Is the Bourbon Boom for Real?

America's greatest whiskey comes of age. But will it last?

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image: Pappy Van Winkle bourbon
Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery

I knew that bourbon had reached a different place in America when I went to a bar in my neighborhood the other week and tried to order my favorite kind. They didn’t have it. So, spotting a bottle of George Dickel, I said I would take that. “Sure,” the bartender said somewhat dismissively. “But Dickel isn’t bourbon. It’s sour-mash whiskey.”

Bourbon, you see, has come of age, and not in the barrel so much as the marketplace. It’s a strange thing to say about a product that is hundreds of years old and hardwired into the American mind, but that’s exactly what’s been the problem all along. We have all pretty much taken it for granted. Now, as my pedantic server helped show me, that’s no longer the case. Every well-informed drinker is expected to know what is and isn’t bourbon. (Short version: the drink, which takes its name from the county in Kentucky where it was first produced, has to be 51% corn and aged a long time in charred oak barrels.) Drinkers ought to know one brand from another too. Top bars like Seven Grand in L.A. and restaurants like Miami’s Yardbird feature immense, imposing bourbon menus like the one at Chicago’s Longman & Eagle, which includes many bottlings from obscure distillers no one outside the Bluegrass State has ever heard of. Bourbon, in a relatively brief and recent span, has become one of the world’s elite spirits and is given the attention and respect typically accorded European imports like XO cognac, premium rums and single-malt Scotch.

(MORE: Read about the rise of bourbon’s micro-distilleries)

Part of this rise owes to just how good bourbon is: the best bourbons have an amazingly complex amalgam of smoke and oak and sweetness and heat. And part of the fascination comes from some long-overdue marketing efforts. “If you take top-quality product,” says cocktail historian Dave Wondrich, “and add the magic combination of clever, we’re-not-marketing-this marketing, high price and limited supply, American whiskey can stand on the same shelf as the world’s other great luxury spirits. The only wonder is that it took this long.” The limited supply is key: a first-rate bourbon typically has to be aged for at least eight to 10 years, the very best ones 18 years or more. That’s a long time to make a bottle that can get emptied in a night if you’re not careful. And most of the stuff that old was put into oak casks back when demand was relatively small. According to one Kentucky news source, the number of bourbon barrels in stock has grown 115% since 1990, when inventories reached a record low.

“We are trying to play catch-up now,” says Julian Van Winkle, whose grandfather launched the Pappy Van Winkle brand in a Kentucky distillery; its influential connoisseurs, like chef Sean Brock, have helped make it today’s most sought-after bourbon. (A 23-year-old bottle is being offered on Craigslist for $695 and eBay for $699.) “Over the last few years, we have increased sales by 200 to 300 cases,” he says, adding, “[but] only because we had those barrels available.”

(MORE: See why Ozersky thinks now is the “platinum age of mixology.”)

For admirers like Brock, it’s not just the incredible flavor of the best Pappy bottles; it’s the whole artisanal ethos behind them that seems to exist outside the marketplace, even if it actually doesn’t. Says Brock, approvingly: “The Van Winkles could easily change their business plan to accommodate the insane demand for their product, get rich and retire. They aren’t in the whiskey business for those reasons.” Brock, himself a hero to the culinary world for his well-articulated commitment to craft and tradition, is a natural ally for the Van Winkles. But not every chef gets to be Sean Brock, and not every bourbon gets the kind of brand apotheosis Pappy Van Winkle has enjoyed.

I would say it’s a better testament to how far bourbon has come that there are dozens of obscure brands that are beginning to sell and be appreciated by increasingly well-informed consumers. Like everybody else, I started out drinking Jim Beam (or something like it) and then moved on to Blanton’s, Basil Hayden’s and other more expensive brands that offered a little more complexity. Then I was on to Eagle Rare (still the best bargain out there, for my money) and most recently Rowan’s Creek, a small-batch brand that could be something of a case study in the rise of bourbon: it’s made by a small distillery in Kentucky that had switched over to ethanol production in the 1970s and shifted back to liquor when it became more profitable.

(MORE: White Dog Rising: Moonshine’s Moment)

The question I have of the “bourbon redeemers,” to borrow a phrase from Reconstruction, is whether it is here to stay. Is the love and appreciation of this most American of liquors an enduring rediscovery, like heritage animal breeds? Or is it yet another retro fad, like the short-lived swing-dancing revival? Personally, I couldn’t care less; having discovered the joys of the stuff, I plan on not giving it up anytime soon. I can only think Scotch or cognac devotees feel the same way.

7 comments
BourbonSteve
BourbonSteve

@StephenLegette--you should know, NOT all bourbon is made in KY, but true to your moniker, 'Kentucky Bourbon" is of course made in KY.   You'll be surprised to know...Buellit is distilled in Indiana.  

As for the author, Mr. Ozersky, he too should brush up a little more on his history of Bourbon, the American Spirit.  At the time when American frontier distillers were perfecting their craft, they were dispersed all along the wild west of the time, modern day Pennsylvania and Kentucky.  When Pennsylvania was sub-divided, Kentucky County was created, and then sub-divided again into Bourbon County.  The name "Bourbon" or rather "Old Bourbon" took hold when customers in New Orleans would ask for the whiskey marked "Old Bourbon", which referred to the barrels marked "Old Bourbon" from the port on the Ohio River.  It was the method of shipping whiskey, in charred barrels, that produced the color and mellowing that made "Old Bourbon" popular among New Orleans.  The process of sterilizing the barrels by charring them, led to the unique aging process that would be codified in the legal definition of bourbon in the Distilled Spirits Act. 


michaelsoo
michaelsoo

"Rowan’s Creek, a small-batch brand...made by a small distillery in Kentucky?"

Mr Ozersky, you need to do some more research! Rowan's Creek is bottled by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, which is a rectifier, meaning they buy whiskey from other sources, bottle it, put their own label on it, and sell it as their own. KBD has started distilling but only the in the past year or so. Most whiskey insiders think that the majority of KBD products were originally distilled at Heaven Hill, which is practically across the street. However, the whiskey could come from anywhere from anyone that will sell it to them.

StephenLegette
StephenLegette

A True Kentuckey Bourbon Drinker don't care what other people drink or if it's a fad thing.A true Bourbon drinker only cares is what part of Kentuckey it comes from and how smooth it is.I myself perffer Wild Turkey,My Brother is a Bullitt Man Although I bought Him Some 114 Old Grand Dad for Christmas which might of changed his Mind.Like You Said Only Scotch & Cognac Drinkers can understand why they perffer a certain Brand over Another.

567ate
567ate

As a bourbon enthusiast who is also a swing-era dance enthusiast, I feel compelled to say that the swing revival is anything but short-lived! Thankfully, the late-'90s fads of neo-swing music (Cherry Poppin' Daddies, anyone?), zootsuits+wingtips, and "the pretzel" have given way to a rich, nuanced lifestyle of vintage dance--namely Lindy Hop, Balboa, Charleston, and vernacular jazz--that is firmly rooted in history, but evolving with new energy. Hopefully the bourbon boom will be the same way--explode onto the scene, and then mellow and improve with age.

It's probably also safe to say that the Lindy Hop, Balboa and other vintage dance communities are contributing wholeheartedly to the bourbon boom, based on the contents of flasks that make it into any big dance night!


brbnizgud
brbnizgud

My belief it is here to stay.  Distilleries have been expanding and demand is up not only here in the U.S. but in Europe, Japan and more recently, China.  I'm not sure this is the (or another) golden age of bourbon, but it sure looks like it. -- BourbonDork

topscientist
topscientist

@567ate Oh, please. The fad had its 15 minutes. The fact that there are a few enthusiasts out there still enjoying it isn't the point. It was briefly mainstream, and no longer is.