A Global Phenomenon: Bourbon Continues to Boom

The chant “Buy American” can now be heard in bars and cocktail lounges around the globe. According to the Beverage Information Group, Bourbon is one of the bankable beverage trends in the U.S. Sales of the leading brands were up a whopping 6.4% in 2014. After decades of living in the shadow of imported whiskeys, global sales of our indigenous spirit now easily surpasses those of Scotch and Canadian Whisky.

In response, distillers from Kentucky to New York to Seattle are releasing the epitome of their crafts. They’ve cracked open hand-selected barrels and bottled their best. As it turns out, their best is world-class.

American whiskeys possess vivacious personalities that are universally appealing; yet by nature, Bourbons are understated, preferring rather to saunter through life without pretense or conceit. They are loaded with big complex flavors and have about the most captivating aroma of any whiskey. Even as they ascend toward stardom, our whiskeys remain accessible to all palates and priced for all budgets.

“Over the past five years, the Bourbon industry has grown 35%, and according to DISCUS, the whiskey generated $2.45 billion in sales in 2014,” says Andrew Floor, vice-president of dark spirits for Campari America. “That growth was driven by high-end premium and super-premium brands—the categories saw 31-percent and 104-percent growth, respectively, over the past five years.”

One explanation for Bourbon’s surging sales is the rebirth of the cocktail. “Bourbon continues to grow in popularity around the world, in part, because of its versatility,” observes Master Distiller Chris Morris, maker of Old Forester and Woodford Reserve. “It is so mixable and is historically the foundation of the global cocktail resurgence. There is a growing appreciation among consumers and bartenders for craftsmanship, heritage and authentic flavors.”

Art and Craftsmanship

For whatever the reason, whiskey enthusiasts from around the globe are beating a path to our shores. Surely one of the new whiskeys high on their list is Old Forester 1897 Bottled in Bond Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Released in June, the Bourbon was specially crafted to honor the U.S. Bottled in Bond Act of 1897.

According to the Act, to be labeled a Bottled in Bond, a whiskey must be the product of one distillation season, one distiller and one distillery. Likewise, the whiskey must have been aged in a federally bonded warehouse for at least 4 years and bottled at 100 proof. Old Forester is uniquely qualified
to make this tribute. The brand is America’s first bottled Bourbon and the longest continuously-produced Bourbon in the country.

To create the initial release of the series, Old Forester 1870 Original Batch, 90 proof, Master Distiller Chris Morris blended together select barrels from three different warehouses, each distilled on a different day, aged for different lengths and at different entry proof.

Among the creative standouts in the industry, Woodford Reserve has launched its Distillery Series, the first issue being Woodford Reserve Double Double Oaked. The Bourbon is the result of finishing Woodford Reserve Double Oaked for an additional year in a second, heavily toasted, lightly charred, new oak barrel. The extra year in wood creates a whiskey that is distinctly spicier than its original counterpart, which is known for its sweeter taste and finish.

Says Master Distiller Chris Morris, “We used our industry and sensory knowledge to create a line of eclectic, one-of-a-kind expressions. By pushing the creative boundaries of whiskeys even further, we are inviting our customers who visit our distillery to experience extreme variations of whiskey with this release.”

American bourbons are popular with drinkers worldwide.

New to the Market

In June 2010, the Maker’s Mark distillery launched only its second new whiskey since the brand debuted in 1958, Maker’s Mark 46. Now the third new expression enters the fray. Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Bourbon is bottled straight from the barrel at 113 to 114 proof. The whiskey has a significantly lower proof than most cask strength whiskeys.

“There are three explanations for its rich, broad flavor,” says Greg David, Maker’s Mark master distiller and director of distillery operations. “Maker’s Mark goes into the barrel at a consistent entry proof, we season our barrel staves for 9-12 months and we use a number-three barrel char. They all work together to create a more approachable flavor.”

Down the road in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky is the famed Wild Turkey Distillery and Jimmy Russell, the longest-tenured, active Master Distiller in the world. To commemorate Russell’s 60th anniversary at the distillery, Wild Turkey released Master’s Keep, an 86.8 proof homage created by Jimmy’s son, Eddie Russell. Together, Jimmy and Eddie are the only active father and son Master Distiller duo in the industry, sharing 95 years of experience between them.

One of the unusual features of Wild Turkey Master’s Keep is that it is a blend of whiskeys aged in both stone and wooden warehouses. Whiskey matures slower in stone warehouses. The 17-year-old Bourbon is bottled at 86.8 proof.

“As a result of this unconventional aging process, Master’s Keep is delicate yet distinctly Wild Turkey,” notes Campari America’s Andrew Floor. “Its smooth, silky entry delivers a semisweet palate of caramel and vanilla and a burst of spiciness and oak on the finish.”

Also from Wild Turkey, Forgiven is a blend of 6-year-old Bourbon (78%) and 4-year-old rye (22%)—something no one has done this before. It’s bottled at 46 proof.

“We originally intended Wild Turkey Forgiven to be a limited time offering, but the response from the marketplace has been so positive the company has continued to roll it out to meet demand. We like to call it our happy accident,” Floor says. “This mingling of Bourbon and rye yields a beautiful hybrid whiskey that has seemingly captured people’s interest. Like all Wild Turkey Bourbons, Forgiven is born from a natural aging process using American oak barrels with the deepest char (or ‘alligator’) of any Wild Turkey Bourbon or rye, a number four.”

Leading brands of bourbon whiskey.

Introduced in 2014, Bib & Tucker Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey is produced from a mash bill of 70% corn, 26% rye and 4% malted barley, a formula that showcases a higher percentage of rye than most Bourbons. It is twice distilled—first in a column still and then through a traditional copper pot still. Upon exiting the still, the whiskey is placed in charred, American white oak barrels where it is left to mature for up to 6 years. The Bourbon is chill filtered prior to being bottled at 92 proof.

“During its extended stay in wood, Bib & Tucker develops a deep amber/golden hue, a lightweight, silky textured body and the alluring aromas of vanilla, butterscotch, toffee, cinnamon and toasted oak,” says Ryan Wycoff, marketing manager for The Other Guys.

Those seeking a one-of-a-kind Bourbon experience will want to check out Elijah Craig 23-Year-Old Single Barrel Bourbon, a tremendous, limited edition whiskey brimming with character. The rye–based Bourbon barrels used for this release were pulled from the middle floors the best rickhouses in Nelson County. Its producer, Heaven Hill Distilleries of Bardstown, is holding the largest inventory of barrels of “extra-aged” Bourbon of any distillery.

Another American whiskey attracting a great deal of attention is the limited release, Michter’s Bourbon Whiskey Toasted Barrel Finish, made by the country’s first whiskey company.

The company starts with their 8-year-old, small batch Bourbon. When it has reached maturity, the whiskey is transferred to custom-made barrels for finishing. The wooden staves are air dried for 18 months and toasted rather than charred, like a typical Bourbon barrel. After its second stint in wood, the whiskey is chill-filtered and bottled at 91.4 proof.

Master Distiller Chris Morris, who has made Bourbon his life’s work, is especially optimistic about the future of the category. “Twenty years from now, this category will be stronger, healthier and held in even higher esteem around the world thanks to the groundwork of quality and innovation that is being created today,” he says.

Robert Plotkin is a judge at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and author of 16 books on bartending and beverage management including Secrets Revealed of America’s Greatest Cocktails. He can be reached at www.AmericanCocktails.com or by e-mail at robert@barmedia.com.


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