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Has Kentucky Lost it's Mojo

Is Kentucky in danger of losing its special place in the hearts of whiskey lovers? Some say the decline has already begun. Charles K. Cowdery finds out...
By Charles K Cowdery
The jig is up for Kentucky.Everyone now knows that Kentucky doesn't have a patent on bourbon whiskey. Bourbon may be made anywhere in the United States, not just Kentucky.

It used to be made in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Missouri, Virginia and other states, but people have forgotten this.Today bourbon is once again made in Indiana, as well as Wisconsin, Texas, Colorado, and New York. With the explosion of craft distilleries, new bourbon producers seem to sprout up every day.

The myth that Kentucky has some unique privilege to put its name on whiskey labels has been debunked too. There is now an Indiana Straight Bourbon Whiskey, called Harrison, and a Texas Straight Bourbon whiskey, called Garrison. Only two of Kentucky's bourbon producers are Kentucky-based companies. To add insult to injury Jack Daniel's, the world's favorite whiskey, is made in nearby Tennessee.Although not technically bourbon, Daniel's dominates the bourbon category. Whenever someone talks about the 'bourbon business,' Jack is the elephant in the room, along with a much smaller one, Diageo's George Dickel.

“Who cares if it comes from Kentucky? With all due respect of course”


The Bluegrass State has long been synonymous with bourbon whiskey. Some people say it’s the water, others say it’s the climate that makes Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey superior to all others and the choice of whiskey connoisseurs throughout the world.

Others say there is nothing special about Kentucky. It’s just a coincidence that when the American whiskey industry contracted it all wound up there, a coincidence backed up by good PR.

It can’t be the grain. While some of the corn used for bourbon-making comes from Kentucky, most of it is grown in Indiana. The rye comes from Minnesota or the Dakotas, sometimes Canada. The wheat comes from Kansas. The malt and yeast come from Wisconsin.

No longer is bourbon yeast snatched from the dewy mist of a Bluegrass morn the way it used to be.

It can’t be the barrels either. While most of them are assembled in Kentucky the wood comes from Missouri, West Virginia, and Minnesota. A little bit comes from Kentucky. Not much.

The bottles bourbon is sold in? Sorry, they’re not made in Kentucky either. The new Maker’s Mark 46 bottle isn’t even made in the USA.

So has Kentucky lost its mojo?

“With the growing number of new products being introduced by small distillers across the US, the cachet of the affiliation with Kentucky is likely to decrease in the minds of consumers,” says Ralph Erenzo, distiller-partner at Tuthilltown Spirits in Gardiner, New York, makers of the Hudson Baby Bourbon. “Who cares if it comes from Kentucky? With all due respect of course.”

Predictions of Kentucky’s demise are premature, according to the 130-year-old Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA). They will remind you that Kentucky produces 95 per cent of the world’s bourbon, but that number is fudged. It is more like 65 per cent if you count Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel as bourbons.

Perhaps more significantly, KDA also reports that Kentucky’s distillers have increased their whiskey production by more than 50 per cent since 1999. More than five million barrels of bourbon and other whiskey are now aging in Kentucky warehouses. All of America’s craft distillery whiskey now aging in barrels could fit into one small corner of the smallest warehouse in Kentucky.

Whiskey certainly is important to Kentucky. It provides thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue, and attracts legions of tourists. Whiskey is important to Kentucky, but is Kentucky still important to American whiskey?

“Our rich history and hospitality – our spirit, in more ways than one – is something Kentucky visitors never forget,” says KDA president Eric Gregory. “That’s what makes Kentucky special. Where else can you walk in the footsteps of bourbon barons like Jim Beam or Evan Williams? Or experience the timeless magic of dipping your own bottle in the signature red wax of Maker’s Mark?”

Bourbon currently is the hottest segment of Kentucky tourism, attracting nearly 500,000 people every year to the distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Increasingly, it is a heritage-steeped experience that encompasses more than distillery tours. Bars, of course, but also restaurants, hotels, tour operators, and other attractions are catering to bourbon tourists like never before. “It’s centuries of history you can actually touch, taste and smell,” says Gregory. “And you can only find that in Kentucky.”

“When people think of Bourbon, they think of Kentucky,” says Brown-Forman master distiller Chris Morris, who is also KDA chairman. “Kentucky with it’s iconic bourbon brands and the dynamic draw of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail will continue to be the ancestral home of America’s distilling industry for generations to come.”

But Tuthilltown’s Erenzo says that’s changing. “The better informed the consumer is, the less inclined they will be to believe that Kentucky is the only place American whiskey is made, or that Kentucky whiskey is superior to any other by virtue solely of the fact of its Kentucky origin,” he says.

Erenzo may be right, but the change he envisions is barely underway. Aside from Dickel and Daniel’s in Tennessee, his Tuthilltown and all of the other craft distillers around the country produce a thimble of spirit compared to Kentucky’s ocean. Most of them don’t even make whiskey, and most that do don’t make bourbon. Considering what it costs to finance an inventory of aging spirits, that won’t change for a long, long time.

The story of American whiskey did not begin in Kentucky but Kentucky is the only place where bourbon’s past and present are together in one place.

That will be true as long as the state has even one operating distillery. With Kentucky’s whiskey and Kentucky itself booming all over the world, that seems unlikely to change anytime soon.