Booming Bourbon

Booming Bourbon

Success stories abound
Fred Minnick

21 October 2016

Publication: Issue 139

I love a good success story, and Bourbon's full of them right now. Bourbon earns some $3 billion a year, while providing more than 15,400 jobs with an annual payroll of $700 million and $166 million in Kentucky tax revenue. Bourbon builds roads, schools and a whole load of government infrastructure.

It's easy to look at the numbers year after year and take it for granted. But there are many cottage industries depending on Bourbon's success, such as food manufacturers in Art Eatables and Bourbon Barrel Foods and clothing in Noble Denim's Barrel Aged Jeans and Columbus Barrel Company's Bourbon Barrel Sunglasses.

There's even a college programme. Kentucky's Midway University features a new Bourbon studies programme that includes an MBA focus on tourism and event management, as well as a minor in 'Bourbon Studies'. Seriously, what college kid doesn't want to 'minor' in Bourbon?

"As the University looks to add new programs we look at several key indicators - what areas of job growth are increasing in our region, what needs are in the market that aren't being met and what segments of the workforce have staffing or specialised training needs," said Dr John P Marsden, president, Midway University. "Tourism in Kentucky is a large industry, and tourism around Kentucky's Bourbon industry is seeing phenomenal growth yet there really wasn't a degree program out there focused on the cultural aspects and tourism of Bourbon, so we decided it was time to develop one."

While the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville offer a speaker here and there, Midway's the first to really capitalise on Bourbon. It's a risk, but so far risks are paying off for those who gamble on Bourbon.

When I first met Lisa and Sean Higgins in 2008, they had just started Mint Julep Tours, hoping to tap into the enthusiasm for the nine-year-old Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Thirty years ago, travel agencies would have laughed at the couple for wanting to start a boutique travel service specialising in Bourbon. After all, who wanted to tour a whiskey plant then?

In 2008, Bourbon's comeback was fairly certain. The Kentucky Bourbon Festival drew 50,000 people a year, Bourbons Bistro was packed with Bourbon-loving consumers and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail was becoming the envy of the entire spirits world.

Lisa and Sean believed in Bourbon and in you, the consumer, knowing your Bourbon adventure needed an expert guide and a luxury chauffeured van to sip whiskey as you travel through the winding Kentucky roads, view the horse farms and arrive at the final distillery destination.

Mint Julep Tours knew Bourbon wasn't just a drink or a casual getaway for convention goers. They knew what you know, that Bourbon is special, from the barrel to your glass, filled with possibility, history and wonder.

The risk paid off. This year, the one-stop travel shop will serve more than 20,000 Bourbon travel goers, as they hop from distillery to horse farm and back to the distillery. State officials recognise Mint Julep's contributions to Kentucky tourism, which is up 11 per cent thanks in part to Mint Julep.

"Lisa and Sean Higgins were truly Bourbon tourism pioneers when they had the vision to launch Mint Julep Tours before the destination potential was fully realised," said Stacey Yates, VP of Marketing Communications at the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau. Their success has also attracted competitors.

Currently, there's a new wave of Bourbon tourism service companies and event planners. But before them all, Mint Julep opened their van's door, and I'll never forget my first ride.

Camera in one hand and notepad in the other, I found a Glencairn glass wedged in between the two, a waft of Thomas Handy Rye reaching the olfactory. I sat in the back admiring Kentucky's beauty en route to Wild Turkey. The trip was more than a van ride; it was an experience - the Mint Julep business model that started with two fingers neat of the good stuff.

No wonder I like success stories. So many start with Bourbon.

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