Small Is Beautiful
03.13.15 10:00 PM ET
Hillbilly Heaven: The History of Small-Batch Bourbon
Bourbon always had an off-the-rack reputation, but its distillers knew better: A chapter on small-batch bourbons from Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit.
Hedonism, decadence, profligacy, debauchery—such words may have made infrequent cameos in the Sunset Strip vernacular of the glam metal band Mötley Crüe, but as axiomatic principles, they were embraced as unquestionably and wholeheartedly as the ever-winking umlaut. Because to be a rock star was to push the boundaries of excess ever further, toward that self-fulfilling longitude—invisible, but mortally real—where glitter and doom became twinned on the horizon. Beneath the immoderate use of alcohol and narcotics lurked a lust for the Godhead, and for a bass player named Frank Carlton Serafino Ferranna Jr.—better known as Nikki Sixx—giving that Godhead a near-death noogie was simply the stuff of a Saturday night.
Now, bourbon and rock and roll had gone hand in hand long before leather pants and hairspray hit the scene. In fact, you might even say whiskey helped give birth to the rebellious spirit of rock music. According to some accounts, a young Elvis Presley moved to Memphis after his father got into trouble in Mississippi for using his company’s delivery truck to drop off bootleg whiskey. Little Richard had a similar background—his old man was both a devout Seventh-Day Adventist and a law-bending bartender, famous for peddling illegal whiskey on the side. Jerry Lee Lewis also honed his image on a steady diet of whiskey and rebellion; rock and roll’s first true wild man, he was getting loaded on bourbon and smashing hotel television sets (not to mention a few of his pianos) long before the Yardbirds or the Who showed up. And when the British Invasion did at last arrive, those shaggy-haired Englishmen weren’t just imitating the rambunctious rhythms of American rock pioneers—they copied their drinking habits as well. Guitar legends like Keith Richards and Jimmy Page seldom missed an opportunity to be photographed with a bourbon bottle in hand, and some of their best gigs were played at the legendary L.A. club called, quite tellingly, the Whisky a Go Go.
It should come as no surprise then that Mötley Crüe liked their whiskey. And when it came to whiskey, they, like many rock bands of their era, were avid consumers of the Tennessee label Jack Daniel’s. On the road, it was as easy to locate as willing young groupies, and thanks to the Lincoln County Process of smooth charcoal filtering, it was just as easy to party all night with. Nikki Sixx, along with his bandmates, sucked the stuff back like Coca-Cola (“Like milk” might be more accurate. The band confessed to putting Jack Daniel’s in their Cap’n Crunch when the fridge was empty and they were too wasted to go to the store. As to whether the cereal stayed crunchy in whiskey, we simply don’t know.), giving it a starring role in nearly all of their shenanigans. Hotel orgies, tour bus bacchanals, strip club coke binges—one drunken Fourth of July party even resulted in a four-story palm tree being ignited by bottle rockets and toppling onto a vintage 1965 Mustang convertible. Such hijinks were commonplace, and fueled by the abuse of what had been a respectable and highly esteemed American whiskey.
That respect and esteem diminished even further, however, during the debacle that proved to be the Canadian leg of Mötley Crüe’s 1987 tour. For in addition to alcohol, Nikki Sixx had by that point developed a severe dependency on heroin as well. Foreseeing potential problems in the scoring department—reliable heroin dealers were considerably harder to find than liquor stores—he had snuck a few grams of good Persian across the border along with his entourage. With a habit like his, however, those grams didn’t go very far, and during one especially festive evening, Nikki and his bandmate/the future sex-tape star Tommy Lee found themselves with plenty of needles, but a troubling dearth of smack. At which point the two bandmates decided to take the codependent relationship between rock and roll and American whiskey to a disturbing new level. They made the joint decision to forgo the whole spoon and candle portion of the junkie ritual, as well as the shot glass and chaser part of the drinker’s routine, and simply inject Jack Daniel’s straight into their veins. The duo suctioned the amber-colored whiskey into their syringes, tied off, and shot up, in what was not only an incredibly dangerous breach of liquor protocol, human decency, and good sense, but also an incredibly stupid way to get drunk. “It didn’t even occur to us that we could always just drink the JD,” Tommy Lee would later recall. “Bro, let me tell you, there was something seriously wrong with us.”
Nikki Sixx didn’t die that night, although both he and bourbon whiskey would have their own share of near-death experiences over the course of this rocky decade. The rejection of American conformity that had begun under the guise of teenage rebelliousness and flower power in the late 1960s had gradually transformed into a full-blown disgust for anything mass-produced and made in America by the 1980s, bourbon included. Tastes may have changed during the awkward transition from hippie to yuppie, but the distates did not, and the few people still willing to drink American whiskey were those unashamed of administering it solely as an intoxicant. Libertine frat boys, provincial alcoholics, skidrow barflies, self-destructive rock stars—bourbon’s cheering section was hardly stellar and shrinking by the minute, as more and more baby boomers ditched the antiquated, corporate products of their parents for a fresh stream of flashy and seemingly foreign-made articles. Why would a prosperous young professional settle for rattletrap Chryslers and crappy Kraft Singles, when he could enjoy Swatches from Switzerland, Volvos from Sweden, Gucci loafers from Italy, and sashimi from Japan? Why would he gag back a glass of mundane bourbon, with its hokey labeling and total lack of umlauts, when he could easily pair his Häagen-Dazs with any number of French wines, craft beers, or trendy vodkas?
Good questions, and ones the bourbon industry found itself grappling with during the brand-conscious blossoming of Reagan’s America. Outward-looking and freshly global, we as a nation felt entitled to stick up our noses at the bland, macro-produced world that had so enraptured us as a people a mere generation before. And the American Spirit suffered as a result. With bourbon’s sales plummeting, and its reputation degraded practically to joke status, the whiskey that had nurtured a nation since day one found itself in very real danger of total irrelevance, if not extinction.
While corporate executives in the liquor industry pulled their hair and looked angst-ridden toward an uncertain future, a few of the older and wiser in the bourbon family knew that the key to their whiskey’s continuance lay firmly rooted in its past. Under their careful watch, the American Spirit had survived revolutions, rebellions, and two pretty big world wars—they’d be damned if that legacy was going to be ruined by the likes of MT V and Marty McFly. If yuppies wanted carefully crafted items of luxury and class, then that’s exactly what they were going to get. Bourbon may have sold out for some quick and easy sales in the glory days of the postwar years, but there were still a few among the old guard who remembered the old ways, and who hadn’t forgotten how to make bourbon taste good. To live to see the twenty-first century, bourbon doesn’t need to get bigger—it’s already done that, only to become a victim of its own success. This time around, things are different, and for the first time in its entire existence, in order to survive, the American Spirit is going to have to get smaller.
According to the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits—a set of regulations whose origins can be found in the federal intervention bourbon distillers had lobbied for during the dark days of the Gilded Age—a whiskey may be sold as bourbon if it complies with a set list of criteria. First, it must come from a mash bill that contains at least 51 percent corn. Rye, barley, and sometimes wheat can figure into the grain mixture, but corn has to claim the majority. Second, the spirit must be distilled to no more than 160 proof, meaning it can’t come out of the still higher than 80 percent alcohol. Third, it must spend some time aging in a new charred-oak barrel—there’s no minimum age requirement, although to be sold as “straight” bourbon, which nearly all bourbons are, it needs to spend at least two years in the barrel, and not be mixed with any other additives. Fourth, it must enter the barrel at no higher than 125 proof, or 62.5 percent alcohol, and last, it cannot be bottled at anything lower than 80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol by volume. If all of the above conditions are met, then any whiskey distiller operating on United States soil may proudly give birth to a brand-new baby bourbon (contrary to what some may tell you, bourbon whiskey does not need to be made in Bourbon County, or even Kentucky, to be considered bourbon. It only has to be made in America. Hawaiian bourbon? It’s theoretically possible. Puerto Rican bourbon? Well, that’s up for debate). Any distiller who cannot adhere to them may not label its whiskey as such. Such rules had done the American bourbon industry a great service during the times when foul, rectified concoctions were still trying to pass themselves off as the real McCoy. During the corporate boom years following the Second World War, however, they had become something of a double-edged sword, for while they did maintain a minimal quality standard, they also didn’t set the bar terribly high. A fairly flavorless and cringe-worthy whiskey could and very often did scrape by and still manage to sell itself as straight bourbon—when efficiency and mass production became the norm in the middle decades of the twentieth century, maximizing profits had often meant minimizing quality, with the taste of the whiskey diminishing as well. Gargantuan stainless steel vats replaced old cypress mash tubs; automated column stills pushed out the traditional copper; vast, climate-controlled rackhouses filled in for the dark and drafty barns of yore. The modern corporate distillery was able to churn out a tremendous amount of product at a minimized price, but it didn’t take an expert distiller or whiskey connoisseur to tell you that something was different once the bottle was opened. Flat, flavorless, even harsh on the throat—this was not horribly rich or complex stuff. The rules of economics, however, simply did not care. The good folks in the head office saw no need to age bourbon for an entire decade, carefully rotating and sampling the barrels along the way, when that same whiskey could spend a couple of years in oak and get pushed out the door. Why bother? When bourbon went corporate, tradition and quality had begun to play second fiddle to the primacy of profit. And the bourbon industry, like so many other American industries of the period, would come to pay the price once consumers caught on. “Made in the USA ,” formerly a signet of quality and pride, had become for many products a red letter of shame by the latter decades of the twentieth century. Detroit broke down, the Steel Belt rusted, and bourbon whiskey took a terrifying nosedive.
When did this disastrous plunge first start? Well, the thing about peaks is that they very often are tailed by the most precipitous of valleys, and bourbon proved to be no exception to the rule. A spirit’s long-term success depends on a younger generation of drinkers picking up where aging drinkers leave off, and in the late ’60s and early ’70s, this simply was not happening. Amid the volatile social and political atmosphere surrounding events such as the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the Watergate scandal, young Americans consciously—and in many cases, not without good cause—began rejecting conservative ideologies and cultural artifacts they associated with their parents and “the Establishment.” And unfortunately for bourbon, after two decades of spirituous hegemony in the American psyche, its oak-aged amber tincture was about as established as any drink could get. Full of yearnings for peace, love, and transcendence, the hippies came of age on marijuana and psychedelics, leaving the brown stuff to those who LSD guru Timothy Leary labeled as “middle-aged, middle-class, whiskey-drinking, bluenosed bureaucrats.” When sandals turned to platform shoes in the vapid disco years that followed, flavorless and cocktail-friendly vodka took over, surpassing whiskey as America’s drink of choice around the time our nation celebrated its bicentennial. (Adding insult to injury, a tornado struck one of Jim Beam’s distilleries on April 3, 1974, destroying a six-story aging warehouse and sending more than 5,200 barrels of bourbon swirling into the sky. It was a sad day for bourbon… but a great day for the residents of Oz.) And by the me, me, me years of the 1980s, bourbon was a mere shadow of what it had once been—older drinkers stuck to fine wines and expensive single malt scotches, while younger revelers preferred their Cokes rummy and their tonics well-vodkanated.
After twenty postwar years at the top of the booze chain, oh, how the mighty bourbon had fallen. In the final peak year of 1970, almost eighty-five million gallons of bourbon were sold; by 1983, Kentucky distilleries were struggling to turn out a mere fifty million gallons, augmented only in the most meager of fashions by the handful of distilleries scattered across nearby states. Layoffs ensued, several distilleries shut down, and frantic board meetings were held, as top executives desperately sought a solution to a seemingly insolvable problem: How can we make bourbon respectable again?
Alas, while the bigwigs banged their heads and explored all sorts of diversification tactics and modernization methods, a few of the old-timers couldn’t help but wonder if the answer wasn’t sitting right there, traditionally made and carefully crafted, beneath their very own noses. Which brings us to a couple of interesting fellows whose bourbon pedigree stretches back to the earliest days of barrel-aged corn liquor, and whose taste for good whiskey was never hampered by sales data or market trends. It’s time to meet two of the small batch movement’s founding fathers: Bill Samuels and Booker Noe.
Today, the notion that crafting goods in smaller quantities, using better-quality ingredients and time-tested production methods, will result in a more desirable product may seem quaintly intuitive. But in the mass-produced, better-living- through-chemistry world that arrived in the wake of the Second World War, such ideas were at best preposterous, and at worst un-American. Which is precisely why when Bill Samuels Sr. unveiled his new Maker’s Mark whiskey in the fall of 1959, more than a few of his competitors scoffed at its arrival. Oh, he had the background all right, coming from one of Kentucky’s oldest bourbon-making families, and he definitely knew his way around a mash tub—his grandfather T. W. Samuels had opened a distillery way back in 1844. But the ideas he proposed were simply beyond the pale. He was more of a hobbyist or tinkerer than a profit-minded entrepreneur, and his bourbon was the product of some fairly nonconventional thinking for that time. For starters, he used wheat (How did Bill Samuels Sr. find the perfect grain combinations? According to his son Bill Samuels Jr., it was not in the distillery or gristmill, but in the kitchen—baking bread) instead of the standard rye as a flavoring grain, in an effort to give his whiskey a smoother finish—a technique that had been experimented with at George Washington’s Mount Vernon distillery almost two centuries before. Something of a traditionalist, he also rejected the notion of building some flashy new state-of-the-art plant, insisting instead on producing his Maker’s Mark on the foundations of an old gristmill distillery built in the early 1800s. And last, he was of the strong opinion that bourbon could be a high-quality product, and ought to be sold as such. With a little help from his wife, he devised the clever gimmick of dipping each bottle in wax to create a seal; “It tastes expensive,” went his now-famous marketing slogan, “and is.”
The idea was brilliant… but also about two decades ahead of its time. And sales, those tricky little figures so dependent on the wants and whims of a fickle public, were impeded for that very reason. Undeterred, however, the Samuelses pushed on with unwavering conviction, telling all who would listen that their bourbon was made in small quantities, using traditional methods, and, unlike much of its far less expensive competition, was actually pleasurable to drink. None of which did much good. The America of the ’60s and ’70s just wasn’t interested in a high-quality, top-shelf bourbon. The idea seemed as absurd as a $200 pair of designer blue jeans, as ridiculous as a burger made from Kobe beef.
Not that Maker’s Mark was totally without willing customers. One of the more astute and innovative marketing schemes the Samuels family came up with was to get their whiskey on the beverage carts of airplanes and in the pages of airline magazines—because on board a 747, a lesser-known bourbon label like Maker’s had a captive, upwardly mobile audience of professionals looking for novel ways to kill the boredom of a long flight. A high-class, expensive-tasting Kentucky bourbon? Sure, why not? It certainly sounded strange, but with nothing to do at thirty thousand feet, jet-setters were willing to try just about anything. The strategy wasn’t enough to make any mountains out of sales charts, but it did help to keep the young brand in business, as well as garner the attention of a few folks interested in bright ideas and new marketing trends.
Like The Wall Street Journal, for example. Word was indeed getting around, and on August 1, 1980, the Journal published a front-page article on a true Kentucky curiosity, alerting the general drinking and investing public to the following peculiarities:
Maker’s Mark Distillery has made its mark by going against the grain. In producing its premium-priced Maker’s Mark bourbon, it continues to use an intricate six-year aging process and a small bottling line that are models of inefficiency. It distills only 19 barrels of bourbon daily, compared with hundreds distilled by other producers. Its ad budget is a meager $1.2 million a year. But most remarkably, its volume of business has more than tripled, to about 150,000 cases a year, in the past 10 years, while the bourbon industry’s sales have slipped 26%, to 23.7 million.
Bourbon-savvy readers surely absorbed those words with their curiosity fully piqued, because at that point, while the rest of the bourbon industry had seen its sales slip by more than a quarter over the course of a catastrophic decade, this strange little Maker’s Mark brand was quietly puttering along and slowly growing its consumer base. Slowly growing prior to the article, anyway. After its publication, the brand suddenly had America’s attention. Because in 1980, yuppie culture was just beginning to blossom. A renewed interest in gourmet food and fine wines was germinating, not to mention a hunger for premium, artisanal goods. (Interestingly enough, the renewed interest in fine wine and haute cuisine that America experienced in the 1980s—and that reinvigorated the bourbon industry—can be attributed to none other than Julia Child. So thank her and your local PBS station next time you crack the red wax seal on a bottle of Maker’s.) Maker’s Mark was no longer ahead of its time, but rather right on the cusp of a paradigm shift in American culture. After more than twenty years of marketplace irrelevance, its values and those of American drinkers had at last aligned. And sales, which had been growing previously at only a modest rate, took off like F-14 Tomcats behind the Wall Street Journal article’s slipstream.
Bourbon at large, however, had a long way to go. General sales were still declining, the public still wasn’t totally sold on the idea that whiskey could be classy, and other spirits were still edging it off of bar shelves across the country. But people in the industry did take notice, and a few were even willing to try something new. In 1984, the Ancient Age Distillery—today known as Buffalo Trace Distillery—took the bold step of introducing a single barrel bourbon called Blanton’s, making it the nation’s first superpremium straight bourbon since Prohibition’s repeal. Sales were initially modest, but it got people talking, and it put a top-notch luxury bourbon right up alongside the expensive European liquors that were beginning to appear in America’s classier drinking establishments and eateries. Could whiskey, for so long the provenance of outdated Kentucky gentlemen, old granddads, and some pretty wild turkeys, finally shed its economy-class baggage and join Monsieur Cognac and good Sir Scotch in their first-class seats?
Why the heck not. That surely was the sentiment of more than a few of the hereditary distillers in bourbon country. After all, Scotland had done it. The British recession of the 1970s had left a glut of scotch aging in Caledonian distilleries; when their traditional markets at the big blended labels said “nae, thank ye” in the ’80s, those wise Highlanders and Islanders re-marketed their local products across the pond as premium single malts, just in time for the young urban professionals’ Reagan-era version of cocktail hour. And not to be outdone by foreigners, domestic beer had executed a similar about-face in the PR department, spurred by the success of trendy new microbreweries like Samuel Adams (founded in 1984). If other plebian potations could clean up their image and reinvent themselves as luxury goods, there seemed few impediments to bourbon following a similar course. All that was required was a singular man with the knowledge, wisdom, and temerity to do so.
Meet Booker Noe. And don’t let the surname fool you—it may sound inconsequential enough, but the man was a Beam, Jim’s grandson in fact, making him a certified member of one of the oldest and most celebrated bourbon families to ever cross the Appalachians and set up a still. In charge of the company’s Boston plant for nearly forty years, he was responsible for the brand’s meteoric rise in the second half of the twentieth century, and in many ways its savior when things got rocky toward the century’s end. Most of the premium bourbons we know today were either directly born or indirectly inspired by an innovation of his that turned out to be not much of an innovation at all—in the end, Booker Noe stuck to what he knew and what he believed in, and as with Maker’s Mark, America eventually caught up. Or perhaps more accurately, came around again.
So just what was this bourbon innovation? Well, spend enough time with any master distiller, and sooner or later, he’s likely to show you his private stash. For men like Jimmy Russell at Wild Turkey, Parker Beam at Heaven Hill, Lincoln Henderson at Early Times, Elmer T. Lee at Ancient Age, and yes, Booker Noe at Jim Beam, bourbon whiskey was a high art. And no true artist can let a masterpiece go to waste. Accordingly, when an especially fine barrel of bourbon came along, it was not unusual to single it out, set it quietly aside, perhaps let it age a little longer than usual, and when the time was right, bottle it up for private consumption. For among the many perks of being a distiller, few were as pleasurable as having unfettered access to some of the finest whiskey in the world. Mr. Noe was known to be especially fond of his personal “Booker’s Bourbon,” even offering a sample of the small batch elixir to a Chicago Tribune reporter as early as 1974—its aroma was so rich, she could smell it across the room. Among cherished employees, old friends, and distinguished guests, Booker’s special bourbon quickly became legendary.
But it was never sold. For much of the master distiller’s career, there simply had been no market for a carefully crafted small batch bourbon, worthy of being sipped from a snifter like the finest of cognacs. Complex flavors, ephemeral bouquets, hints of toasted almond, citrus, and honeysuckle—such things had simply never been sought by the American consumer. Sure, the rare connoisseur or master distiller knew quality could exist in bourbon and ought to be savored, but for the average Joe plopping on a barstool or dropping by the liquor store, bourbon was expected to be cheap, simple, and eminently mixable. Heck, he probably had never held a snifter in his life.
By 1987, however, the American palate was beginning to change. When Barry Berish, the president of Jim Beam, requested ideas for a unique holiday gift to be passed along to the company’s key distributors, a sales manager by the name of Michael Donohoe thought back to his own private drinking sessions with Booker Noe, and the distiller’s special whiskey instantly came to mind—a one-of-a-kind private stock bourbon that liquor magnates could proudly put beside their rarest single malts. Using old Chablis bottles that had been collecting dust in a warehouse, and attaching a note to each handwritten by Booker himself, they carefully prepared a few hundred of the tantalizing resents, using uncut, unfiltered whiskey from only the choicest of barrels.
The reaction was immediate. No sooner had the corks been popped than the calls poured in, as distributors and vendors sought to discover how they could get their hands on more bottles of “Booker’s Bourbon” and sell it to their own patrons. Encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive response, Booker Noe and Michael Donohoe sprang into action, and just one year later, in 1988, the first public batch of one thousand six-bottle cases of Booker’s Bourbon were released to the world, accompanied by much fanfare and rave reviews. With Maker’s Mark, America had rediscovered that bourbon could taste good; with Booker’s, the country learned once again that bourbon could be an art form.
What made Booker’s Bourbon so special? As previously mentioned, it was neither cut with water nor filtered, giving it a rustic purity that harkened back to the robust Kentucky whiskeys of yore. But perhaps more important, it was the selection of prime extra-aged barrels that set it apart. In
Booker’s own words:
What I’m hunting for are the barrels in the center rows [of the rackhouse], the fifth and sixth stories. The “center cut” is what I call them… I select from these central areas because I know from experience that the whiskeys in the seven to eight year range will be oaky and vanilla-like, robust but smooth. Not too much tannin, but lots of texture. Too much tannin will have it taste too dry, overdone. I like Booker’s to be on the sweeter side. Hell, think of the center cut from a watermelon, that sweetest part. Center cut’s what it’s all about for Booker’s.
By carefully choosing barrels from the same age group, and from the same portion of the rackhouse, Booker was able to turn out an undiluted, unfiltered small batch whiskey unlike anything seen in generations—a total anachronism, and a delicious one at that. And lucky for him, and for all of us, America was finally ready to rediscover its spirit. Booker’s success helped launch a small batch revolution in the bourbon world, as label after label released its own unique interpretation of what fine bourbon should be. Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Evan Williams, Jack Daniel’s—they would all craft their own premium labels during the bourbon renaissance years of the late ’80s and ’90s. And following the lucky strike Jim Beam had experienced with Booker’s, that premium offering was soon augmented by an entire small batch collection. By the mid-’ 90s, the company could claim some of the biggest small batch names in the business, including Knob Creek (named after the Kentucky stream that trickled past Abe Lincoln’s childhood home), Basil Hayden’s, and Baker’s.
The great fanfare and general enthusiasm that attended the rise of small batch and single barrel bourbons through the decade of the 1990s became increasingly tinged—if not flat-out
fueled—by a mounting nostalgia for a time, real or not, when things were just plain simpler. With the rise of cyberspace, and the increasing digitization of everyday life, it is perhaps not surprising that the thirst for premium liquors would gradually morph, as the twentieth century came to a close, into a longing for something that had been lost in the postmodern hubbub. When the future appears so profoundly uncertain, it’s only natural for a people to reconnect with tradition.
The arrival of Woodford Reserve in 1996 was arguably the pinnacle of the small batch movement. Founded on the very site where Elijah Pepper and Dr. James C. Crow once turned fine bourbon into an American institution, and owned by the same Brown-Forman company that George Garvin Brown had established to bring bottled integrity to our national drink, the distillery restored the original stone structures and implemented traditional copper pot stills to make high-quality whiskey almost exactly as it was done more than a century ago. In rediscovering the old and melding it with the new, a venerable tradition of small batch distilling that had essentially been relegated to the history books was resurrected; among the verdant hills and sprawling horse farms of central Kentucky, an old distillery was reborn, and with it, fresh hope and a new direction for the American Spirit.
When the new millennium did come around, those fears of bourbon’s inevitable demise left over from the ’70s and early ’80s proved to be as unfounded as that whole Y2K nonsense. Bourbon didn’t just survive—it took off, entering the twenty-first century with an irrefutable bang. Between 2002 and 2006, sales of bourbon (including Tennessee whiskey) rose by a solid 12.23 percent; during that same period, sales of high-end whiskeys shot up by 27.62 percent, and sales of superpremium bourbons skyrocketed by an incredible 60.52 percent. In the year that followed, overall bourbon exports would also see sizable growth, jumping from $623 million to $713 million, bolstered by a growing demand abroad for the finest whiskeys that America had to offer. And for the entire first decade of the twenty-first century, bourbon production would increase by more than 50 percent—unequivocal evidence that those who had bet against the American Spirit, from the Bolsheviks all the way up to Bin Laden, had most definitely put their money on the wrong horse at the Kentucky Derby.
So, for those readers who shut their eyes and clamped their ears as the baby boom generation transitioned from hippies to yuppies, casting aside bourbon along with their station wagons and worn-out phonographs, you can relax. In America, you can go home again, and in our wanderings and meanderings, we may stray from the path, but we’re never too far from where we began. In our collective tale, there’s always room for a little redemption, and if members of a big-haired rock band can shoot whiskey into their veins without giving up the ghost, surely our spirit can survive an overdose or two of misguided notions and questionable taste, and still come out blazing in the end. Without such dips and dabbles, the impetus never would have existed to bring bourbon back to its rightful place among the great whiskeys and fine liquors of the world. Just as the repentant glam rocker will tell you during his cable-televised confessional—you’ve got to hit rock bottom before you can climb your way back up to the top.