American whiskey

American whiskey has been undergoing a quiet revolution. Now the new wave of distillers, led by bourbon’s Kentucky heartland, is set to go global. Dominic Roskrow reports

If you haven’t heard how well scotch whisky has been doing in recent months then, quite frankly, you must have been living in a cave.

Scotch has been everywhere. New distilleries here, record growth and export figures there, new market opportunities, ridiculously expensive product launches… scotch whisky has found it into the newspapers and on to the television screens with an almost monotonous predictability.

Scotch has always lorded it a bit when it comes to whisky, of course, and rightly so, but over the past year or so you’d think it was the only show in town. It’s not. Far from it – but so slick are the marketing and media folk looking after it, it’s been shouting louder than everyone else. 

Are you equally aware that Irish whiskey is enjoying its healthiest resurgence for more than half a century, that there is more world whisky being produced than at any other time, and that even Canada’s normally staid and unspectacular whisky industry is proving to be surprisingly dynamic and innovative?

But the market which is really exciting whisky fans is the American one. In simple terms it has undergone nothing short of a revolution and it shows no sign of slowing up soon.

Craft distillers

The explosion in the number of craft distillers in America has boomed from virtually none five years ago to more than 500, and counting, now. And that in turn has kickstarted a surge of expansion and innovation in the traditional bourbon heartlands of Kentucky. 

A revolution, then, but a quiet one. We may not have heard much about what’s happening Stateside up to now – most of it has gone under the whisky radar so far – but that might all be about to change.

Traditionally the American whiskey industry has consisted of Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel in Tennessee, a handful of bourbon producers in Kentucky, and a smattering of small distilleries elsewhere across the States. 

Most American whiskey is dominated by a recipe made up of more than 50% corn as well as two other grains, though before the current craft boom there was the odd single malt whiskey producer and a smattering of rye and wheat whiskeys.

The craft distilling boom has changed all that. Encouraged by the American Distilling Institute, there are former lawyers, engineers and accountants producing as little as one barrel a week but thinking outside the conventional box.

“We have members using different woods, working with different grains, messing with maturation times, rediscovering old whiskey recipes and inventing new ones,” says American Distilling Institute president Bill Owens. “There are some great new whiskeys out there and the distillers are giving people something different to be excited about.”

The explosion in new distilleries has been created by various factors. America is experiencing a surge of interest in locally produced foods and spirits drinks; is attracted by drinks with proven heritage and provenance; and seems willing to embrace baggage-free new whiskey producers who are bringing style and panache to what had been a staid drinks category.

For their part, the distillers are being encouraged to argue for state support and a relaxation of local distilling laws on the grounds that craft distilling is a classic small business model capable of creating jobs, raising tax revenue and stimulating local tourism. 

Unlike in Europe, where whisky must be matured for a minimum of three years, American whiskey products can be brought to market quickly and with a fraction of the outlay.

What has been surprising has been the speed at which change has taken place – not just reflected by the burgeoning number of small distillers but also by how quickly some of them have expanded in to sizeable business, and how, in response, the established producers have ratcheted up their businesses. 

Indeed, while most of the new distillers are content to limit themselves to their locality and to sell through a handful of bars and restaurants a number – perhaps up to 50 – are more ambitious and are intent to compete with the bigger players and to market their whiskey overseas.

For their part, the established Tennessee and Kentucky distilleries have been remarkably fleet-footed in response. Kentucky in particular is a building site as distilleries across the state expand their still rooms, add state of the art tourist facilities and build new storage warehouses. 

Surge in demand

Just as they are in Scotland, producers are determined to make whiskey hay while the sun is shining. And, with scotch hogging all the limelight in Europe, the bourbon producers are turning to other markets where there has been a huge surge in demand.

“We have a number of new expressions either already out in the market place, such as Double Oaked, or set to be released soon. In some cases they’re not going to the UK until 2017 or even later,” says Chris Morris, master distiller for Woodford Reserve. “We are selling an increasing amount of bourbon in Canada, Australia, and China, and we’re not the only ones.”

American whiskey is benefiting from what could be described as the perfect storm. A world trend towards quality spirits – and for drinking less but better – the fashion for cocktails, the success of quality American drama such as Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire and a demand for everything to have proven provenance and heritage have all conspired to make for a perfect American whiskey environment. 

Even the one obstacle to its success – its reputation as a blue-collar, bottom-shelf product normally without an age statement competing in a world where age and premiumisation are taken as a given – has been turned on its head.

Smart packaging, an emphasis on the high-quality production methods employed in the making of bourbon, the marketing of bourbon’s rich history, a renewed emphasis on tourism and premium visiting experiences, and a new wave of smart boutique hotels and restaurants both serving bourbon and using it as a cooking ingredient, have all reinvented the drink as a premium one.

The transformation has been miraculous. As recently as 10 years ago the Kentucky Bureau, responsible for the state’s tourism, barely muttered a word about its bourbon heritage. Today whiskey ranks alongside horse racing as the state’s main promotional tool – a fact reflected recently by the public announcement that a multi-million dollar bourbon ‘Disneyworld’ was to be built in downtown Louisville for next year. 

The launch event for the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience planned for the heart of Kentucky’s biggest city reflects the bourbon industry’s growing confidence and was attended by Kentucky lieutenant governor Jerry Abramson and Louisville mayor Greg Fischer, who said: “This is a great project, not only because of Heaven Hill’s significant investment and the jobs it will create, but for the history that is being reclaimed as the bourbon industry returns to Main Street in downtown Louisville.”

Having responded rapidly to the challenges at home and won acceptance in their homeland, American whiskey’s big boys are now turning their attentions to international markets, and they’re doing so with two very different approaches.

Taking a leaf out of the craft distillers’ books, they are bringing innovations to market. Products such as Woodford Reserve Double Oaked and Maker’s Mark 46 are premium whiskeys which use advanced toasting and charring techniques and virgin oak staves to enhance flavour, while Jim Beam Devil’s Cut is a rich and full version of Beam made by using water agitation to ‘sweat’ whiskey spirit out of the barrel’s wood once the rest of the whiskey has been dumped.

Branching out

The bourbon industry has also been prepared to branch out from traditional bourbon production and to bend its own rules by making whiskey using wine cask finishes and in barrels made out of all sorts of woods, including maple and hickory. 

But with stocks limited and allocated, the American invasion might well come from the other end of the market. 

New fruit-flavoured drinks such as Wild Turkey American Honey, Jim Beam’s Red Stag, Honey and Spiced and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey have created a knew and popular drink category and look set to open American whiskey brands up to a new generation.

“We had huge success with Red Stag, which is infused with black cherries,” says Jim Beam’s master distiller Fred Noe. “These drinks aren’t for everyone but they may well play an important part in introducing those who didn’t care for bourbon before to come to our brands.”

Jack Daniel’s takes its Tennessee Honey brand seriously enough to make its Australian launch one of the biggest in its history. 

All the evidence suggests that once the door has been reopened through these routes the core brands will be given a new lease of life. At that point expect poor American cousins to start making a lot of noise.

And no doubt telling Scotland to move over and make some room.