State of the Commonwealth of Bourbon

To usher in Bourbon Heritage Month, it's time for our annual checkup on the health of America's Native Spirit

All photos by Maggie Kimberl. 

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It’s an exciting time to be a bourbon fan. For decades bourbon was mostly sequestered around Kentucky with little fanfare. Folks like Booker Noe, Elmer T. Lee, Ova Haney, Jimmy Russell, and more quietly made Kentucky's most noteworthy brown spirit through all the years when few people were buying it. They continued to make it well and even pounded the pavement to get the word out, starting Kentucky Bourbon on the trajectory that would eventually reach boom level. These days the tough times are barely a glimmer in the rear view - according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association the number of distilleries has grown from 19 in 2009 to 31 in 2013 to 52 in 2016 to 73 in 2018 with an estimated economic output of $8.5 billion. Yes, that’s billion with a “b”. And DISCUS estimates that the bourbon category grew 6.7% between 2016 and 2017 to 20 million cases annually. It’s a great time to love bourbon.

Bourbon and bourbon tourism have risen in popularity side by side, each propelling the other further upward, and we are undoubtedly still right in the middle of the upward trajectory of both. That’s not to say bourbon doesn’t have its challenges. Our overseas trade war and threat of bourbon tariffs could have a severe financial impact on independent producers. The Barton 1792 Distillery (owned by the Sazerac Co.) has also been challenged recently by the sudden collapse of a warehouse full of bourbon, which has prompted the company to inspect all the other warehouses on the property while beginning the long and arduous process of cleaning up and sorting through a pile of filled barrels and rickhouse timbers.

Justin's House of Bourbon

Justin's House of Bourbon

Fortunately most of the news about the bourbon industry these days is good. By the end of 2018, Louisville alone will boast 11 working distilleries on top of being the official starting point of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. September 1 will mark the first day the Kentucky Bourbon Trail’s official Welcome Center at the Frazier History Museum will provide the public a starting point complete with advice for starting the Bourbon Trail or the Craft Trail, something that has been needed as tourism has continued to grow. Rabbit Hole Distillery opened on Derby Day, Old Forester opened on Whiskey Row on June 14th, and Michter’s is set to open its Fort Nelson on Main visitor’s experience this fall - all just in Louisville.

Elsewhere in the state Bulleit has broken ground on a massive visitor’s center to accompany its state-of-the-art distillery, while Buffalo Trace is breaking ground on a new warehouse every three months. Distilleries like Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, and Maker’s Mark have been increasing capacity over the last few years, while new distilleries like the Bardstown Bourbon Company and Kentucky Owl (ETA 2020) are coming on line with already high production capabilities. And it’s not just distilleries that people are visiting these days - Mint Julep Tours has recently started to offer cooperage tours for enthusiasts who want to go full geek and see how barrels are raised and charred. The “vintage spirits law” has paved the way for the legal buying and selling of dusties, which has led to the opening of Justins’ House of Bourbon, a vintage bottle shop in Lexington.

Castle & Key Master Distiller Marianne Barnes

Castle & Key Master Distiller Marianne Barnes

Much to the delight of whiskey geeks everywhere, Castle & Key will finally open to the public for tours on Wednesday, September 19th after roughly four years of breathing life back into this bourbon phoenix. Dueling Barrels just opened in Pikeville, Kentucky as a compliment to Alltech’s Town Branch in Lexington. New distilleries are popping up every day while old ones are expanding and being revitalized.

So how do we celebrate all this growth in Kentucky’s distilled spirits industry? We throw a month-long celebration called “Bourbon Heritage Month” complete with the weeklong Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, including a Master Distillers’ auction, a black tie gala, and a barrel rolling competition. But there’s no need to stop there - we’d actually prefer if you’d celebrate America’s native spirit all year round.

Can’t make it to Kentucky for Bourbon Heritage Month? Check out the Bourbon Boxcar’s four stops through November with participating brands Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek and Basil Hayden’s:

  • Denver: September 12-13th, 2018 // Industry Day: September 11th, 2018

  • Houston: October 3-4th, 2018 // Industry Day: October 1st, 2018

  • Cleveland: October 12-13th, 2018 // Industry Day: October 14th, 2018

  • New York City: November 16-17th, 2018 // Industry Day: November 19th, 2018