.

Perhaps his first theory will face the most immediate repercussions. Distilleries have exerted tremendous energy into developing export programs, largely as an insurance policy to decrease reliance solely on the American market. Recent tariffs enacted by the Trump administration have already cut into distillery profits. Last year saw a 1 to 2% dip in global Kentucky whiskey exports, compared to annual 10 to 20% growth in the years prior. Brown-Forman alone estimates an annual loss of $125 million due to the tariffs. While many distilleries sought to stockpile extra inventory overseas before the tariffs went into effect, those efforts can only provide a temporary solution at best. “There’s only so much of that you can absorb, before you start passing some of that on to the consumer,” says Eric Gregory.

Although Minnick’s other four endgames each hold merit, it’s difficult to imagine bourbon will ever truly return to its former paralysis. The industry has beheld so many watershed accomplishments in the last 10 or so years: a blossoming hospitality industry, an explosive craft movement, cocktail popularity, favorable legislation, global demand, a super-premium tier, a diversified palate of products. The probability of completely dismantling bourbon’s entirely reshaped infrastructure seems even more unlikely than its quick fire ascent in the first place.

Yet maybe bourbon’s strongest weapon has been in its arsenal the whole time. Brent Elliott believes bourbon’s greatest power is its story. “Bourbon is authentic, and the consumer . . . appreciates that,” he says. A simple and oft-reiterated notion, it’s still worth considering. If beverage-wide industry reports have repeated a single refrain within the last several years, it is likely the importance of storytelling, especially to millennials, in selling alcohol. While such an approach certainly comes with detractors—those fearing the value of romance over objective quality—its power can already be observed in our collective drinking culture. Mezcal certainly has a great story. So do many natural wines. And at the risk of waxing poetic, bourbon, too, has heart, something that’s much more difficult to say of the flashy, bottle service-ready vodka brands that may still stretch across taller billboards. Tastes may change, but generational ethos, less so. Despite its newfound dynamism, at its core, bourbon strives to preserve the integrity of its history—even should that involve a tall tale here and there. Until that’s lost, bourbon and its stock should remain golden.

Additional GuildSomm articles:

GuildSomm is a nonprofit international membership organization for wine professionals that promotes education and community. Articles, podcasts, and videos are publicly available on GuildSomm.com and cover varied topics on the world of wine. Members have access to in-depth educational materials, an active online community, masterclasses, and more.

Most Recent