By Clair McLafferty
Photo by John-Robert Ward II
These days, almost everyone has a friend who can wax philosophical about whiskey. Here in the South, it’s most likely a friend who can rattle off a distillery’s history, corporate owner (or lack thereof), and the exact amount of corn used as the base.
Some can even call up the restrictions on the alcohol content to which bourbon must be distilled, barreled, and bottled, and they will absolutely tell you that bourbon can be made anywhere within the U.S., though most of the good stuff comes from Kentucky. If you’re lucky, they’ll give you suggestions on what to grab at the liquor store.
But bourbon nerds are a relatively recent (re-)addition to the drinking landscape. Thanks to the craft cocktail movement that took root in the late ’90s and early ’00s, bourbon and rye have reclaimed their place of prominence behind the bar – and gained a well-earned cool factor.
Though it might seem effortless now, it’s taken a monumental educational effort by distilleries and bartenders alike to turn attention towards new whiskeys and whiskey cocktails. Starting with Maker’s Mark Distillery of Loretto, Kentucky, in the 1960s, bourbon ads began to focus on its status as a premium luxury item. Their slogan, “It tastes expensive…and is.”
This campaign didn’t take hold immediately. In fact, it took distribution on airplanes and a 1980 Wall Street Journal article to catapult Maker’s Mark to its current status. But since the early 1980s, there’s been a push to treat most bourbon as a luxury product, and the marketing campaigns have stepped up. Much of it focuses on romantic, sepia-toned images hearkening back to frontier days, or well-lit photos of the bottle often accompanied by a glass of whiskey.
With the volume of bourbon available and the amount of money spent on promotion, it can be tough for a new product to get noticed. Back in 2012, Anthony Bourdain proclaimed that Pappy Van Winkle was “the most glorious bourbon” in the world. As the clip aired and the whiskey’s parent company ran with it, Pappy turned into a household name.
Bourdain’s comment, along with some awards for flavor at international competitions, ignited the yearly phenomenon called Pappymania. Every year around November, people camp out for days in sub-freezing temperatures for the chance to potentially score a bottle. If you’ve missed out but can’t live without it, save your pennies: a bottle of Pappy 23 that retails for $250 will cost you roughly ten times that on the resale market. If you can find it, that is.
Paradoxically, as many of these brands have tried to up their mystique, they’ve also become more transparent with the bartenders who sell their products, says Jeremy Johnson, owner of META in Louisville. “A lot of early pioneers like High West started to talk about what they’re putting out, how it was put together, where it was distilled, and how long it was aged. It’s a huge shift and very positive trend.”
For some companies, this transparency extends to disclosures about where their whiskey comes from. In the U.S., a huge portion of the rye whiskey sold is made at Midwest Grain Products of Indiana, or MGP for short. Five years ago, brands were cagey about admitting that they were sourcing their product from MGP, opting to label it with potentially confusing phrases like “aged in Kentucky” or “bottled in Kentucky” that don’t give any information about where it was made.
Some producers choose this route because it takes so much time and money to even begin to make bourbon. Buying, bottling, and selling the finished product can save a new company years of work, but it does label them as an NDP, or non-distilling producer, until they begin to produce their own whiskey.
In short, “if you’re putting out good stuff, you should never be afraid to talk about where it comes from,” says Johnson. But bourbon’s recent popularity has come with a distinctive downside. Some makers claim there is a bourbon shortage, and have taken the opportunity to raise prices, remove the age statements from the bottles, and increase their production capabilities.
“As bourbon has gotten more popular, we’ve seen lots of price increases and potentially forced or falsified supply and demand narratives,” says Johnson. “I’ve seen rickhouse [barrel storage] go up, stills multiply, but the prices aren’t going down, and they’re not going to. A lot of these companies got so big because they’re really good at what they do.”
Around distilleries, there are some less-than-ideal environmental effects from booze production. One problem is that a type of black fungus thrives in sunny environments rich with alcohol vapor. In many towns, the fungus has coated cars, trees, and houses alike, spawning a 2012 class-action lawsuit that was at least partially dismissed without settlement in 2016.
Aside from all of the pitfalls of bourbon, Johnson remains excited about the experimentation going on at bourbon distilleries – and behind the bar.
“The sky’s the limit,” he says. “Dramatic growth can push that really experimental phase, but it can also stall it. I’m cautiously optimistic.”