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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.