The Ballyhoo About Bourbon

Global sales of this quintessential American liquor are soaring, but do trendy new converts really appreciate its rich heritage and subtle flavor?

By Thane Peterson

The yuppification of Kentucky bourbon may not be the most pressing problem facing the world these days, but as a lover of good bourbon, it worries me. The liquor is still made in the same hill towns by many of the same families who have long produced it, and by using pretty much the same methods as when the industry started back in the 1800s. Sure, it's great to see a traditional American product finally get its due. But I'm also concerned that most of the people taking up the drink have little idea of its rich tradition and history. I can't help wondering: Will bourbon get caught up in the trendiness and hype that eventually seems to homogenize just about everything in American culture?

Bourbon was on the outs in the 1970s and 1980s, as America liquor tastes turned more to gin, vodka, and expensive imported scotch. U.S. sales of a basic, $10-per-bottle bourbon have been flat ever since. In the last decade, however, pricier super- and ultrapremium bourbons ranging from $15 to hundreds of dollars a bottle have been all the rage among hip urban consumers. For instance, Maker's Mark, my usual brand, has nearly tripled its output since 1996, to an expected 500,000 cases this year, according to Barry Younkie, brand vice-president for Maker's Mark with Allied Domecq, the British company that produces it in the U.S.

SPIRITED DEMAND.

  Now, the trend is going global. With the aid of falling trade barriers and greater consumer demand abroad, bourbon exports have been rising for the last decade. And with the dollar finally down a little, those overseas sales may really soar. In the first quarter of this year -- the latest available statistics -- bourbon exports jumped a hefty 26.5%, to $81.1 million, on volume that was up 10.2%, to 3.9 million gallons. According to bourbon execs, the growth is being fueled by soaring demand for high-end American drink in countries such as Britain, Japan, and Germany, and the liquor's exploding popularity in new markets such as the Czech Republic, Poland, and Thailand.

Also driving sales growth is the fact that Kentucky distillers have finally taken a page out of the Jack Daniels marketing book. Jack Daniels, owned by Louisville-based Brown-Forman, is classified as a bourbon in government trade statistics but is actually a sour-mash whiskey -- a very different product with a different taste because it's filtered through charcoal. Since the 1960s, Jack Daniels has fueled sales by playing up its down-home roots in Lynchburg, Tenn. "It's taken years, but bourbon makers are finally starting to do what Jack Daniels does and really market themselves as American brands," says F. Paul Pacult, editor of the Spirit Journal newsletter and author of the new book American Still Life: The Jim Beam Story and the Making of the World's No. 1 Bourbon (John Wiley & Sons, $24.95).

Turns out that bourbon distillers have a rich history on their side, too. Most true bourbon is still made in Bardstown and a few small Kentucky towns, where, in many cases, the distillers and their workers come from families that have been in the business for decades. I've always assumed, for instance, that Jim Beam was just the name of a long-ago bourbonmaker. In fact, Beams have been in the bourbon business for seven generations, starting with old Jacob Beam, who went into distilling in 1795. The Jim Beam whose name is now brand was actually the family's fourth generation.

TAPPING THE LEGENDS.

  The Beam family have long since sold the company, which is now owned by Deerfield (Ill.)-based Fortune Brands. But 73-year-old Booker Noe, Jim Beam's grandson, is still working at the distillery with the title Master Distiller Emeritus. Booker's son, Fred Noe, also works for the outfit as a worldwide "ambassador" for the Jim Beam brand.

A big part of the marketing effort is to get legendary master distillers -- men such as Booker Noe of Beam, Jimmy Russell and son Eddie at Wild Turkey, Jim Rutledge at Four Roses, and Parker Beam and son Craig at Heaven Hill Distillers -- out and about, meeting bartenders, journalists, and the general public at meet-and-greets. A few weeks ago, I had the honor of having Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey's legendary master distiller, pour me a glass of bourbon at a press event at George Washington's home in Mt. Vernon, Va. In the world of spirits, that's akin to having Julia Child serve dinner or Tiger Woods tee up your golf ball. At public events, the master distillers are sometimes swarmed by admirers. By Thane Peterson The excitement over premium bourbon began to build in the 1980s, when Japanese bourbon lovers started asking where they could buy the really good stuff, says Larry Kass, spokesman for Heaven Hill Distilleries (whose bourbon brands include Even Williams and Elijah Craig). Distillers started bottling bourbon out of the so-called sweet barrels -- the ones in the warehouse with the best taste that the master distillers had typically reserved for themselves. These days, when you buy high-end bourbons such as Booker's Blend from Beam and Russell's Reserve from Wild Turkey, you're buying bourbon made in barrels personally chosen by Booker Noe or Jimmy Russell.

However, here are a few warning signs that the upscaling of bourbon is getting out of hand:

• Bourbon is now routinely rated like fine wine, sometimes on a ridiculously precise 1-to-100 scale.

• Some aged specialty bourbons are now commanding astronomical premiums. For instance, a bottle of the 23-year-old variety of Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve, a niche bourbon from Old Rip Van Winkle, a small family company in Kentucky, goes for upwards of $200 per bottle in the U.S. -- and as much as $320 in London, according to Vincent Hill, marketing and sales manager for Amathus, the label's British distributor. The idea of aging bourbon is borrowed from the wine and scotch industries, but traditionalists believe that the liquor achieves its optimum taste after just seven or eight years.

"I don't get it," marvels Jay Adams, president of A. Smith Bowman distillery. "If bourbon is aged too long, it starts to taste woody to me." Adams' opinion is worth considering. His distillery's Virginia Gentleman 90 Proof Small Batch Bourbon -- which is aged about seven years and costs about $20 per bottle -- won the top prize at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in May, besting such better-known rivals as Knob Creek, Evan Williams, and Wild Turkey.

• In trendy bars from Seattle to London, fine sipping bourbon is now becoming a popular ingredient in cocktails. In the U.S., where bourbon has been caught up in the revival of "cocktail culture," it's now often used in Manhattans, sugary concoctions that thoroughly hide the bourbon's subtleties. At the bar in London's swanky Savoy Hotel, author Paul Pacult recently was served a cocktail containing bourbon and cranberry and pineapple juices. Then again, most bourbon is still mixed with Coke, so maybe fruit juice isn't so bad!

"THE KENTUCKY CHEW."

  If you want to get a feel of the grand old traditions of Kentucky Bourbon, you might consider attending the Kentucky Bourbon festival, which runs Sept. 21-23 in Bardstown. All the legendary master distillers will be there. For my part, I intend to stick to superpremium bourbons, which are typically in the $15 to $40 range. If you can find some rare 90 Proof Virginia Gentleman, which looks like a great buy. Otherwise, in addition to Marker's Mark, there are Baker's and Knob Creek from Beam.

Put a splash of water in it and maybe a cube of ice, as Jimmy Russell did when I had a drink with him at Mt. Vernon. After that, do what Fred Noe calls "the Kentucky chew -- roll it around in your mouth a while and just kind of take a deep breath and get the flavor of it." When you swallow, it will go down smooth as goose grease.

Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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