Regional Focus: Kentucky

Regional Focus: Kentucky

Exploring the past, present, and future of Kentucky bourbon

Places | 05 Oct 2021 | Issue 177 | By Maggie Kimberl

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Kentucky bourbon is best thought of in a historical context as an agricultural product. Unlike many of the other popular collector items of today, bourbon wasn’t created around a boardroom table with the express intent of going viral. Rather, it was a slow process of improvement on natural preservation techniques, until the spirit we know today emerged around 200 years ago.

As settlers worked their way through the United States, having a still was almost as important as settling somewhere that had salt and an abundance of fresh water. The still enabled settlers to create something of value in a place without industry, which could be used for medicine, calories, sanitation and trade.

In Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage, bourbon historian Michael Veach addresses not only the historical evidence for the formation of the whiskey style we today call bourbon, but also the marketing rumours and innuendo that complicate many consumers’ understanding of that history. The Whiskey Rebellion is one of the most common misconceptions he addresses. Many believe that distillers fled the northeastern United States when a tax was levied on whiskey by George Washington to pay for the Revolutionary War, taking their stills to Kentucky where they could be free of the charge. In fact, the distilling industry was already well established there long before the rebellion.

Over the last two centuries, innovation has continually improved upon bourbon, but for the most part it has remained the same beverage.
“My dad always told me, to be in this business you have to have patience and perseverance; you cannot make great whiskey overnight,” says Heaven Hill president Max Shapira. “The company was founded in 1935, during the midst of the Great Depression, without any distillery, without any inventory, without any warehousing capabilities, with zero brands, and it was a pretty fledgling, speculative operation.”

The modernisation of the Kentucky bourbon industry really began in 1897, when the Bottled-in-Bond Act was passed. It was one of the first consumer protection laws in the land, and it simply guaranteed that what was on the label was what was in the bottle – nothing more, nothing less.

More regulations came after that, but what should have been the first golden age of Kentucky bourbon was interrupted by Prohibition, which Veach points out is the only amendment that took away a right instead of guaranteeing one.
Authorities disposing of illicit alcohol during Prohibition

Prohibition spelled the end for farmer-distillers, at least for several decades. Many distilleries were lost to Prohibition, though some hung on through medicinal sales and others, like Heaven Hill, were created when the Noble Experiment came to an end. Also created upon Repeal were many of the modern rules and regulations we today take for granted, such as standardisation in bottle sizing and labeling. Repeal made it legal to once again sell alcohol in the United States, but it also stipulated that each state had the right to make its own laws regarding the sale and distribution of alcohol, creating one of the world’s most complex alcohol landscapes.

In those early days, distillers like Heaven Hill, Stitzel-Weller, James B. Beam, Brown-Forman, Ripy Brothers, Seagram’s, and more set to work creating the archetype for the modern bourbon boom, though significant setbacks, including wartime production and waning demand, meant that popularity wouldn’t be achieved until the turn of the century.

Shapira’s Heaven Hill worked to acquire as many historic brands as they could, maintaining pieces of Kentucky history that would have otherwise been relegated to historic footnotes.

Shapira recounts, “In 1939 we brought out a brand, Old Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond, and that quickly became the largest-selling brand here in the state of Kentucky. The family all felt, well my gosh, this business actually might be able to develop into a real long-term kind of concept.”

As Kentucky bourbon began to grow in popularity in the late 1990s, distillery visitor centres became more of a destination than an afterthought, which led to the launch of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in 1999.

Shapira’s late cousin, Harry Shapira, maintained an office on Whiskey Row in Louisville through the end of his career, when he had the idea to turn it into a small satellite distillery and visitor centre. Max Shapira had got the idea from a trip to New York to put a tiny distillery in a window display for people to walk by, but Harry had a better idea.

“Even before we had something more formal, there were many consumers who would stop by, knock on our door at the office and say, ‘Can I go through your operation, just to see what it’s about?’,” recalls Shapira. “So [Harry] certainly had an inkling it was a lot of people who are interested, but who would have thought that the Bourbon Trail today would be this kind of explosive interest by consumers from everywhere?”

“We saw the value of enhanced visitor experiences, where we could talk one-on-one with consumers from all around the country, all around the world,” recounts Shapira. “Back in 2004 we established our first visitor centre in Bardstown, and that allowed us to just have a great one-on-one relationship with consumers everywhere. That was followed about eight years ago with our Evan Williams Bourbon Experience located in Louisville. You can easily influence a couple of hundred thousand people a year, and hopefully they go back and tell their friends about what they experienced here around this very original iconic product that can only be made in the USA.”
The new Heaven Hill rickhouse

The innovation boom in Kentucky bourbon is still in its infancy. Many distilleries tout the saying, “Honour tradition, embrace change”, or some variation thereof, meaning that most people like Kentucky Bourbon just the way it is, but that doesn’t mean there’s not room for improvement or experimentation.
Enjoying a dram of Old Forester

At Maker’s Mark, from the time of founding to just a few short years ago, they made one product and they made it really well, and that was enough for them. But then Bill Samuels, Jr realised he didn’t have a product that he could really call his own. After some experimentation, Maker’s Mark 46 was born, but it didn’t end there.
Distilling at Michter"s

“If I were to describe my job, in a nutshell, it’s really looking at the choices that the founders made 70 years ago,” says Maker’s Mark director of innovation and master of maturation Jane Bowie. “We never had an innovation department, so we’re about 18 months old, officially. We spend a lot of time studying the agriculture, and a lot of the innovation is coming out of that research as we continue to learn where flavour comes from. We also spend a ton of time studying the process, because I think, at the end of the day, what I love so much about whiskey is [that] we’re manufacturing agriculture... our industry is such a balance of heritage, but trying to be progressive at the same time. We never want to do anything because that’s just the way we’ve always done it.”
Visiting Woodford Reserve Distillery

Not only are distilleries today researching how certain processes affect the final product, but they are also looking at how to create different flavours and end results within the confines of the legal definition of Kentucky bourbon. Concepts like terroir and how the environment impacts the industry are now being studied more closely than ever. “Really, what I love about our industry is that we keep learning, and you’re allowed to change your mind,” Bowie adds.
Michter"s Fort Nelson Distillery

Across the board, Kentucky distilleries are approaching innovation in their own ways with one goal in mind: to keep consumers happy. Innovation was not much of a priority until you had people camping out for special-release bottles. Whiskey geeks gave rise to whiskey clubs, and bourbon’s popularity soared.
Max Shapira, president of Heaven Hill

Private barrel selections were enough to keep most whiskey enthusiasts happy for a while, whether they had a favourite restaurant or package store that did great picks or the clubs themselves picked and sold barrels (through retailers). Maker’s Mark’s innovation took this concept to the next level with Private Select, in which 1,001 combinations of 10 different staves create a distinct flavour profile. However, time has proven that whiskey geeks are never satiated and always in search of the next great thing.
Wax dipping bottles at Maker"s Mark

“I love how there are so many new brands that have emerged on the market in the past few years, because that means we’re getting access to new products and that the market has grown enough to support these smaller craft distilleries – whereas five to six years ago there wasn’t enough consumer demand,” says Jamar Mack, founder of KOBBE, Kentucky’s Original Black Bourbon Enthusiasts (see: Whisky Magazine issue 175).
Jane Bowie, Maker’s Mark director of innovation and master of maturation

“Now there’s some people who are looking for bourbon, who are like, alright, if I can’t find Pappy, what is something else I can get? And there’s this kind of a trickle effect of new consumers looking for new brands.” Mack continues, “But, at the same time, I think that we’re also getting a little saturated. We have been filling so many rickhouses, filling so many barrels. All this bourbon is getting ready to mature, and start being ready to be bottled in the next year or two, so are you going to have the consumers who are willing to not get the truly allocated bottles?

“How many times will a person go to Heaven Hill and not get Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and be willing to accept something else?”

Mack feels strongly that balancing consumers’ desires for something rare and special with the pent-up demand for anything brown-water is going to be a big challenge for Kentucky distillers. “We can keep acting like people are coming to Kentucky for this great heritage and this great romance, and I think that is a part of it,” says Mack. “But these people are also coming to buy allocated bourbons, and, at some point, my mother always used to say to me, how many times are you going to the well before you realise it’s dry?”

Mack explains that the greatest advancement he’s seeing in the Kentucky bourbon experience is immersive tours, experiences and restaurants, which means it’s not the same old distillery tour every time.

“Bardstown Bourbon Company now has a fill-your-own bottle, and what I realised with them is their focus is on the experience once you’re there,” Mack says. “They know they can’t sell you a bunch of allocated products.”

What’s more, Mack adds, there’s a limit to consumer excitement about allocated products, which is why adding an experiential element to distillery tourism is so critical right now.

“There’s only so many people who are gonna buy that $2,000 Pappy, and there is a point where either there’s no one else who can afford it, or there’s going to be someone who can afford it but has enough of it. You don’t have a car collector who goes out and buys 1,000 cars. There is a stopping point to everything.”
The Maker"s Mark Distillery

In the end, this is an industry that would benefit from a crystal ball, since it can’t turn on a dime like many other industries can. Meeting consumer demand in six years means implementing plans today. Understanding where the flavours come from so that new products can be invented is going to be key.

“What was a pretty staid industry for many years, without much enhancement of what was a solid base... the amount of innovation today is not even at its peak,” concludes Shapira. “Consumers have responded, whether it’s fantastic packaging, whether it’s one of those uniquely distilled mash bills, whether it’s whiskey that’s aged in a particular part of a warehouse which gives it a different texture, whether it’s the development of small-batch, single-barrel products, products with extra age, unique alcohol strengths, all that today is a hugely important part and it will only build from the level where we are today for what’s going to happen in the future.”
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