Over the past three decades, bourbon has gone from the brink of extinction to a booming industry and highly sought-after commodity in the spirits world. This is the first in a three-part series examining the major trends that defined each decade of the modern bourbon boom, beginning with the 1990s.
After hitting peak sales in 1970 with 80 million cases moved, for the bulk of the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, bourbon was on the decline as white spirits like vodka dominated the American palate. During this “glut” era, more bourbon was produced than anybody wanted to drink. In desperate attempts to acquire new customers, distilleries pivoted to questionable innovations like flavored bourbon liqueurs (see: Wild Turkey Honey in 1976) and light whiskey.
By the mid-1980s, bourbon was so ignored in its home country that distilleries began to look toward Japan, whose youth were in the throes of an obsession with Western culture. Blanton’s—the world’s first commercial single-barrel bourbon—became a hit in Japan after launching in 1984, as did Four Roses, a once-venerable brand left for dead in the United States. The groundwork was being laid for bourbon makers to see new ways to regain favor with American audiences: luxury releases, limited-edition bottlings and lofty age statements. Here are the trends that set the foundation for the modern bourbon boom.
The Birth of Small Batch
Today, “small batch” is a meaningless descriptor often attached to releases comprised of 200 barrels, but back in 1988, when Booker Noe started selling his eponymous Booker’s Bourbon, it really meant something. So did the fact that Booker’s was unfiltered and bottled at a scorching cask strength, around 130 proof, something that had never been done before. As master distiller—and Jim Beam’s grandson—the imposing Noe (6’4”, over 300 pounds) began traveling the world, espousing the greatness of his beloved spirit. He was the first “celebrity” master distiller in America, regaling big city audiences with his homespun (and likewise unfiltered) Kentucky charm. His grassroots efforts slowly began taking hold, and by 1992 Jim Beam had released an entire Small Batch Collection, adding Basil Hayden’s, Baker’s and Knob Creek to the mix. With thoughtful packaging and prices in line with single malt Scotch, the collection began luring a certain swath of American drinkers into the bourbon world. Other distilleries soon followed suit, offering their own “small batch” products, like Wild Turkey Rare Breed (1991), Brown-Forman Woodford Reserve (1996), and Four Roses Small Batch (2006).
Pappy at Your Service
Although a household name today, Pappy Van Winkle was hardly ballyhooed when the 20-year-old Family Reserve first hit liquor store shelves in 1994 at $80. For many, the lofty price tag, albeit reasonable by today’s standards, struck many as a desperate ploy by owner Julian Van Winkle III to save a sinking business. The grandson of Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, he had taken over the Old Rip Van Winkle distillery in 1981 when his father died. Thirtysomething and with four young children, he tried to make money in the dying bourbon business any way he could, initially by hawking gimmicky decanters with cartoonish decorations. When he began releasing 12-, 15- and then 20-year-old bourbons, it was easy to assume this was just a man praying he could clear out his potentially overaged stock. And then the professional critics got to it: The bourbon scored 99 out of 100 at the Beverage Tasting Institute’s 1998 World Spirits Championship. Eventually food industry celebrities—Sean Brock, David Chang, Anthony Bourdain—developed their own crushes. It was a slow, word-of-mouth build that ultimately lent the brand its fame and prestige. Just last year, the release of Wright Thompson’s bestselling book Pappyland canonized the brand, and today, a full set of the five annual Van Winkle releases goes for over $10,000 on the secondary market.
Bourbon Goes Online
As early as 1995, back when few people drank bourbon and even fewer claimed CompuServe accounts, Jim Butler, a programmer in Silicon Valley, was working on making a dedicated website for his bourbon passion. In 1997 he launched the noncommercial, “information only” Straightbourbon.com to assess bottles. It wasn’t until 1999, when he added a forum for discussion, that it began changing the industry. Early touting of sleeper bottles, like Julian Van Winkle’s Old Commonwealth, began here, as did now-common collector parlance like “bunker,” a growing collection of unopened stock, and “dusty hunting,” a term denoting the search for bottles hiding in plain sight on liquor store shelves. Online members began to meet IRL in Bardstown, Kentucky, and Santa Rosa, California, to chew the fat and drink coveted bourbons from the past. Soon, other forums began to spin off followed by blogs, podcasts and private members’ groups. Today, bourbon collecting appears to exist largely in the virtual world, where bottles are often traded but rarely opened—but it wasn’t always that way.
When the Kentucky Distillers’ Association launched the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in 1999, they demonstrated significantly more foresight than befitted demand at the time. For the previous two centuries of bourbon production, visiting distilleries was not a common practice. Today’s Trail membership sits at 18 official locations (up from seven in its inaugural year), many with well-orchestrated tours, ticketed tastings and gift shops more suited to an amusement park. In 2019, nearly 2 million people visited the Bourbon Trail—a record high—helping generate $8.5 billion for the commonwealth. For better or worse, road trips to the Trail remain a popular getaway even during the pandemic, a sure sign of the fervor of the modern bourbon nut.