Kentucky Derby

15 June, 2016

Meanwhile the world was catching up with Kentucky. So what happened?

There have been three significant developments which have turned the world of bourbon on its head in recent years and will ensure that the state’s whiskey industry will never be quite the same again.

The craft distilling revolution, first ignored, then dismissed by some as a distraction, has refused to go away. Indeed, the number of new distillers has continued to grow. A couple of months ago the American Distilling Institute reported its 1,000th member.

Unsurprisingly, many of the new wave of distillers are making bourbon and, while straight bourbon must be matured for a minimum of two years and the giants of Kentucky mature their spirit for significantly longer, a corn whiskey need spend only seconds in a virgin oak barrel to be called ‘bourbon’.

That means some of the new distillers are playing footloose and fancy free with the quality of their bourbons – something which initially concerned the guardians of quality in Kentucky and beyond.

“The problem is, if a guy buys something called bourbon in New York and it tastes nothing like it should, then the guy’s going to take a poor image of the category,” Julian Van Winkle once said to me. “While it’s good that people are getting to hear about bourbon, it’s not good if they’re trying bad spirit.”

A few years on, though, it seems that what has happened is a new generation of affluent urban drinkers have heard of bourbon through excellent style bars such as The Whisky Lounge in New York and, with disposable in-come to call on, they have gone back to the source and discovered Kentucky’s finest bourbons, developing a premium market in the process.

Charles Marshall, consigliere at Spirit Cartel, which markets Four Roses, says consumers are turning to recognised brands because they have better education and know to seek out the proven heavyweights.

“Consumers are becoming more aware of the link between small-batch, craft-produced liquor and a high level of quality,” he says. “They actively seek bars that offer this point of difference and are prepared to pay a premium for them. However, brands need to be able to back up the craft and premium claims.

“We’re not worried about the pretenders. Premium, authentic whiskeys such as Four Roses will always shine through. It’s been around since the days of Whisky Row back in 1888, with more provenance than you can shake a stick at and it’s made with premium ingredients – for these reasons it’s on fire.”

Fernando de Vicente Meirás, senior global marketing manager GTR for Beam Suntory, says consumers are seeking reassurance from established names across the entire brown spirits category.

“Consumers of bourbon are consumers of premium brown spirits in general, be it single malts, bourbon or cognac,” he says. “They have demonstrated their desire to explore the category as a whole, rather than remaining loyal to one spirit. As a company we are working with this in mind to create products of outstanding quality, innovation, tradition and heritage to respond to our consumers’ tastes and capture the loyalty of this group.”

So, while the established names have been able to hold off the new competition and actually feed off it, the new attention, particularly from younger drinkers, has resulted in the second distinctive trend – a period of sustained innovation and new product development.

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