Bourbon is the whiskey that makes the world go ‘round. That statement is bound to be a bit controversial, considering that Scotch whisky is the largest-selling type of whisky in the world. However, please allow me to back up my claim with a couple of key points.
Without the millions of barrels generated by the Bourbon industry each year, the rest of the world’s distillers would have a hard time finding enough barrels to age their spirit. Every single distillery in Scotland, and a good many in other parts of the world, depends on Bourbon barrels and the subtle influence they provide to maturing spirit. Also Scotch whisky may be the largest-selling type of whisky worldwide, but the growth in Bourbon exports is outpacing Scotch exports.
Let’s examine the most recent available data on exports. The Scotch Whisky Association’s data for 2010 shows a 10 per cent annual increase in exports over 2009. However, U.S. government Customs data shows a 28 per cent year-over-year increase in Bourbon exports for the first quarter of 2011 (January-March). While the time periods aren’t exactly the same, they give us a good idea of where the market is heading.
This reflects increased bulk shipments to countries such as Australia, Germany, Spain, New Zealand, and Japan, where bulk shipments in the first quarter of 2011 doubled those of the previous year. Bulk shipments grew significantly in South Korea, despite a 20 per cent tariff on imported spirits. Case shipments more than doubled in Poland, nearly so in France and South Africa, and grew by nearly a third in Canada and 15 per cent in China. To be fair, year-over-exports stayed nearly the same in markets like Argentina and the United Kingdom, while falling in Italy, Belgium, and Canada (due to a large drop in bulk shipments).
Ninety-five per cent of the world’s Bourbon is produced in Kentucky, and the state’s distillers have invested nearly $150 million in expanding production capacity, according to the Kentucky Distillers Association. In June, Grupo Campari’s recent multi-million dollar investment wasn’t to meet domestic demand in the U.S., but to meet the growing global demand.
“We hadn’t quite reached capacity with what we were making at the old distillery, but we knew we needed to have it for 6, 8, 10 years down the road”, according to Eddie Russell, Wild Turkey’s associate distiller and the son of master distiller Jimmy Russell.
“We’re getting all the way around the world now,” Jimmy adds. “In my younger years, it was basically a U.S. drink, especially a Southern drink. Anywhere you go in the world now, people know about Kentucky Bourbon. Australia, Japan, they’re huge export markets for us…they love the taste of Bourbon, they love the flavour. As long as you’re putting out good bourbon, they enjoy it.”
Is this just a fad, and will Bourbon sales eventually tail off?
I don’t think so, and here’s why. It’s easier than ever to move spirits around the world (unless you want to import them into the U.S., but that’s another story), and the explosion in global logistics makes it almost as easy to sell Bourbon in Bangalore as it is in Bardstown. That makes Bourbon accessible to more people, especially folks like us…the whisky lovers and connoisseurs who want to try as many different whiskies as we can. Our numbers are growing, and it’s fair to assume that that trend will also continue. More potential customers and reaching more markets means more sales.
Remember, the world’s #1 selling whiskey isn’t a Scotch or a Bourbon…it’s Jack Daniel’s. While the experts know Jack Daniel’s isn’t a Bourbon and the reason why, the average whisky drinker is likely to find a lot more in common taste-wise between Jack and the many Bourbons on the export market than they will between Jack and a Scotch Whisky.
Bourbon will never replace Scotch Whisky as the top-selling category of whiskies in the world, but there’s plenty of room for both at the bar, whether it’s in Lawrenceburg or London.