THE BLOG
08/20/2014 05:47 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2014

The American Whiskey Trail: Booming More Than Ever

The last time I traveled to Kentucky was in 2008. I was in graduate school and decided to take a spring break trip along the Bourbon Trail. At the time, I knew very little about Bourbon. I knew that I liked it - and it's fair to say that was all that mattered. I was a die-hard Maker's Mark girl, and I wanted to venture to Kentucky to see where it was made (and to drink more whiskey). After visiting the distilleries of many of the brands that I had known, and a few new favorites, I was obsessed. In the years following my inaugural whiskey trip, I have enjoyed a wide variety of whiskeys hailing from all over the world: America, Scotland, Canada, Ireland, and Japan. One could say that Bourbon was my gateway whiskey.

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Apparently I was not the only one falling for Bourbon. Sales of Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey are up 19.6% since 2008, which in 2013 meant over $2.4 billion in revenue according to the Distilled Spirits Council (Discus). Classic cocktails made with bourbon such a the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan can now be found on almost any cocktail menu in addition to extensive spirits lists for customers who enjoy their whiskey neat.

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Bourbon Tasting at Wild Turkey Distillery

Prohibition derailed much of the the growth of American spirits industry at the beginning of the twentieth century, and it is only in recent years that we have seen a resurgence. Following the repeal of prohibition it was difficult and extremely expensive for new distilleries to open. In 2002 the state laws regulating distilling started to loosen, fees began to lessen, and the result was a surge of new craft distilleries producing products that the public had not seen before, many of which were inspired by pre-prohibition recipes. Ironically, American spirits and cocktail culture has propped itself up on the prohibition era, glorifying the long 14 years that almost killed the American spirits industry. Yet, the allure and mystique of the dark ages of the spirits industry has created enough romance to inspire the resurgence of historical cocktails, mustachioed bartenders, and more speakeasy style bars than one can count.

Spirits companies have capitalized on the historic cocktail trend and marketed their products appropriately. Bottles are designed to have a nostalgic feel with labels featuring black and white etchings of legendary master distillers from eras gone by and revivalist fonts that look as though they have been printed on a letterpress printer. We, as the consumer, understand American whiskey to be a genuine American product. One that has a story of heritage, history, and entrepreneurship: a story we admire, and in it, we see a little bit of ourselves.

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Bourbon lovers love to rattle off the rules and regulations of what makes a whiskey a Straight-Bourbon: it must be made of at least 51% corn; aged in new charred oak barrels for at least two years; distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% ABV); entered the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% ABV); bottled at 80 proof (40% ABV) or more and must be produced in the United States. Bourbon was recognized by congress as a "distinctive product of the United States" in 1964. Tennessee whiskey must meet the legal requirements for bourbon, and must be maple charcoal filtered as defined by House Bill 1084 in 2013.

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Charring Barrels and the Brown-Forman Cooperage

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Kentucky's Limestone Riverbeds

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Charcoal Used to Filter Tennessee Whiskey

By definition, Bourbon does not have any additives, colorings, and it is a completely natural product. Bourbon is also an American product, a definition that is respected by the international community (for the most part). Given the large amount of Bourbon production in today's market, the industry is deeply dependent on the raw resources that are required to make it. Bourbon relies heavily on water, corn, other grains, and white oak used to produce the barrels. 2014 brought a massive barrel shortage due to an uptick in residential construction and the wet winter that has slowed the logging industry. This shortage had a trickle down effect into the lion's-share of the spirits industry: American whiskey barrels are sold to other spirits companies to age scotch, tequila, cognac, aged gin, wine, beer and even Tabasco hot sauce.

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Aging Barrels at Maker's Mark Distillery

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Barrel Staves at the Brown-Forman Cooperage

Just as domestic demand for bourbon and Tennessee whiskey has increased, so has international demand. In 2012 U.S. Spirits exported $1.48 billion dollars to international markets, 68% of which was American Whiskey (Discus). It is clear that American whiskey has become a major international player, one that has captured the attention of large, global companies such as Diageo, Campari, and Suntory.

On my recent visit to Kentucky I visited the Jim Beam distillery on the day they were filling their 13 millionth barrel of whiskey and in the final days before the $16 billion acquisition deal with Suntory was being finalized (the deal closed on April 30, 2014). The Suntory acquisition absorbed iconic American whiskey brands such as Maker's Mark, Knob Creek, Old Grand-Dad, Old Crow, Baker's, Booker's and Basil Hayden's; in addition to dramatically increasing Suntory's distribution network into global markets forged by Beam Inc. Master Distiller Fred Noe intimated that nothing would change within the company and that the products that we know and love would not be changed. As a consumer and a dedicated bourbon drinker I cannot help but to wonder what the impact of international ownership will be on companies that are built on American tradition.

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The Jim Beam Visitor Center

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The 13th Million Barrel Filled at Jim Beam Distillery

There is a feeling of immense growth and opportunity in Kentucky right now, and given the demand for Bourbon, many of the companies are responding with large investments to increase production. Maker's Mark is planning to add a third still to its facility with a price tag of $67 million that will increase their Bourbon production by 50%. Woodford Reserve is also expanding its distillery and building more stone warehouses: an expansion that will cost them $35 million following a recent $2 million renovation of the visitor center. Recently announced, Diageo plans to build a $115 million distillery in Shelby County, as well as spending $2 million to convert the historic Stitzel-Weller distillery into a visitor center. Sazerac announced plans this spring to expand the Buffalo Trace Distillery, a job that has a $71 million dollar price tag. The new kid on the block is The Bardstown Bourbon Company, building a new $25 million distillery in the Nelson County Industrial Park, with Steve Nally, formally with Maker's Mark, named the master distiller.

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Maker's Mark Victorian Inspired Campus

With so much new development and growth happening in all of the Kentucky distilleries, the historical story has become even more important to the branding and marketing of Bourbon. Many companies are adamant to preserve the sense of craft and heritage despite today's massive production levels.

When visiting Jim Beam in Clermont, Kentucky the first thing a guest is told about is the family history of the brand. Jim Beam founded the company after prohibition and remains an icon for the brand. The tour guided our group through a smaller scale production facility and highly stylized bottling plant used to produce their single barrel bourbon, a caricature of the industrial production happening in a different building. The current master distiller, Fred Noe is a 7th generation distiller, a fact that is mentioned numerous times to our group. Master Distillers, especially those who come from a lineage of family distillers are treated like Kentucky royalty. It is a position of immense pride within the community, and romanticizes the art of distilling as its secrets are down from generation to generation.

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Master Distiller of Jim Beam, Fred Noe

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Vanity Plate of Prichard's Master Distiller Phil Prichard

Another loved brand Bulleit Bourbon, owned by Diageo, also promotes a story of family history. The bottle proudly states "frontier whiskey" and founder Tom Bulleit tells animated stories of his great great grandfather Augustus Bulleit who distilled the first batch in 1830. A quick search on wikipedia reveals that the current recipe is dramatically different than that created by Augustus Bulleit and that it is produced at Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky: owned by Kirin Brewing Company based in Japan.

Recently, there have been a few "Bourbon truth" stories written about the whiskey that is produced by MGP of Indiana. Many whiskey lovers have been shocked that their favorite whiskey, the one that they identified with so strongly, is produced by a large industrial scale distillery not even in Kentucky. The MGP distillery lies across the Ohio river from Kentucky and was founded in 1847, and yet, whiskey lovers have been up in arms because they have felt that the proverbial wool has been pulled over their eyes. While MGP remains an American owned company, it's largest client is Diageo, based out of London. MGP has been the silent backbone of much of the growth of the Bourbon industry supplying high quality whiskey to many brands, new and old.

Brown-Forman, owners of Jack Daniel's and Woodford Reserve, is the largest American-owned spirits and wine company with portfolio holdings of domestic and international brands. Even more impressive is the fact that 70% of the company is still owned by the Brown family. The Brown-Forman company make their own barrels at their cooperage for all of their brands, a process that creates opportunities for nuanced adjustments and more experimentation with the barrel.

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Brown-Forman Cooperage

One of Brown-Forman's most well known brands, Woodford Reserve was founded in 1996 and named after the surrounding county of Woodford and occupies the historic Oscar Pepper distillery. Stills were purchased from Scotland and the whiskey is triple distilled in copper pot stills, a process commonly used when producing a single malt. The Woodford Reserve recipe was created by Master Distiller Chris Morris in 1996, and is not tied to a historical recipe that has significance for the company. Because of this fact, it is not surprising that Woodford Reserve has one of the most forward thinking innovation programs that creates annual special releases that are highly coveted and collected. Mr. Morris has worked to create a line of creative whiskeys that manipulate both wood and grain for a dramatic result in flavor. The collection includes the Four Grain Mash (2005 and 2006), a Maple Wood Finish (2010), Four Wood (2012), and a Straight Malt (2013).

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Copper Stills at Woodford Reserve

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Master Distiller Chris Morris

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Unaged Whiskey

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Barrel Charring Examples at the Brown-Forman Cooperage

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The Woodford Reserve Visitor's Center

Smaller craft distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee are making wildly creative whiskies that are pushing the boundaries of whiskey category. Prichards' Distillery in Tennessee makes a delicious Double Chocolate Bourbon whiskey that has flavors of sweet corn, caramel, that pair nicely with the baritone flavor of the chocolate.

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French Lambic Style Still at Prichard's Distillery

One of my personal favorite distilleries, Corsair, is making some incredibly experimental whiskies: Quinoa Whiskey, Citra Double IPA Whiskey an American Malt Whiskey Pot distilled with Citra Hops, and the Elderflower Bohemian an experimental bottling of distilled Pilsner style beer infused with Elderflower and Hops.

I am extremely excited by the potential of these experimental whiskies. Will there be a day when there is a nationwide American craze for that iconic Tennessee Quinoa Whiskey, made from grains farmed by local purveyors? I hope so.

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Corsair Experimental Whiskeys

Despite all the romantic notions of freedom, innovation, and independence, making whiskey is an industrial process. It requires heavy machinery, buildings with strict fire codes and industrial bottling plants. This was most evident at the Wild Turkey distillery, owned by the Italian company Grouppo Campari, where much of the distillation process was massive and the tour did not try to hide the quite impressive scale of production taking place in their facilities. It was refreshing to see the astonishing scale of production - the impressive size of the 30,000 gallon fermentation tanks, to climb the stairs next to the silos, and to walk through the massive bottling plant that is used every day.

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Wild Turkey Distillery

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Wild Turkey Bottling Facility

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Silos at Wild Turkey

Down the road is their new $4 million visitor center, designed by Louisville architects De Leon & Primmer, a gorgeous modern jewel box that architecturally pays homage to the iconic Rack Houses and to the process of charring the barrel itself. It is a beautiful building that is both modern and references the history of bourbon making and the heritage of Kentucky.

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Wild Turkey Visitor Center

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Wild Turkey Visitor Center

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With so many distilleries selling the story of their grandfather's recipe and carefully curating the visitor's experience, it was the maverick distilleries that I fell for the most on this trip to the Bourbon trail. I loved hearing about new and different kinds of stills that young distillers were experimenting with, the different types of wood barrels that were being used, and the wildly innovative grains being used to make whiskey that is different from any other whiskey I have ever tasted.

The story of American whiskey is one that is built on creativity, innovation (sometimes accidental), and lawlessness. American whiskey has a unique wildness to it, and that is what I originally fell in love with so many years ago. I am excited to see a plume of this wild creativity alive on the Bourbon Trail as the American whiskey industry grows exponentially, one that I hope continues to inspire young distillers of generations, with or without a Bardstown lineage.

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