Kentucky Derby

15 June, 2016


At the turn of the millennium bourbon was still positioned on the bottom shelf and had an image problem. Now virtually every Kentucky bourbon has been given a packaging makeover and there’s been a succession of brand extensions – everything from special finishes such as Beam Double Oak and Devil’s Cut to a more ‘youth friendly’ Wild Turkey 81, with an abv of 40.5% instead of the meatier 50.5% of Wild Turkey 101.

“The launch of Wild Turkey 81 was an acknowledgement that different drinkers want different things,” says Jimmy Russell’s son Eddie, who has taken on much of the brand ambassadorial duties for Wild Turkey. “It’s not a criticism of Wild Turkey 101 – more a recognition that some people don’t like their spirits so strong.”

The increase in interest among younger drinkers, who are drawn to bourbon’s sweetness and flexibility as a core spirit in cocktail making, has forced the bourbon companies to take the fashion market more seriously, says Beam’s de Vicente Meirás.

“Innovation in such a diverse and dynamic sector is a must, not a choice, and there are a number of ways that travel retail is spearheading innovation in the spirits business.

“Beam Suntory is responding to this opportunity with a robust pipeline of new product innovations, as well as products launched exclusively into travel retail where consumers proactively seek a unique offering that is unique to that environment.

“We’re passionate about creating new, innovative, best-in-class pro-ducts that honour the long tradition of our company and legacy of our master distillers,” he says.

“Innovation in such a diverse and dynamic sector is a must, not a choice, and there are a number of ways we are spearheading innovation in the spirits business. Beam Suntory is responding to this opportunity with a robust pipeline of new product innovations.”

The third significant development has been the growth of spirits drinks with added flavours. The rules governing bourbon production are very strict, and nothing can be added to the basic mix of grain, yeast and water matured in new oak barrels. But that hasn’t stopped a huge growth in the number of whiskeys flavoured with honey, maple, and cinnamon.

Unsurprisingly the shorthand for such drinks is flavoured whiskeys – and they are huge.

This is an area where there is a potential problem with the newer craft distillers, some of whom are using the word ‘bourbon’ for a variety of concoctions which include coconut and a range of fruit juices.


So what is the effect of all the changes? Has the heart of bourbon been swept away and its core values diluted?

Absolutely not. While the bottles might be fancier, some of the off-shoot products more bizarre, and the overall marketing image more glitzy, at their core the great bourbons remain unchanged or improved, and a growing premium bourbon category is exciting drinkers across the world.

Kentucky’s distilleries report healthy and growing sales figures in a large number of markets and point to the fact that in many territories they are only beginning to scratch the surface. With potential markets such as India and China only just starting to open up, there is massive optimism about the future.

According to Marshall of Four Roses, the balance between big and small distilleries with the likes of Four Roses and Maker’s Mark in the middle, make for a winning formula.

“The behemoths recruit the punters to the category but the likes of Four Roses will make sure they stay,” he says.

“The increase in the popularity of bourbon has led to an overall boost in bourbon drinking across the board, from large-scale established producers to smaller, high-quality craft distillers.

“We know we’ve only scratched the surface with Four Roses in markets such as the UK and we’re looking forward to taking it to the next level. People want high-quality, craft spirits and they are gaining in popularity week by week in an increasingly diverse and exciting UK bourbon scene. This is a trend we expect to see carry on into the immediate future.”

Back in Kentucky, where new warehouses, visitor centres and even distilleries reflect the growing confidence, there’s a collective shrug of the shoulders when you talk of all the fuss.

“It’s all and good these folk drinkin’ bourbon in these new-fangled ways,” says one distiller with a glint in his eye. “But what’s wrong with bourbon on the rocks or maybe with a splash of water?”

And with that he lifts his glass, winks, and takes a hefty slug. “Just as it should be,” he says. And you know bourbon is still in safe hands.

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