Just when you thought it reached its limits, the Bourbon industry grows faster. Today, America's native spirit is a $3 billion industry in Kentucky, which produces 95 per cent of the world's supply. Bourbon production has increased 315 per cent since 1999 from 455,078 barrels to 1,886,821 barrels in 2015, according to the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA). Despite the ongoing chatter about a Bourbon shortage last year's count was over 6.7 million barrels hanging out ageing in the Bluegrass State. (That means there's 1.5 barrels for every human in Kentucky.) And the global fervour is not contained to drinking the spirit. In pursuit of full cultural immersion, people from around the world are flocking to the distilleries, many of which are investing huge sums to build distillery visitor centres for Bourbon pilgrims. In 2015, the KDA reports that the big distilleries along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail welcomed 134,000 visitors, and tourists spend an average of $1,000 while in the state.
We wondered what's going on in all the individual still houses, so we checked in with a bunch of the longstanding brands to see where the industry's been and where it's going. Here's what we learned.
Buffalo Trace's remit of the past few years appears to be 'build, build, build!' After unveiling a revamped visitor centre in October 2015, they just finished constructing a 'vault', which is designed like a giant jail cell and used as display platform for whiskeys from the company's historical collection. But that announcement is easily overshadowed by the 2015 purchase of 233 acres where one 60,000 barrel warehouse will be built every five months for the next ten years. The property is contiguous to the distillery.
The famous experimental projects continue, including tests on the effects of infrared light on ageing, which was announced in April. And, as any avid Bourbon drinker knows, the familiar range of brands and, of course, the exceedingly popular Antique Collection continues to be in such high demand that everything is on allocation. In an attempt to deal with that conundrum, next year the distillery will run at capacity, producing 200,000 barrels per year. And Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley is busy planning where new cookers and fermenters will go. They should be installed by 2018 and will enable Buffalo Trace to produce 300,000 to 400,000 barrels annually.
"I have no doubt that whiskey will continue to grow to 500 million cases," Mark Brown, CEO of Buffalo Trace Distillery, says of the global whiskey market. "It's just a question of who ends up with what share. I like our chances a lot."
The old Stitzel-Weller distillery in Louisville is already a Diageo tourist attraction called the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience. Meanwhile a new distillery for Bulleit is in the works not far away on a 300 acre property in Shelbyville at a cost of $115 million. It will have the capability to produce 1.8 million proof gallons annually. Three of the six barrel warehouses, each with the capacity for 55,000 barrels, are complete and the first one is even filled with product made elsewhere. The newly made 52 foot Vendome still is installed, as is the doubler, which is from Stitzel-Weller They are on track to produce Bourbon by the start of 2017. Meantime Diageo's other American whiskeys continue to stir excitement. Previous releases of Orphan Barrel, a series of American whiskeys from unused barrels stored at the shuttered Stitzel-Weller since the 1990s, continue to roll out. Future releases of Rhetoric, an Orphan Barrel expression made with Bernheim, which now belongs to Heaven Hill, will be released with age statements up to 25 years. The past two were 20 and 21 years.
This fall, Four Roses will be putting the finishing touches on an $8.5 million expansion at the bottling line and warehouse. Four new acre-size warehouses are going up over the next few years at the brand's second property outside Bardstown, which attracts almost as many visitors as the historic distillery in Lawrenceburg. Speaking of which, plans are in the works for the distillery to double in size with the addition of a new still, doubler and fermenters. Completion is slated for 2018. How does that translate into product? Bad news is that they're not reinstating their annual Single Barrel release after this year's Elliott's Select, a special edition to introduce Brent Elliott, the Master Distiller who took over from recently retired Jim Rutledge. But the good news is that the Small Batch expression will roll out every autumn in limited editions, usually around 12,000 bottles.
Heaven Hill, which opened the Evan Williams Experience, an immersive visitors centre on Whiskey Row in downtown Louisville that drew 90,000 visitors last year, has been unveiling and modifying products at a fast clip. And that's poised to speed up. Fresh off the debut of the rejuvenated Maryland-style Pikesville Rye and the revamp of Rittenhouse Rye, they've just added a 7 years age statement to Bernheim Straight Wheat Whiskey and removed the 12 years age statement on Elijah Craig. 'Shared equity' is a buzzword for Heaven Hill, explains Josh Hafer, Communications Manager. They're leveraging the popularity of American whiskey in other categories, like tequila. Last year they released a limited edition Lunazul, the company's tequila, aged in Old Fitzgerald Barrels. This year it's a reposado aged in Rittenhouse barrels.
Now the big news. Eight years after its first expansion, Heaven Hill are investing again, adding four fermenters and a still to the 26 year old plant. "Expansion is huge for us. It will fuel our growth long-term," said Hafer. "We see the American whiskey opportunity as international. Heaven Hill president Max Shapira, says the new normal is going to be cocktails. It's a new piece of the overall distilled spirits pie."
Jim Beam has instigated a global packaging re-design which was announced in June and gave the iconic brand's products a modern facelift with flashier labels and bottles. But rest assured, the juice is the same.
It's been a year of milestones for Beam, which produces more than half of the world's Bourbon. On 2 May, they filled their 14 millionth barrel. The obsession with American whiskeys in new markets is helping drive the speedy growth. In Japan, for instance, Jim Beam sales shot up 62 per cent to 410,000 cases in 2015 alone. Proof of the popularity in the US is evidenced by the fact that American Stillhouse, an immersive entertainment and educational attraction (if not spectacle) at the distillery, and Urban Stillhouse, a downtown tourist destination, receives 100,000 visitors each year.
But the world cannot live by Jim Beam Bourbon alone. The company's wide range of whiskeys keeps getting wider. This May saw the launch of Booker's Rye, the historic brand's first-ever rye. It's uncut, unfiltered and bottled from experimental barrels that the late Master Distiller Booker Noe laid down himself. Knob Creek 2001, a limited edition 14 years old, is also a new to market. And innovation continues in the flavoured segment with the launch of Jim Beam Apple. Jim Beam Double Oak launches in the US in September after arriving in Europe in May.
Paul Tomaszewski, co-founder and Head Distiller, has largely focused on Bourbon since he started this barrel a day operation in 2009. He distills everything from scratch and uses white corn grown within his own county. Lately, though, he's straying, turning out products like Dark Fired Bourbon, which involves smoking corn through a process traditionally used to smoke tobacco in the region. They've released two styles: a Bourbon and a whiskey that's aged in ex-Bourbon barrels. In addition to these regularly made products, he does an experimental mash every three months. All products are bottled at barrel proof.
"It's really tight on all whiskeys," Joe Magliocco, President of Michter's Distillery, says of his products, including its flagship US1. Because of supply, Michter's isn't releasing its popular Toasted Barrel Finish Bourbon this year, but the good news is that this October, Master Distiller Willie Pratt, is anticipating the release of 10 years old and 20 years old expressions. Additionally, the ultra-premium Michter's Celebration Sour Mash Whiskey - a blend of a variety of styles and ages that fetches $5,000 - will make a return this winter for the first time since 2013.
On completion of distillery construction, production started six days a week at a new distillery in Shively, just outside Louisville, in 2015 and they're already looking at adding new equipment and a production shift, which would double the capacity to one million original proof gallons a year. All this while Michter's is continuing construction at Fort Nelson, a tourist friendly distillery on Whiskey Row in Louisville. They will be distilling on a 550 gallon still that Vendome fabricated in 1976 for the original Michter's distillery in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania. Production is slated to start there December 2017.
The only brand that's been sold by same family/company continuously before, during and after Prohibition. This Brown-Forman owned Bourbon crossed the 150,000 case mark for the third time in its history this spring.
Like many other legendary brands, Old Forester staked out its claim on Whiskey Row, Louisville's fast developing downtown tourism magnet. Construction of the Old Forester Distillery will be complete by the end of 2017 and it will have the capacity to produce about 100,000 bottles annually. The small size affords it plenty of flexibility for many of its unique products.
For the last two and a half years, Wild Turkey's growth outpaced the category growth. Little wonder, then, that legendary Master Distiller Jimmy Russell, who celebrated 60 years at the distillery in 2014, and his son and protégé Eddie (35 years and counting) have cooked up some intriguing releases to please the legions of fans. Wild Turkey 101 Rye was discontinued in 2013, but not to worry! Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Rye, was introduced to the portfolio in 2015 and is currently on allocation. Last year they also launched Russell's Reserve 1998. A limited run of 1,800 bottles was released with a $250 price tag.
There's been a spate of other limited edition products, like Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary, which commemorated Jimmy's sixth decade of work. The newest release, Wild Turkey Master's Keep Decades, celebrates Eddie's 35 years at Wild Turkey. But it's the rye that dominates the company's long view.
"We used to just do rye once a quarter, now it's on the production schedule much more frequently. Eddie blames classic cocktails," said Maggie McDonnell, American Whiskies Category Marketing Director for Campari America. She notes that since 2009, rye volume increase 536 per cent, from 88,000 to half million 9 litre cases. The new visitor's center overlooking the Kentucky River, a multi-million dollar investment, opened in April 2014. As of early June, in a calendar year, they saw tourism up 20 per cent. They even leased a new tour bus to accommodate the influx of guests for the full production tour of the premises.
Here's something you don't hear very often, Woodford has a brand new product. Coopers' Craft, which was released this summer, is being marketed as a celebration of the craft of barrel making, as parent company Brown-Forman is the only major American whiskey company to own its own cooperage and which was established in 1945. Bottled at 82.2 proof, it's distinct because it goes through a beech and birch charcoal filter after maturation.
All this is terrific news for Woodford fans, and according to the numbers, they are record breaking.
According to IWSR, Woodford Reserve Bourbon volume grew 25 per cent last year globally, and its three year compound annual growth rate from 2012-2015 was 25 per cent. The numbers are comparable in the United States alone, as the brand itself grew 24 per cent last year, and its three year compound annual growth rate from 2012-2015 was calculated at 24%.
Other Distilleries Opening in Kentucky
Alltech Lexington Brewing & Distillingwww.kentuckyale.com
Barrel House Distilling Companywww.barrelhousedistillery.com
Boone County Distilling Co.www.boonedistilling.com
Castle and Keywww.castleandkey.com
Dueling Grounds Distillerywww.duelinggroundsdistillery.com
Hartfield & Companywww.hartfieldandcompany.com
Kentucky Artisan Distillerywww.kentuckyartisandistillery.com
Kentucky Mist Moonshinewww.kentuckymist.com
Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co.www.kentuckypeerless.com
Second Sight Spiritswww.secondsightspirits.com
Silent Brigade Distillerywww.silentbrigadedistillery.com
Three Boys Farm Distillerywww.threeboysfarmdistillery.com