The Bourbon Bonanza
The popular past and future of a uniquely American spirit
What do Bob Dylan, Michael Bublé, Rod Stewart, and A.S.A.P. Rocky have in common? These musicians, who represent a wide musical diaspora, share a common interest in brown distilled spirits made of fermented grain mash. The explosion of celebrity whiskey projects in the past few years only affirms the growing marketplace and popularity of the distilled spirit. Dylan, being ever the auspicious creative, produced a bourbon, while his peers put their names on traditional Scottish style whiskey projects.1
Of course, Bourbon is a type of whiskey, named after its birthplace in Bourbon County, Kentucky, in the 1700s. Here’s a note for our Francophiles — the Bourbon Dynasty ruled France from about 1589 – 1792, ending with the French Revolution. Whatever the far-flung French connection may be, Bourbon is a resolutely American spirit. Not only must it be made in the United States, but it must also be aged in “new” charred American Oak barrels. There are additional legal qualifications to qualify as Bourbon in America, and according to the Taster Club, they include2:
- It must be made with a mash bill of at least 51% corn. Any other grains can be used in the other 49%, and those are usually a combination of wheat, rye, and malted barley.
- There is no specification of how long a bourbon must be aged in “new” charred American oak barrels, but if it’s labeled as a “straight” bourbon, it must be aged for at least two years.
- It must be distilled to no more than 80% Alcohol By Volume (ABV). Keep in mind that ABV is a metric used to determine the alcohol content in an alcoholic beverage. The measurement shows what percentage of the beverage’s total volume is pure alcohol.
- When it enters the barrel, it can’t be more than 62.5% ABV.
- At bottling, it must be at 40% ABV or more, which is standard for other whiskeys as well.
Despite its long history, the corn-based spirit’s popularity has waxed and waned.
The Bourbon Boom
Bourbon rose in popularity after prohibition, but declined in the 1970s, when vodka and tequila became the trendy drinks, and brown spirits were viewed as belonging to your grandfather’s generation. In the past decade, the resurgence of craft cocktails culture has elevated interest in bourbon. The appeal is not just in the glass, but also for the rich flavor it can imbue. You may have noticed the uptick in bourbon barrel roasted coffee beans, bourbon barrel aged wine, and bourbon in everything from pecan pie to cold brew. The bourbon bonanza means there is a lot to go around.
Since 1999, bourbon production has increased by 495%. Kentucky, which produces 95% of the global Bourbon supply, has seen a massive increase in visitors to its famous Bourbon Trail, with annual visitors topping 2 million since 20203.
Brian Ward, Director of Fine Wines and Spirits at Winston Art Group expects this trend to continue with the comments below.
“Bourbon Whiskey is expected to grow at an annual rate of 4-5% annual to 2031 as consumers and collectors shift to more innovative products in the marketplace. Wheated bourbon accounted for 1/3 of the domestic bourbon market, showing the trend for a sweeter, milder spirit, but also a demand for innovation.” 4
While the two foundations of making Bourbon are well defined (min. 51% corn mash, and aging in new American oak barrels), distillers are finding ways to create distinctive expressions for their products. The barrels give the bourbon (whiskey) 100% of its color, and up to 70% of its flavor. Of course, each distiller can choose how much longer to age their spirits after the initial aging process. Some distillers choose barrel finishing, which refers to the process of a secondary maturation that takes place in a different barrel than the one used for the first aging process. Usually the “second” barrel was used to age another spirit, and this can exert subtle unique flavors onto the bourbon. 5
This kind of innovative differentiation, nuanced flavor profiles, and longer aging attracts not only afficionados, but also the next generation, for whom premiumization is attractive. Ultimately, as Ward notes, “More than 12.6 million barrels of bourbon are aging in Kentucky, which is a milestone in volume and producers are responding by expanding distilleries, adding tasting rooms and renovating buildings as consumers demand more experiential opportunities. American whiskeys, like bourbon, are poised to compete with Scotch and Japanese Whisky in the global market as a consumer drink and investment quality product.” 6
Caring for your Bourbon Bottles
While wine collectors may need to dedicate entire rooms or buy large wine refrigerators to store their beloved juice, collectors of spirits have a bit more flexibility. Due to its high alcohol content, storing whiskey is fortunately less complicated than storing wine. Bourbon, like most spirits, will age appropriately in modest room temperatures. Therefore, many enthusiasts create a designated shelf or bar cart to display their beloved bottles. Whiskey producer Oak & Den offers some suggestions on best practices on their website’s blog.
Like high-value wines, collectible bourbon can be insured under a “blanket” insurance policy for wine and spirits on a specialty coverage form for collectibles. Then you can sit back with a glass of bourbon and contemplate the past and the future of this uniquely American spirit.
Katja Zigerlig is Vice President, Art, Wine + Collectibles Advisory at Berkley One (a Berkley Company).
Additional resources: Kentucky Bourbon Trail