American whiskey makers must have been feeling good in 1970. After suffering through Prohibition and a shutdown for World War II, they were finally back on track, boasting record sales that year. Little did they know the next 30 years would be one hell of ride…straight down.
The year 2000 offered a glimmer of hope that whiskey wasn’t completely doomed; a new generation of drinkers who wanted more than just vodka was on the rise. Sales slowly began to grow, but were still overshadowed by sweet cordials and liqueurs.
So it was a bit baffling when, 13 years ago, Congress unanimously passed a resolution christening September National Bourbon Heritage Month.
Don’t get me wrong: As a whiskey lover, I was delighted. At the time, however, I wasn’t sure how many other folks were excited about or interested in bourbon. And a whole month? It seemed like overkill.
Congress built a reasonable case looking back to the origins of the country: “Whereas the history of bourbon-making is interwoven with the history of the United States, from the first settlers of Kentucky in the 1700s, who began the bourbon-making process, to the 2,000 families and farmers distilling bourbon in Kentucky by the 1800s; Whereas bourbon has been used as a form of currency; Whereas generations have continued the heritage and tradition of the bourbon making process, unchanged from the process used by their ancestors centuries before…” The Resolution also cites the annual bourbon festival that takes places every September in Kentucky.
At the time, the industry’s emphasis was on offering authentic and high-quality spirits. Those early small-batch bourbons changed people’s perceptions of what American whiskey was and what it could possibly be. Brands suddenly found themselves elevated from the bottom shelf to the top shelf and treated with new-found reverence and respect. The congressional resolution gave the category a new legitimacy and purpose.
The focus on the importance of bourbon’s past also created a template for how its makers approached marketing and the types of whiskies they bottled. Seemingly every whiskey came with a small testament to its authenticity and historically accurate approach to making whiskey. Old-timey fonts and logos and unusual bottle shapes hammered home the connection to the golden age of whiskey in the late 1800s. The strategy worked. It was exactly what folks wanted to see, since at that moment everything from yogurt to sliced bread was sold on the premise of “craft” and “authenticity.”
The bad news? This plan backed bourbon makers into a corner, which is particularly significant and problematic because the federal rules for producing bourbon are already quite limiting, specifying what the spirit can be made from, how it can be aged and even a minimum proof.
We’ve come a long way in 13 years, but where does that leave us now? Bourbon is now made across the country although the preponderance still hails from Kentucky. But it’s no longer undervalued or under appreciated. From 2007 to 2019, according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, bourbon sales in America grew by 11.5 million cases and sales globally grew by an additional 3.5 million cases. It’s hard to remember a time when stores didn’t stock shelves and shelves of American whiskey. But perhaps the ultimate sign of its arrival is how snooty bartenders now refuse to serve the spirit with ice or club soda—a treatment once reserved for just Scotch.
And while the historical vein has been mined for inspiration, some of the most successful brands today are looking farther afield for new ideas and innovating with practices used by distillers in Scotland and in other categories. From finishing whiskey in a range of different barrels to the use of heritage grains to Jefferson’s Bourbon aging its whiskey on a shark research vessel, the future of bourbon lies in experimentation and thinking outside the historical box.
While a whole month devoted to bourbon might have once been too much, it now hardly seems enough.