As Bourbon Grows, So Grows Kentucky

There’s never been a better time to be a bourbon drinker – or seller. Whether it’s the creation of flavored brands that are serving as an entry point for young legal age consumers who would otherwise head toward candy-coated vodka, or the fascinating results of tinkering with age-old formulas, the distillers and bottlers of bourbon, rye and other American whiskies seem to be able to do no wrong.

Well, there was that little incident in February when Maker’s Mark temporarily decided to switch from 90 to 84 proof in order to maintain supply, but even the shooting down of that idea could be said to turn out to benefit the brand as long as the loyal followers who rose up en masse to stop the change continue to drink their favorite bourbon. Still, with the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Ky., at maximum production, according to what master distiller Greg Davis told me last week on a visit, their continued phenomenal growth at a double digit rate will have to slow – or they will be building again.

Other brands are building in Kentucky. A new American or even Kentucky distillery is hardly news, but construction of a 65,000-square-foot distilling and bottling facility for Michter’s Distillery is nearly complete in Snively, noteworthy because the brand has been fully supplied on contract from other distillers. Statewide, distillers invested more than $233 million in new projects in 2011 and 2012, according to Eric Gregory, president of the Frankfort-based Kentucky Distillers’ Association, an industry trade group.

There’s also the $14.2 million investment by Heaven Hill Distilleries to build the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in Louisville and expand warehouse capacity, and a $50+ million investment by Jim Beam to increase bottling operations and build a new visitors center and research and development facility.

In fact, this is the best rate of growth in the bourbon biz since before Prohibition. The Shively project is the first time the Michter’s brand has had its own distillery since it was resurrected some dozen years ago, as like many of the newer rye brands, it’s been produced on contract at another distillery.

Rumors about other distilleries being opened or reopened are flying around Kentucky, and as other brands like Angel’s Envy begin to expand their modest portfolios, and the big distillers like Beam continue to expand into different aging and flavoring techniques, the one fact you can depend on is that there will continue to be more ideas coming from Kentucky. That’s one reason incorporating more American whiskey drinks onto your menu makes sense now, that and the outrageously good value they represent. You don’t need to run a niche cocktail or whiskey bar to be an evangelist for the real American spirit. You just need to be a savvy business person.

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