Focus on: Kentucky's booming whiskey scene

Focus on: Kentucky's booming whiskey scene

It’s a time of growth for the spiritual home of bourbon, so the Kentucky Bourbon Festival is changing too

Regional Focus | 15 Aug 2022 | Issue 185 | By Maggie Kimberl

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Kentucky bourbon is still having a major growth spurt. Across the Commonwealth, construction is taking place at shocking rates and new brands are emerging on what seems like a monthly basis. Despite lags in tourism, visitors are still flocking to the Bluegrass State in record numbers to explore this signature industry in its native habitat. The bourbon boom is showing no signs of slowing down, much to the benefit of Kentucky whiskey enthusiasts.

“American whiskey continues to grow in popularity not only in the United States but all over the world,” says Michter’s master of maturation, Andrea Wilson, who is excited to see that the category is finally being recognised for the quality and complexity of its whiskey.

“At Michter’s we believe our unrelenting focus on quality has continued accelerating the brand’s popularity, and this has led us to continue investing substantially to expand our distillation, maturation, processing, and bottling operations,” Wilson adds, explaining that in 2022 the company moved to a five-day, 24-hour distillation schedule and will increase to a seven-day, 24-hour operation by 2023. With its sights firmly set on making, in their own words, ‘the greatest American whiskey’, the Michter’s team has committed to continued investment in the future.

Like Michter’s, other distilleries across Kentucky are experiencing significant popularity boosts and responding with continual expansion, adding warehouses, mashing capacity, larger stills, more fermenters, larger dry houses, and more. New Riff Distillery in Northern Kentucky has just upgraded its 8,000-barrel-a-year operation to deliver 12,000 barrels per annum, with the addition of three new fermeters. Ground has also been broken for a 10-acre barrel warehouse site that will be capable of holding upwards of 40,000 barrels with room to grow, according to founder Jay Erisman.

Kentucky Owl is in the midst of building a US$150 million distillery near Bardstown. After a setback in construction, plans are again underway. “Since the quarry filled with water over the last 18 months, the site needed to be re-evaluated because the topography changed,” says David Mandell, president of Kentucky Owl Real Estate. “Not only is it even more stunning in its beauty, but we also needed to adjust the buildable areas. We used the opportunity with our architectural team, led by Shigeru Ban and our local contractors, to redesign the operations of the site.”

A new three-phase site plan calls for the building of an interim visitor centre, the Kentucky Owl pyramid distillery, two warehouses, and a visitor’s warehouse with a small bottling line in phase one. The team has also completed the design of the interim visitor centre and is in the process of designing the other buildings. “We expect to begin site work on the property by the end of fall to early winter,” Mandell adds.This type of growth is echoed across the Commonwealth, with visitor experience at the forefront of most plans. Angel’s Envy has just completed a 13,000ft2 expansion, which includes new tasting rooms, event spaces and a bottle-your-own experience for tour guests. Heaven Hill has just announced plans for a new $134 million Bardstown distillery, right on the heels of opening the renovated Bourbon Heritage Center at a cost of $19 million. Buffalo Trace has a $1.2 billion expansion underway, and has added a new column still.

A cask of Michter’s bourbon prepped for stencilling

Lux Row is currently undergoing a $4 million expansion after merging with Midwest Grain Products (MGP) in Indiana, the powerhouse rye whiskey producer. Horse Soldier Bourbon has opened the Urban Stillhouse in Somerset, Kentucky, while building a $200 million distillery near Lake Cumberland. Bardstown Bourbon Company has plans for a $28.7 million expansion. Wilderness Trail Distillery is working to add a capacity of 20,000 more barrels per year with several new fermentation tanks as well as a new warehouse. James E Pepper broke ground for its first ever rickhouse, and it will soon release its first bourbon distilled completely onsite.

After Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont opened the Fred B. Noe Distillery last year and put Freddie Noe in charge, Freddie was named as the eighth-generation master distiller of Jim Beam. Log Still Distillery opened just last year and has named Meredith Moody, formerly Buffalo Trace’s homeplace development director, as chief experience manager. Meanwhile, Shaylyn Gammon, formerly the regional associate R&D scientist for Wild Turkey, has been named whiskey director for Blue Run Spirits, a new brand distilled by Jim Rutledge.

Castle & Key finally released its first bourbon earlier this year after partnering with the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild to release the Untold Story of Bourbon. Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams Bourbon Experience released its first bourbon distilled onsite, Square 6, shortly before expanding its footprint outside of Kentucky by buying Samson & Surrey, which has American whiskey distilleries in Chicago and Brooklyn.

Buzzard’s Roost won numerous awards last year and continues to release new, innovative whiskeys, and Woodford Reserve celebrated 25 years in 2022. Under the watchful eye of master distiller Chris Morris and assistant master distiller Elizabeth McCall, Woodford released its latest distillery series: Toasted Oak Oat Grain.

These developments come shortly after former Brown-Forman president and Kentucky Artisan Distillery founder Steve Thompson sadly passed away in September 2021, at the age of 79, taking a lifetime of whiskey knowledge and experience along with him.

Justin Sloan and Justin Thompson, founders of Justins’ House of Bourbon

Much to the delight of everyone on both sides of the Atlantic, the reciprocal UK–USA whiskey tariffs were finally laid to rest after the ongoing dispute over steel and aluminium was resolved, and this can only bode well for the financial health of both the Kentucky and Scotch whisky distilling industries.

Meanwhile, Maker’s Mark earned a B Corp certification for its commitment to sustainability, while also launching the Whisky Drop program and opening The Samuels House, a historic home where guests can stay outside of Bardstown. The Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA) unveiled an official ‘Kentucky Bourbon’ branding while also dealing with a scare in which private barrel picks were briefly challenged and then saved by the Kentucky Legislature. Signaling the dire need for workforce development, the James B. Beam Institute offered an industry-first whiskey workforce apprenticeship program, which will train people who want to work in the distilling industry.

In tourism news, The Kentucky Bourbon Trail issued a new, revamped passport, replacing the decade-old stamp booklet. Buffalo Trace had 340,000 visitors in 2021, a new record for the site, despite the pandemic, but KDA distilleries saw an overall 13 per cent decrease in tourism in 2021, mainly because of closures and reduced capacity. Conversely, craft members saw a 170 per cent increase in tourism over 2020 figures.

Four Roses opened a new visitor centre that is more than four times larger than what it had previously, while Diageo opened the Garden & Gun Club at its famed Stitzel-Weller Distillery in South Louisville and also brought back the Garden & Gun Stitzel-Weller Affair Derby Eve party.

The column still at New Riff Distillery

“As our friends at the Kentucky Distiller’s Association say, the proof is here and Kentucky’s bourbon industry makes a big impact on tourism in the state, especially in the Northern Kentucky region,” says Julie Kirkpatrick, president and CEO of meetNKY, the area’s convention and visitors bureau. “Hundreds of thousands of bourbon pilgrims make their way down I-75 or through Cincinnati International Airport on their way to bourbon country. We are pleased that the NKY bourbon scene gives them a chance to have an amazing first-sip experience before heading deeper into the Commonwealth, and it is a big win for the millions of visitors to our region coming for sports or music shows to have bourbon so close.”

Tourism is one of many reasons given for bourbon’s massive growth over the last decade, and everyone is pitching in to ensure visitors find whatever they came to find.

“Justins’ House of Bourbon has become a special spot for tourists from all over the world, no matter what their budget or level of bourbon experience might be,” says Caroline Paulus, whiskey historian at Justins’ House of Bourbon. “If someone is just looking to dip their toe into bourbon, they don’t need to plan ahead and set aside time for a reservation like they would for a distillery tour – they can just pop in for a $5 pour. On the other hand, if a bourbon fan has spent a whole week touring distilleries and wants to dive deeper into the history and differences between the brands they’ve seen, and take home a few of their rarer bottles, too, our knowledgeable staff can help guide them through tastings at our bars and the hundreds of bottles for sale on our shelves.”

Because of the huge selection of bottlings on offer at Justins’, the business has become a representative for every distillery in the state, as well as a destination in its own right. “It’s so much fun helping people find bottles they love,” adds Paulus.

The Bourbon industry also showed its commitment to community over the last year. After devastating tornadoes hit Kentucky in late 2021, both Buffalo Trace and the KDA held auctions to raise money for tornado victims, bringing in a collective $5 million. Buffalo Trace also donated money for the preservation of Green Hill Cemetery in Frankfort through the sale of Freddie’s Soda, which will go toward the upkeep of the historic African-American cemetery.

Brough Brothers opened as Kentucky’s first African-American-owned distillery last summer, while Brittany Penny became the first black woman to be the CEO of a Kentucky bourbon brand when she launched The IX Bourbon. Kentucky’s Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts’ (KOBBE) founder Jamar Mack was featured on the cover of Whisky Magazine for a story highlighting the importance and prevalence of black whiskey societies.

Demonstrating coopering skills at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.

And if that’s not enough, the newfound popularity of RTD, or ‘ready-to-drink’, cocktails has led to the birth of a new category almost overnight. Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, Wild Turkey, and Brown-Forman now have popular RTD options – a trend that’s indicative of the fact that there’s growth in every corner of the Kentucky bourbon industry, and fans of this whiskey style stand to benefit the most.

There is no better way to celebrate a love of this much-loved whiskey style than at the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival (KBF). Held in Bardstown, Kentucky each year, the Festival is expected to host 9000 visitors in September 2022. Visitors will find classes ranging from cocktail and culinary to brand tastings as well as samplings from more than 40 brands.

One of the most popular events is the Barrel Relay, in which distillery teams compete to get their barrels ricked fastest. Divisions are broken into male and female, singles and teams. Distillery teams practice year-round for a chance to take home the title, and visitors to Kentucky’s distilleries will often see practice tracks built between rickhouses for just this purpose. Competitors have to roll barrels into the ricks perfectly, so the bung is pointed up at a 12 o’clock position, and points are deducted and added to the overall time for bungs not placed correctly.

The festival first started as a golf tournament and evolved into a bourbon-pairing dinner before becoming the festival locals loved for so many years. Significant changes were made to the KBF last year, and, most notably, ticketed events became the norm instead of the exception.

“Last year we made some big changes to the festival format, so getting feedback from attendees and from distilleries was crucial,” says Randy Prasse, president and COO of KBF. “Overall, people loved the focus on engaging with distillers and sampling spirits, and the fun but informative programming we offered. We’re building on that with a more inclusive ticketing plan this year so all sampling is included with the ticket price.”

For the first time this year, ticketed guests will be able to purchase bottles directly from distillery booths as well as purchase exclusive KBF single-barrel bottles from the Justins’ House of Bourbon bottle shop.

The KBF’s focus is on providing an exceptional experience for bourbon enthusiasts unlike anywhere else. More than 40 distilleries and their top brands – representing everything from heritage distilleries to craft – will be on-hand to share their stories and spirits, including a number of master distillers, whiskey makers, and brand ambassadors. The festival also offers unique educational programming, presented by industry icons and experts, and more.”

Those who’ve attended the KBF before should be prepared to encounter a distinctly different festival from years past. Showing up, walking around the shops on the lawn, and grabbing a beer and some festival food to enjoy in the beer garden is no longer on the menu.

What is on the menu is something that has been missing for years: the ability to sample bourbon. That’s right, because of the strict laws regarding alcohol consumption in the largest bourbon-producing town in Kentucky, actual sips of the state’s famous brown-water have traditionally not been allowed. The major upside to the new ticketing process is that visitors can actually enjoy a bourbon at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival outside of the Gala, which has also been reimagined. Special wristbands are required for tastings at the nearly two dozen distillery booths. Wristbands can be purchased along with admission tickets, but, for visitors who’d rather enjoy a cocktail, mixed drinks will be available for purchase individually on the lawn.

One of the biggest changes in the last two years is single-barrel picks from partner distilleries. While there were a few selections available last year, this “We started with zero barrel picks in the first 29 years of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival [and went] to having 10 single-barrel selections last year, and 22 in 2022,” explains Prasse. “We’re partnering with Justins’ House of Bourbon again this year for our KBF Distillers’ Row Series. It is certainly a fun part of my job connecting with our distillery partners to offer these single-barrel selections and getting to taste them. Several of us on the KBF team along with the JHOB team, distillery team members and others actually visit each of the distilleries and participate in a tasting to choose our favourite barrel as a group. It’s a really great experience.”

Woodford Reserve assistant master distiller Elizabeth McCall

Prasse explains that, this year, the festival will have options from 1792, Angel’s Envy, Barrell Bourbon, Broken Barrel, Chicken Cock, Elijah Craig, Four Roses, Kentucky Peerless, Knob Creek, Maker’s Mark, New Riff, NuLu, Old Forester, Penelope, Pinhook, Rabbit Hole (its first-ever ‘Cavehill’ single barrel), Rebel by Lux Row, Russell’s Reserve (hand-selected by Eddie and Bruce Russell), Wilderness Trail and Woodford Reserve. Two additional single-barrel picks will be available in the Distillers’ Row Series, offered as part of the Bourbon Capital BBQ Challenge and Distillery Invitational presented by the KBF – a Kentucky Peerless Rye pick and an additional Knob Creek 120 barrel.

Previous attendees of the KBF may be surprised by just how different it is now. The festival is still a celebration of all things Kentucky bourbon, but it now has more of an official whiskey festival feel rather than a street festival vibe. Many of the surrounding distilleries also anticipate additional visitors during this time, so be prepared for plenty of additional experiences while the festivities are on.

Follow along on Instagram @kybourbonfest for a peek at all the Kentucky Bourbon Festival activities and learn more about the itinerary here.

Clarifications & Corrections

Issue 186 – ‘Kentucky is booming’
In this article, we originally reported that the Kentucky Bourbon Festival ‘hosts upwards of 50,000 visitors each September.’ Though this figure is reported on the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail website, the Festival has independently confirmed that 9000 visitors (8000 consumers, 1000 trade) are expected to attend in September 2022.

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