The next time you sit down to order a bourbon at your local gentrified cocktail bar, likely choosing from a variety of craft distilleries and getting suggestions and tasting notes from your bartender along the way, stop to consider that it hasn’t always been this way.
“When I was 25 and ordered Wild Turkey 101, people looked at you like you were a roughneck who was gonna start a fight,” says Wild Turkey’s now grey-haired master distiller, Eddie Russell.
Having started as a union man working in Turkey’s distillery (where his father, Jimmy Russell, was the master distiller, and now, in his mid-80s, still hasn’t fully retired), Russell has been around long enough to remember the lean years, when clear liquors ruled the market and consumers were loathe to drink their “grandad’s bourbon.” If you fancied yourself sophisticated and worldy in the 1980s, you probably drank vodka, like James Bond. At the time, bourbon was marketed to a narrow demographic of early to middle-aged Southern men, Russell says. Good ol’ boys, basically.
These days, Russell is far from the only Kentuckian to note how things have changed, and you don’t have to be staring at a bar menu to notice. Business is booming at the Vendome Copper and Brass Works, where they make custom copper stills for distilleries. They’ve been open since 1903, but in the past eight years they’ve been producing 40-50 stills a year. If that doesn’t sound like a lot (keep in mind Vendome fabricates custom copper stills one at a time), consider that even a giant like Wild Turkey, owned by the Campari Group, only has one still. Consider that, according to Vendome, there’s currently “no market for used stills.” Which is to say, the stills out there are mostly all spoken for.
On a cool weekday morning at the Vendome factory in Louisville’s Butchertown neighborhood on the south bank of the Ohio river, workers are doing everything from welding, drilling, shaping, polishing, and etching, and they seem pretty committed. There’s a guy in denim overalls welding the seam on a big copper cylinder who rolls up a sleeve of his thermal to show me a tattoo. It’s a still, covering his whole right forearm. It’s easy to see why this kind of hands-on work looks attractive to laptop monkeys like myself. No one ever gets a spreadsheet tattooed on his arm.
As I walk through the factory, a buzzing hive full of polished copper where robotic drills work alongside human welders, drillers, and shapers, I notice all the workers are wearing the same type of hat — a sort of backwards baseball cap with a small brim, somewhere between skull cap and baseball hat.
“What do you call those hats?” I ask, raising my voice to be heard over the noise. Two guys working on a still door with welding torches pause their work and look at each other quizzically.
“I don’t know… I think they’re just called welding hats?” the first guy says. Cool, cool. I carefully scrawl out W-E-L-D-I-N-G H-A-T-S in my notebook, nodding thoughtfully.
Over at the Independent Stave Company, in Lebanon, Kentucky (by strange coincidence they also have a factory in Lebanon, Missouri), where they produce most of the barrels for aging bourbon (though it’s a popular misconception that all bourbon is required to come from Kentucky, it is a requirement that bourbon must be aged in new barrels), the tour guide says that seven years ago, the factory workers worked six-hour shifts, six days a week. These days they’re working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.
Unlike the welders, I don’t envy the coopers, stavers, and hoopers in the cooperage. Their facility is hot (for charring barrels) and the air is full of sawdust. Though watching people make barrels, an ancient skill, still feels like a kind of magic. From straight wood staves comes a water-tight vessel with elegant curves, no glue or nails required. Even watching it happen live, everything in your modern brain tells you it shouldn’t work.
But why bourbon? Why now? What makes this moment so primed for bourbon consumption?
My personal whiskey journey (don’t know if this is a thing, just go with it) began years ago, with tentative sips of Irish whiskey (my first step towards enjoying whiskey was the realization that you have to sip, not gulp, like a beer). Then one day I had Bulleit Rye at a party. It didn’t linger as much as the bourbons I’d had up until then, it just had kind of a boozy punch up front, without the long, cloying finish I’d always associated with bourbon.
I liked it. From there I sought out more ryes (…which have a mash bill of 51% rye, whereas bourbons are at least 51% corn), and eventually rediscovered bourbon.
Inside Wild Turkey’s old rickhouse (they’ve built a new one with money from their acquisition by the Campari Group, but the whiskey we’re tasting predates that), Eddie Russell dribbles me a taste of some 9-year-old bourbon, then some 9-year-old rye from a copper “whiskey thief” — basically a big fancy straw for getting whiskey out of a barrel using ancient vacuum magic (Wild Turkey would like you to know that they were making rye long before Bulleit). First off, yes, it does taste better straight from the barrel. The bourbon and the rye are both smooth, syrupy and delicious, despite the rye being 110 proof and the bourbon being about 115 (there’s a much longer explanation of the difference between barrel proof and bottle proof, and the relative advantages to aging at different proofs, in my last bourbon piece).
Of course, any liquor tastes better in the proper surroundings, and drinking syrupy bourbon in a musty rickhouse with a bourbon celebrity certainly qualifies.
The bourbon has a warm spice character, with a finish that tastes of cinnamon, or persimmon. The rye is just as smooth and syrupy, but the finish is more… let’s say puckery? Is that a word? I want to say spice, but that’s not quite right. There’s a sourdough crust effect. I think I like the bourbon slightly better, but that could just be because it’s easier to describe. Or maybe my taste buds have changed since I decided I liked rye. Or maybe it’s just because Wild Turkey is a high rye bourbon. In any case, Russell says of the rye, “My 28-year-old son thinks this is the best whiskey we’ve ever put out.”
The implication is clear: it’s the younger generation driving this rye resurgence. Which makes me rethink my entire personal whiskey journey. Was I just part of a worldwide trend? The only drink market growing faster than bourbon is rye.
“In 2009, there were 89,000 barrels of rye in the whole world,” Russell says. “Last year there were 600,000.”
The obvious question is “Why is this happening?” What creates a beverage trend?
Eddie Russell floats a number of theories, starting with the idea that millennials are less anti-establishment than his generation, the Boomers, who grew up protesting the war and trying to disassociate themselves with everything their parents loved. Today’s young drinkers, so his theory goes, have a less negative view of tradition, and are thus less averse to drinking what their parents or grandparents might’ve liked.
It’s not bad, as theories go. He mentions Bill Samuels from Maker’s Mark being the first to market bourbon to intellectuals in the late 80s (calling Samuels “more of a marketer,” a thinly veiled insult). But most of all, Russell credits the bartenders, who brought back classic cocktails, and, according to Russell, introduced bourbon to a younger generation. “Bartenders changed the industry forever,” he says.
But why did the bartenders start making bourbon cocktails? With the caveat of Maker’s Mark marketing to a different crowd, Russell is fairly adamant that bartenders rediscovering bourbon was spontaneous, and not the result of any marketing push on their (that is, the bourbon distillers’ old boys club) part. Which is funny. Whiskey is maybe the only industry where people fight not to take credit for a massively lucrative trend.
In the interests of tracing this phenomenon back to the source, I asked Nathan Gurr, the spirits director for Eli Zabar in New York and something of an authority in the bartending world, about who started the bourbon boom. Was it, as Eddie Russell posits, the bartenders and mixologists?
“I think that’s some of it. I think a lot of it also had to do with the variety that started showing up on the market. I noticed that happening about ten years ago,” Gurr says. “Ten years ago was about when Bulleit hit the scene. It was the first different bourbon out there that we’d seen in a little while. Now it’s super common. It’s funny, because I think it was the micro-distilling movement that really started getting it going, because that sort of generated an interest — at least for people that were coming into the bar at the time — like, ‘What’s that new bourbon’ and ‘What’s that new rye?’”
Wait, that can’t be totally right. Who would become a microdistiller if there was no market yet? It seems there’s a chicken-egg effect in trying to trace any trend. The distillers point to the bartenders, the bartenders point back at the distillers, and every now and then someone brings up Mad Men.
“The old fashioned came back because of Mad Men.” Gurr says. “Practically every business guy out there was totally into the old fashioned. They’d come in asking ‘How do you make your old fashioneds?’”
Aside from the Mad Men effect, there is a noticeable symmetry between the parallel rise of craft beer, craft whiskey, and craft cocktails. “We talk about this all the time but if you’re ever in a bar and people of a certain age come in, like my mom,” Gurr says, “and you want to make her a Margarita, one, she’ll never have heard of a Boulevardier, bourbon or rye, never heard of a Negroni. She’s heard of a Margarita but to her that just means tequila and sour mix. People started getting back into negronis and boulevardiers because the quality was back. Sour mix was out. Especially in a place like New York or San Francisco, London — you had people not only getting back into the original cocktails, but the idea that the quality of your cocktails is only as good as your cheapest ingredient. People started using premium bourbon and then the bourbon industry starts to answer.”
My suspicion is that the spark of the bourbon boom lives somewhere between organic food, craft beer, and “farm to table,” — all of which stem in some way from a desire to understand where and who your food or drink comes from.
The funny thing about bourbon and whiskey though, is that, as an aged product, its very nature makes it less suited to follow trends. Most of what you’re drinking is at least four years old. Which partly explains why a lot of the “micro” brands are a lot less micro than most would assume.
“Up until very recently,” Russell says, “you had about eight distilleries making all of the juice.”
As Daily Beast pointed out in a 2014 piece (with the perhaps overwrought subtitle “modern day snake oil”), most of Bulleit’s initial run of rye was produced in a factory owned by food ingredients giant MGP in Indiana. “Whiskey aged longer than a distillery has been in business is one of the telltale signs that the ‘distiller’ is actually just bottling someone else’s product.”
In other cases, large distilleries have put out whiskey under old brand names — once a brand goes dormant for long enough, any distiller can put out a product under the name. Such as in the case of JTS Brown, which was produced by Wild Turkey as late as the 1960s but is now owned by Heaven Hill; or Michter’s, a distillery that closed in 1989 during the downturn and was reintroduced during the 90s by Joseph J. Magliocco and “Dick” Newman, and didn’t start distilling their own product until the 2010s after the two bought a distillery in 2011. Further illustrating the incestuous nature of the bourbon industry, Magliocco says it was Eddie Russell’s father, Jimmy, who advised Dick Newman not to buy the historic Michter’s distillery in the first place when Russell did consulting work for them in the 80s.
From a profusion of brands following the repeal of prohibition, the industry contracted into just a handful in the seventies and eighties. Now many of them are coming back, though in many cases there’s little to no relation to the original makers of the brand. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve enjoyed many a Michter’s product, and it was, after all, an ahistorical yankee whiskey that started me down this bourbon trail in the first place.
The reason that whiskey brands don’t just come out and tell you that they’re bottling someone else’s juice, of course, is that tradition is trendy, something that’s both true and an oxymoron. Likewise, the marketing of bourbon can often be the marketing of claiming not to market (though Eddie Russell isn’t entirely immune to it — he does go on a short jag about Wild Turkey always having used 100% GMO-free grains).
It’s quaint, in sort of the same way that 19th century politicians had to somehow run for office while not campaigning, which was gauche. In the world of whiskey brand stories, there’s always an elaborate tale about a family recipe, a “lost barrel” that ended up being a happy accident, and always, always a bit about how We make the bourbon a certain way because that’s how we’ve always done it, and if it was good enough for pee paw…
Eddie Russell scoffs at the “lost barrel” stories, as if a distillery could “lose” a barrel in the middle of a bourbon boom. Of course, “straight talking cynic” is part of his brand, whether he knows it or not (I suspect that it’s both something that comes naturally and good business). When someone asks if the 100-year-old rickhouse is haunted, he pauses and says, “Yeah. I mean, if you believe in that shit.”
There’s always some trick to making great bourbon, like Maker’s choosing to rotate their barrels rather than blend, or my personal favorite, Hudson’s “sonic maturation process,” in which they play music to their whiskey.
Discussing all the tricks, all the origin stories, all the blah blah blah, with the bartender in the hotel bar at the 21C hotel in Louisville, the base for many a bourbon tourist — ie, someone who has probably heard more than his share of them — the bartender tells me, in his charming Irish accent, “Just once I want to hear someone say, ‘Why did I get into the whiskey business? Because I wanted to make a lot of fookin’ money.’”
I wouldn’t begrudge a distiller who was just in it for the money, just like I don’t begrudge them for wanting to tell a good brand story. Because the truth is, a good story does make it taste better. The world isn’t a blind taste test. A good cocktail is one part tasty drink, one part nice buzz, and one part pretending you’re James Bond or Don Draper or Hunter Thompson. The drink has always been inextricably tied up with the story, that’s part of the fun of drinking. Sometimes that means a marketing pitch, and sometimes it’s just a nice bartender or a cool bottle. It just so happens that all the different historical and pop culture forces have combined to make bourbon and rye a story we like hearing right now.
How much am I a connoisseur and how much am I just suggestible? It’s an interesting question that’s impossible to answer. All I know for certain is that the more I drink, the less I care.