Bourbon back in business

An old spirit by any measure, bourbon is reinventing itself for the millennial generation. Ian Buxton reports


WHISKEY MAKING has been an integral part of American history since bitterly resented frontier times taxes culminated in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791-94, still celebrated today.

Land grants encouraged the westward drift of settlers to Kentucky, where the early distilling pioneers soon found that the limestone-filtered water and the unique climate of the scenic Bluegrass region made it an ideal place for the production of barrel-aged spirits. And so, bourbon whiskey was born.

More than 200 commercial distilleries were operating in Kentucky before Prohibition, but only 61 reopened after its repeal in 1933. Not that life was easy after that – Canadian and scotch whiskies had established a firm hold on the market through their supply of a flourishing bootleg trade and domestic whiskeys were hampered by their blue-collar image.

“Them good old boys were drinking whiskey ’n’ rye”, sang Don McLean in his famous American Pie song (1971) as the image and sales of US whiskies reached something of a nadir. Truly it was only the good old boys who kept the industry alive.

But recent years have seen a significant recovery, with the industry buoyant, new distilleries opening, craft expressions proliferating and younger millennial consumers anxious to explore the heritage and tradition of bourbon in particular. Hence my reference to whiskey’s back story – provenance is critically important in marketing today’s offerings.

Take Michter’s, for example. This family-owned distillery and brand can be dated to 1753, pre-dating the American Declaration of Independence. It’s been through turbulent times, with the distillery changing hands, moving location, closing and latterly being revived in the 1990s by industry veterans Joseph Magliocco and Richard Newman.


Initially buying high quality but unwanted casks that other distillers failed to appreciate, Magliocco and Newman soon moved to bespoke contract distilling prepared to their unique specifications to supply their growing band of customers. They had caught the wave. Now, under the guidance of the highly-regarded Pam Heilmann, one of Kentucky’s most respected and experienced distillers, a purpose-built new distillery in Louisville’s Shively district controls future production.

Historic distilling equipment from a previous Michter’s distillery is undergoing restoration and will be installed and working soon in the brand’s imposing Fort Nelson home in the heart of Louisville. With a comprehensive range of whiskeys, including Limited Production 20 and 25-year old bourbon expressions and a $5,000 Celebration expression, Michter’s has expanded its international distribution to nearly 40 global markets, with a particular focus on the UK and France, and seems well-placed to set the pace in the super and ultra-premium categories. As Magliocco maintains: “It’s not about the cost of production, it’s about the whiskey.”


Others seem to agree, and the consumer is certainly noticing. US on-premise sales of American whiskeys grew 6% by value last year, twice the rate of all spirits, and US whiskey exports grew over 10% in 2016 (DISCUS).

Behind this growth lies industry investment, driven by innovation in the craft sector and the curiosity of millennial consumers, anxious to explore and discover spirits all but abandoned by an older generation.

Not that industry giants are letting the craft distillers make all the running. Diageo recently opened a $115m plant for Bulleit bourbon, echoing Michter’s route from contract distilling to in-house production. According to Diageo’s president for North America, Deirdre Mahlan, the facility positions Bulleit to become “the number one super-premium bourbon” in the US.

While that production comes on stream, Diageo has covered the enthusiast end of the market with its Blade & Bow expression and the Orphan Barrel project, a series of releases (currently US only) which aim “to share long-forgotten barrels of rare whiskey discovered in old rickhouses [warehouses] and distilleries”.

The origin of these stocks is left obscure but is most likely from long-closed sites, such as Stitzel-Weller and the old Bernheim distilleries once operated by Diageo.

Diageo is not alone in launching expressions which doff their hat to small-batch or craft production and, while the claim is never explicitly made, consumers could be excused for being confused by the Orphan Barrel bottles, those of Bond & Lippard and Old Ripy (part of Campari’s Whiskey Barons collection, using whiskey from its Wild Turkey distillery) and the “natural, down-home flavours” of Bacardi’s Bonnie Rose White whiskeys.


Actually, they’re definitely not alone. In fact, it hasn’t been unknown for US craft ‘distillers’ to buy fully matured casks, rebrand the contents and launch the whiskey as if, for all the world, it was their product. If you read the (very) small print though, you’ll see that many of these come from the giant Midwest Grain Products distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. You might feel that smacks of sharp practice

and a good number of US whiskey enthusiasts would agree with you – this caused quite a furore on various websites and blogs.

Among those identified as indulging in this brand creativity we find Breaker bourbon, Templeton rye and some at least of the High West offerings – not that that deterred Constellation Brands from recently paying a reputed $160m for that company in a hard-fought bidding race with Pernod Ricard and LVMH.

In fact, you can travel from Arizona (Copper City) to Washington DC (Filibuster) and Vermont (Smugglers’ Notch) to California (Hooker’s House) drinking MGP whiskey. There has even been a boutique Indiana brand (WH Harrison) bottling Indiana bourbon originating at MGP.

Now, MGP has a long history and is generally recognised as making quality products. Belatedly, recognising that it might have let some of the best stuff out of its doors for others to profit from, it has now launched its own Metze’s Select Indiana Straight bourbon (named for MGP master distiller Greg Metze) – so if you want MGP and prefer to avoid the inevitable ‘craft’ premium pricing you know the label to look for.

But not all craft distillers are to be tarred with the same brush. As readers will know there is a growing number of exciting small distillers in what is an enviably vibrant sector of the market – which is why, of course, the big boys want a share of the action.

Among those to look out for are Leopold Bros in Colorado, Few in Evanston, Illinois, Catoctin Creek in Virginia, and Hudson whiskey in New York state making good young ryes and bourbon from scratch.

More recently, my eye has been drawn to Nevada 150 bourbon (celebrating the sesquicentennial anniversary of the state) from the Las Vegas Distillery, a traditional ‘grain to bottle’ operation with local farm partners growing locally for it.


But if you can’t join them, buy them. As well as Constellation’s purchase of High West and a minority stake in Catoctin Creek, we’ve seen Rémy Cointreau acquire Westland Distillery in Seattle, Pernod Ricard buy West Virginia’s Smooth Ambler and Sazerac snap up the Popcorn Sutton Distillery in Tennessee. Few is now part of the little-known Samson & Surrey stable.

That merger activity has even more recently been followed by William Grant & Sons’ acquisition of the Tuthilltown distillery and brands, adding to the Hudson whiskey label which Grants bought seven years ago.

The Hudson Baby Bourbon has evidently succeeded under the Grants umbrella. According to CEO Simon Hunt: “In 2010, William Grant & Sons bought the Hudson whiskey brand as we were not only attracted to the

possibilities within the American whiskey category but, in particular, the authenticity of the Hudson brand and the excellence of the whiskey – the same is true of the distillery.”

How far the notoriously picky millennial consumer will accept brands masquerading as craft but, in reality, emanating from significantly larger owners remains to be seen. For the meantime, though, the bourbon category is enormously vibrant.

Innovation and experimentation is nowhere better expressed than at Buffalo Trace. “Our motto is ‘honour tradition – embrace change,’ says Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace’s

current master distiller. “Embracing change means not resting on our laurels.”

The Buffalo Trace Experimental Programme began in 2006. Today, as Wheatley explains, there are “more than 14,000 barrels in the inventory of experiments. Different types of experiments, such as wood, grain, distillation, environment…”


Selected results, including Chardonnay and Zinfandel-finished bourbons (2007), rice and oat recipe bourbons (2011) and Old Fashioned Sour Mash bourbon (2015) have been released to consumers under the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection label, while some sub-projects are large enough to stand on their own.

The distillery’s Warehouse X contains separate areas looking at UV, temperature, humidity and airflow. “Single Oak is focused on the trees,” says Wheatley, “[and] how they are turned into wood, which in turn is turned into the barrel. The estate is focused on the grain – a little bit on the soil, but mainly on the grain.”

In its latest work, Buffalo Trace will experiment with barrels made from rare 300-year-old oak, at least a century older than the most venerable wood.

That means finding trees planted around the birth of the 18th century, considerably older than the United States of America as an independent nation, and around 100 years prior to that uprising by those rebellious pioneer distillers unhappy at paying tax on their whiskey.

So, while tax has never gone away, the older the better it seems, as this ancient spirit renews itself for a new generation.