Everybody knows that we are in a modern golden age for American whiskey. But the unanswerable question is how much longer the boom times will last. After all, the U.S. has seen the rise and dramatic fall of bourbon more than once. Is another drop off in consumer interest around the corner?
Most people, including yours truly, would disagree. Not in a world where brands like Eagle Rare and Weller Special Reserve fly off shelves and appear on the secondary market. Hard to imagine this fervor coming to a sudden halt.
Big distilleries certainly do not think so. Planning for the future, they have built in continued growth. Both Buffalo Trace and Woodford Reserve are doubling their distilling capacities. Other industry leaders like Heaven Hill and Bardstown Bourbon Company have also invested significantly to increase production in recent time.
However, just because these facilities make more distillate does not mean that consumers will buy more bottles. Consider the recent slowdown in craft beer. Over-innovation in that category confused many people, helping point customers towards simpler, lighter hard seltzers (which then provided a gateway to canned RTDs). Craft beer has also suffered for not being bourbon, though. Beer, in general, is losing more and more consumer dollars to distilled spirits. Not just whiskey, but the broader spectrum, as premiumization lifts the entire category. Gains in tequila, cognac and other spirits have come at the cost of breweries.
Perhaps most promising for the future of American whiskey is a continued deficiency of consumer knowledge in the category. Which is another way to say that people remain very curious, with much left to learn. My personal joke is that I’ll start worrying when people stop asking me the difference between bourbon and whiskey. I get that question so often that I want to print and sell t-shirts that read “Bourbon Is Whiskey.” Email me if interested.
One of the hosts of the wonderful podcast Bourbon Pursuit was asked how long whiskey must remain in a barrel before achieving cask strength. Questions like that keep me bullish for the future. I’m not trying to label people dumb. I’m calling them openly curious, which is great. American whiskey boasts such amazing depth in distilleries, flavors, styles, characters, and production — with an equally rich history — that consumers have more than enough to sip on for many, many years ahead.
Feature photo by Daniel Norris on Unsplash.
Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent piece Picking Barrels for the Kentucky Bourbon Fest.