In the last few decades, bourbon has seen an enormous surge in popularity. With Kentucky bourbon trail tours and educational training courses like Man & Oak, how did bourbon go from a passé libation, to a trendy spirit with such a passionate, enthusiastic fanbase?
I know, it has been a bit crazy to say the least! Even when I was bartending (03-06) you were lucky to see anything more than a dusty Maker’s Mark or Jim Beam on the back bar… now, bourbon is outpacing everything else in the whiskey category.
The bourbon hysteria has a lot of contributing factors, and the close timeframe that those factors took place in, is what makes things interesting! I’ll try to narrow it down to a few… or five...
Bourbon being a ‘distinctive spirit of the United States’ has officially been the case since 1964, but in the late 90’s we unofficially twisted the words to a more appealing “Americas Native Spirit” … either way, there is a lot of pride that bourbon is all ours, in the same way that Scotch is distinctive of Scotland.
‘Master Distillers’ … were simply just ‘distillers’ back in the day, but brands made having a tasting with the distiller a highly exclusive event, and then they changed their title to ‘Master Distiller’, equals a bonified Rockstar!
Elmer T. Lee decided to play off of the wine industry’s use of the word ‘single’ to drive home the ‘exclusivity’ of a product, he made Blanton’s the first bourbon marketed as ‘single barrel’ bourbon… and the rest is history. Exclusive bottlings and annual drops have become a beast of their own within the category. Some stores even have their own Bourbon Club that anyone can call and be a part of to get a heads up on these types of limited releases.
The ‘Bourbon Trail’ goes from ‘clever marketing’ to a pilgrimage.
The KY Bourbon Trail used to be a day trip to a handful of distilleries, now its an outright pilgrimage for anyone into bourbon. There is now an entire sub-economy that is dependent on the Bourbon Trail; from guided tours like Mint Julep Tours, to swag, to private trips and dinners.
I talk about this at my Bourbon Certification courses through Man & Oak... Millennials are the real reason for the boom. This Millennial generation has massive buying power as a collective group, Bourbon was already a trusted segment of the spirits industry, but Bourbon’s ability to adapt to the millennial market appeal was a natural fit. Bourbon is: pure, natural, trustworthy, mostly-transparent, versatile, and exclusive ... all this was appealing to a brand-new group of buyers, who in-turn; shared, posted, reposted, bragged and keep driving the bourbon category to new heights.
Has it made some of the good stuff harder to find?
Yes, BUT it is because of the demand that we have more good stuff to hunt for.
What are some enduring myths about bourbon that as a bourbon expert, make you cringe when you hear them repeated?
Most cringy statement ever is; … “Hey, all Bourbon has to be made in Kentucky!” ….
Bourbon history is full of legends and colorful characters, some of which may be slightly exaggerated... What’s your favorite bourbon legend, real or invented?
E.H Taylor ... changed the game in so many ways. To me he’s the reason bourbon is what it is. He is, by far, one of Bourbons most important people:
Taylor is the reason for Bottled-in-Bond, Taylor is the reason bourbon is not rectified with flavoring agents and additives. Taylor (along with Crow) is the reason for nearly every standard we see in distilleries to this day, Taylor’s OFC distillery is, what is now, where Buffalo Trace Distillery stands.
I love telling people that, E.H. Taylor and George T. Stagg got into some major court battels, suing each other several times over in the late 1800’s. They hated each other, and it’s comical now as their namesakes are both immortalized on bottlings by Buffalo Trace.
If you’re a super bourbon geek, GOOGLE this: “Geo. T. Stagg Co. v. E. H. Taylor, Jr., & Sons, 95 Ky. 651 (1894)”
While winemakers have a lot to say about the terroir of their grapes, bourbon distillers seem to spend more time talking about their barrels than they do about the terroir of their grains. How big of an influence does the barrel have on the final whiskey? Does it make a bigger difference than where the grains were sourced?
For the most part terroir doesn’t exist in bourbon, maybe at one point it did. Back when distilleries depended solely on local resources (i.e. Water/ Wood/ Grain) …yes, back then it mattered. However, now days, most distilleries buy grains from giant grain producers, they get their oak barrels from a handful of licensed coopers, and the water is less of an issue as it not typically coming from a proprietary stream or lake.
However, there are some making an effort, at least in a regional way. Maine’s own Split Rock Distillery is about as hyper-organic and local as possible.
People might be familiar with the concept that whiskeys get better with age, but is this always necessarily the case?
Not always the case with bourbon. Bourbon has to go into a NEW, CHARRED, OAK barrel, this generates flavors very quickly compared to Scotch, which makes use of USED barrels, by contrast, producing flavors very slowly.
Bourbon has a sweet spot when it comes to age. Too short of time, and there is a lack of development in the bourbon, too long and it will over-oak. Generally, 12-16 years is a perfectly mature age for Bourbon.
There has been a lot of experimentation in the bourbon industry in recent years, from aging in smaller barrel, barrel finishing, and even aging barrels at sea. Where do you think bourbon will go from here?
Not everyone in the bourbon industry is particularly thrilled with the ‘experimentation’; going on, for instance, there is a rather large push to define the size of the barrel a bourbon can be aged in to a 53 Gallon standard barrel. Of course, this would be hard on start-up distilleries, who depend on smaller barrels to develop the whiskey a little quicker.
I think there is merit in Bourbon remaining steadfast on their regulations, the last thing a bourbon fan wants to see is the line between what a bourbon is, and what a bourbon isn’t, to become muddy or to gimmicky.
Bourbon is a trusted category in the spirits industry, the future focus should be on highlighting that aspect; I foresee hyper-transparency in the future, bourbon brands will bank on transparency, separating themselves from the bourbon brands that hide in a cloak of mystery.
For our readers who don’t think they like bourbon or who know people who say the same, what would be some entry-level bourbons you’d like to recommend that would make a bourbon convert out of anyone?
Something wheated, and lower-proof, like Larceny, Maker’s Marks, or Rebel Yell. Wheated Bourbons are a little softer and sweeter in character, and the low-proof will make it easier to consume. As they develop a palate for Bourbon, they can up the proof and move to a more traditional mashbill.