Bourbon's Fall and Rise

By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson, Drinks Editor

According to Foodable Labs data, brown spirits increased in popularity among Millennial drinkers by 37 percent in 2016. Likewise, brown spirits drove 38 percent of overall drinking occasions in August 2016 up from 27 percent in July. This is the greatest shift in any spirit category in the past two years, and bourbon – particularly brands under the Buffalo Trace marquee – has been instrumental in this success.

America's Native Spirit

More than half century ago in 1964, the United States Congress enacted a resolution stating that bourbon was “America’s native spirit”. This firm statement paved the way for bourbon’s future, ensuring that no other country could make whiskey and call it bourbon. It’s ironic that, while bourbon was being celebrated as a national treasure, it was also experiencing a painful down slide in popularity that continued up into the 2000s. Today, though, given the almost fanatical following that individual bourbons can engender (let’s call it “the Pappy Factor”), it’s tough to imagine that bourbon was ever the ugly stepchild.

Despite a triumvirate of bad luck – Prohibition, World War II, and the rise of vodka – bourbon slowly staged a comeback over the decades. If Prohibition ushered in bourbon’s downward spiral, then the cocktail renaissance of the 21st century helped re-launch it – and other whiskey styles like rye – into the collective booze-curious zeitgeist, not just the connoisseur’s circle.  According to the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Tax and Trade Bureau, corn used in spirits production rose by 176 percent and rye by 64 percent from 2010 to 2014.

While people continue to explore the many facets of the whiskey world, bourbon tends to be at the top of the list in popularity. According to Fred Minnick, author of Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey, “Maker’s Mark is the most important brand to bourbon’s revival.” First bottled in 1958, Maker’s was instrumental in creating the super premium category with an accessible flavor profile (heavy on the wheat) and memorable branding, particularly the eye-catching red wax seal on the neck of the bottle.

Defining 21st Century Bourbon

Today, Maker’s has a loyal following, but the Buffalo Trace Distillery, with brands that include Blanton’s, Eagle Rare, George T. Stagg, and Pappy Van Winkle, has become a force of nature. “Before it was called Buffalo Trace Distillery,” explains Minnick, “George T. Stagg/Ancient Age master distiller Elmer T. Lee created the first commercially available single barrel bourbon and named it Blanton’s in 1984. That bourbon led the single barrel and small batch movement that helped bring bourbon back. As the Buffalo Trace distillery, the facility and its people have owned the 2000s, bringing home all the major awards and creating unprecedented limited-edition bourbon demand in its Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and its partnership with the Van Winkle family.”

To date, the distillery’s brands have won more than 500 awards. Bottles of Pappy have led to bidding wars in recent years and, these days, bottles are allocated to bars and shops with laser-like precision. The yearly release of the Antique Collection, which showcases a selection of the year’s best American whiskeys, is eagerly anticipated by enthusiasts. The brand’s more easily attainable bottlings like Eagle Rare and Stagg dot the back bars of establishments across the country. While debate continues to rage about how long the bourbon bubble will or won’t last, Buffalo Trace continues business as usual and the world of whiskey continues to grow.

Not only has bourbon ensured whiskey’s revival, it has paved the way for whiskeys of every ilk. Irish and Canadian styles are exploding once again, while Japanese whisky has started knocking American brands off the number one spot in competitions. Given all these factors, it is unlikely that the popularity of brown spirits will dissipate any time soon.

Five American Whiskeys to Try

Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon – Taste the bourbon that inspired the small batch explosion. The flavors will make you think you are about to sip dessert – vanilla, nutmeg, and caramel are tempered by the strong presence of corn.

Four Roses Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey – The higher proof on this bourbon gives it lots of body as well as an inherent smoothness. On the nose, there is caramel, vanilla, and cocoa. On the palate, it’s all dark cherries and plums.

High West Rendezvous Rye – If you love rye, Rendezvous will not disappoint. A blend of two whiskeys, it captures the best of both. The 16 year old rye is rich and complex, while the 6 year old offers up the big spice notes for which rye is known. Try this in a Manhattan and you will never look back.

Slow Hand Organic Barley Whiskey – This quirky bottling from Greenbar Distillery explores aging in a variety of woods not usually used for aging. A combination of hickory, maple, mulberry, red oak and grape bring elements of spice, vanilla, butterscotch, and even black tea to the mix. The grain base is organic barley fermented into beer, then distilled.

Wigle Organic Monongahela Straight Rye Whiskey – Made in Pittsburgh by a family distillery, Wigle has revived the style that was born in Western Pennsylvania. Even spicier than the standard rye, Monongahela offers up notes of caramel and black pepper, as well as the richness of oak aging.