When it comes to the whiskey hierarchy, Scotch has always reigned supreme. But now its U.S.-born cousin is vying for the crown. Bourbon is as popular as ever with casual drinkers around the globe rediscovering an American classic and collectors spending thousands on holy grail bottles such as Pappy Van Winkle. Even its used barrels are in demand for producing sauces, wines, and the most coveted beers in the world. And yet, not so long ago it was barely an afterthought. It’s been a wild ride for our nation’s sole native spirit throughout its colorful history spread across four centuries.
Contrary to the specifics regarding how bourbon is distilled—as required by U.S. law, it must be at least 51 percent corn, aged in a new charred oak barrel, and, of course made in America—its origins are as fuzzy as a night of one too many boulevardiers. “No one really knows which [story is] the most accurate,” concedes Amy Preske, public relations and events manager for Buffalo Trace, one of the nation’s oldest distilleries.
Bourbon’s evolution likely began around the late 18th century in Kentucky (then still part of Virginia). “Early [Kentucky] settlers were always using distillation as a way to get more out of their crop,” says Adam Johnson, senior director of Kentucky Bourbon Trail Experiences. “Our natural landscape, our abundant [limestone-filtrated] water, and corn being a popular crop really set us on a path.”
The precise route of that path, however, is not so clear. While Baptist minister Elijah Craig is often credited with being the father of bourbon, there’s no official evidence of that. Even the backstory behind bourbon’s signature charred barrels remains in question, according to Grace Bennett, lead whiskey guardian for popular new distillery Angel’s Envy. Were they the result of a barn fire as one legend has it? Or simply a savvy distiller’s attempt to mask the pungent remnants of fish and pickles that previously called the barrels home?
Then there’s the issue of how bourbon got its name. Its place of origin, Bourbon County, says Johnson, is an obvious candidate, but he also notes that barrels marked with the spirit’s frequent destination of Bourbon Street in New Orleans offers an equally plausible explanation.
Regardless of how bourbon came to be, its success in the 19th and early 20th centuries was undeniable, that is until Prohibition. Despite the country’s infamous ban on alcohol between 1920-1933, all hope was not lost.
“Buffalo Trace was one of only four distilleries that were allowed to distill during Prohibition, for ‘medicinal purposes,’” says Preske. “By the time Prohibition ended, over four million prescriptions had been written in Kentucky.”
According to Johnson, America’s thirst for bourbon began to rebound after World War II, but just as business started to boom again, the nation’s divisive cultural shift in the 1960s nearly caused the industry to bust.
“For a long time bourbon was considered old-fashioned,” says David Othenin-Girard, spirits buyer for K&L Wines in Hollywood.
Johnson puts it in even starker terms. “The late ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s were brutal,” he says. “It was really tough on the bourbon industry.”
That, of course, is ancient history. The Kentucky Distillers Association estimates that 1,886,821 barrels of bourbon were produced last year in the Bluegrass state alone, the highest production level since 1967.
And yet, that is still not enough. “I could be selling twice as much bourbon as I do, were I to have access to [more inventory],” says Othenin-Girard who first started to notice an explosion in demand around 2010.
“Cocktail culture definitely deserves a lot of the credit,” says Johnson, who adds that people have grown inspired to replicate the bar experience at home.
Preke attributes bourbon’s renaissance to “a combination of things, all happening at the same time to create the perfect storm…Americans and the world, really, becoming interested in products that were American made, and also searching for products that have a story behind them.” Another factor, according to Preke was the popularity of the TV show “Mad Men” and its retro-chic aesthetic, a sentiment shared by Bennett.
Suddenly “old-fashioned,” not to mention drinking an Old Fashioned was again part of the zeitgeist. Goodbye Carrie Bradshaw and the Cosmopolitan, hello Don Draper sipping a whiskey neat.
Nearly a decade since bourbon reemerged as a fashionable spirit, its popularity continues to build with new trends adding to its illustrious history. “A lot of bourbon innovation revolves around cask finishing,” says Othenin-Girard, referencing the process of aging finished bourbon in an additional spirit barrel. He notes the success of Angel’s Envy, a bourbon finished in port barrels, which was named Spirit Journal’s “Best Spirit in the World” in 2013, a mere two years after its bottles first hit shelves.
Like many in the industry, Angel’s Envy is trying to keep up with demand. “We are working hard to make as much[…]bourbon as we can,” says Bennett. “Unfortunately, like healing a broken heart, it just takes time.”
“[Bourbon’s] really matured as a pastime,” says Othenin-Girard. “People spend time thinking about bourbon, searching for bourbon, reading about bourbon.”
Devotees are also traveling for bourbon, flocking in droves to the Bourbon Trail for a taste of Kentucky’s finest straight from the source. “We’ve gone beyond just a production tour and into that lifestyle experience where people can eat, sleep and drink Kentucky bourbon,” says Johnson. “Obviously Napa Valley is the crown jewel in terms of[…]alcohol tourism but I think we’ll give them a run for their money.”
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