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Spirits

Bourbon Thrives in a Post-Pappy Era

April 21, 2021

Story: Aaron Goldfarb

photo: Raphaelle Macaron

Spirits

Bourbon Thrives in a Post-Pappy Era

April 21, 2021

Story: Aaron Goldfarb

photo: Raphaelle Macaron

In the final installment of a three-part series, Aaron Goldfarb examines the last decade, a period of single-barrel madness and craft whiskey’s coming of age.

By 2010, bourbon was finally enjoying an upward trajectory in America. It had become an almost $2 billion industry, with 135 million liters sold that year. (Remarkably, by the end of the decade, both those totals would nearly double.) An impassioned community was beginning to form, demonstrated by the crop of dedicated whiskey emporiums popping up across the country, like Longman & Eagle (Chicago, 2010), Jack Rose Dining Saloon (Washington, D.C., 2011), Canon (Seattle, 2011) and so many others. Bourbon fanatics were gathering online, too, on Reddit, Instagram, and in rough-and-tumble Facebook buy/sell groups; offline they were likewise forming countless regional bourbon clubs nationwide. Amid this fervor, new brands were vying for market share, and bourbon drinkers no longer had to content themselves with the brown water coming from the big players in Kentucky and Tennessee. Though, before long, many would learn that so much of what they coveted was all sourced from a single factory in Indiana. Now in 2021, even more new bourbon makers have burst onto the scene, showing promise for a future in which you still won’t get your hands on a bottle of Pappy or Buffalo Trace Antique Collection—and that’s fine.

This is the final installment in a three-part series exploring the major trends that defined each 10-year period of the bourbon revival, beginning in the late 1980s. This edition covers 2010 up to today.

You Down With MGP?

With bourbon red hot, new brands began springing up left and right hoping for a piece of the pie. High West opened in Park City, Utah, in 2006. Smooth Ambler arrived on the edge of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia in 2009, followed by Redemption Rye, Templeton Rye and Bulleit Rye. Whiskey aficionados loved them all. But then, in 2014, The Daily Beast’s Eric Felten rocked the industry with his incendiary article “Your ‘Craft’ Whiskey is Probably From a Factory Distillery in Indiana.” It revealed that all of this newfangled, critically acclaimed whiskey was actually coming out of a “hulking factory” known as Midwest Grain Products, or MGP, in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

The Push for Transparency

The revelation that multiple labels were bottling liquid from the same source immediately brought the issue of transparency to the forefront for brands and consumers alike. The labels that openly acknowledged that they sourced from MGP (Smooth Ambler, for instance) were accepted and continued to thrive. Conversely, those who doubled down and masked their products in subterfuge lost all credibility. Even today, new MGP-fueled brands, like Smoke Wagon and Untitled Whiskey, continue to garner critical acclaim. Meanwhile, craft brands that do not source their liquid began exercising extreme transparency—proudly revealing their production methods, mash bills and barrel char levels directly on the label—making it patently clear that they made their own damn liquor, ushering in a new era of craft whiskey transparency.

Pick a Barrel, Any Barrel

Single barrels of bourbon and rye from Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Willett and even Pappy Van Winkle had long been sold to bars, restaurants and individual collectors. In the mid-2010s, however, major Kentucky distilleries began to focus specifically on their single-barrel programs; a hand-in-hand response to the rise of private bourbon clubs across America. Eventually, it got to the point that if your group wasn’t selling its own barrel “picks” to members, you didn’t really have a bourbon club worth a damn. These bottlings of Old Weller Antique, Russell’s Reserve and Four Roses Single Barrel represented their own sort of limited editions and, naturally, prices were driven sky-high on the secondary market. But by 2018, as these private groups became more interested in the goofy sticker labels than the juice inside, private barrels were beginning to jump the shark. Today, the onslaught of single-barrels has rendered them similar to garden-variety shelf whiskey: A few releases are great, many are average, most are ignored.

Craft Whiskey Grows Up

In the early years of the craft whiskey boom, most connoisseurs decried the new brands as too young, too grainy and way too expensive. Then, as the 2010s came to a close, a funny thing happened. Craft distillers started making whiskey good enough for the geeks. The change had little to do with age, either. On the Kentucky/Ohio border, New Riff Distilling was playing around with malting and mash bills. Also in Kentucky, Wilderness Trail Distillery employed unique yeast strains and mashing, while Indiana’s Starlight Distillery and Nevada’s Frey Ranch brought agricultural acumen to the whiskey-making process. They leaned into the online bourbon scene as well, offering the kinds of limited releases and single-barrel picks that collectors love. As the well runs dry on well-aged MGP stocks, and with Pappy and other LEs already prohibitively expensive, today’s American bourbon connoisseurs are increasingly looking toward craft distilleries to covet, hype up and clear from the shelves.

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