The Unconventional Story of American Bourbon Whiskey
Often enveloped in a haze of cigar smoke, a smooth Kentucky straight bourbon is the quintessential image of sophisticated Americana. Unlike other spirits, bourbon has a unique set of rules and must delve deep into its American roots. For a whiskey to be a bourbon, the production needs to stay in the United States.
But there was a time when this American classic teetered on the brink of extinction. That’s right. Bourbon almost bit the dust, and it wasn’t due to some grand regulatory roadblock, but an essential component of the free market—consumer demand. Here’s a look at the fascinating tale of how American bourbon whiskey narrowly escaped oblivion back in 1968.
The Rise and Fall
The Initial Boom:
Post World War II, whiskey had become somewhat of a status symbol. The roaring 50s brought about a lifestyle filled with elaborate cocktail parties, and nothing was fancier than saying you sipped on bourbon regularly. Rapid industrialisation permeated the bourbon industry as brands expanded to meet the booming consumer demands, prompting a surge in its popularity.
Bourbon’s Brush with Extinction:
However, by the time the 1960s rolled around, the tide had turned. Bourbon was no longer the sophisticated drink of choice among Americans. Vodka and tequila began to rise in popularity as the public’s tastes pivoted towards lighter, mixed drinks. Fewer and fewer people were reaching for that smoky, caramel-colored bourbon, and before long, demand was spiralling downwards. At the same time, the previously thriving distilleries were producing at full throttle, oblivious to the sea change in the market demand now looming over them.
The Bourbon Glut
The decline in demand coupled with overproduction led to a massive bourbon glut by 1968. Distilleries were filled to the brim with excess stock, and prices plummeted. Financial pressures led to consolidation or outright closures for many distilleries. The industry was on the brink of collapse, and American bourbon whiskeys seemed destined to gather dust in the corner of forgotten liquor stores.
The Resurrection of Bourbon: The 80’s Marked a Turnaround
The Unlikely Saviour – The Single Barrel Bourbon
Interestingly, as the future of bourbon looked grim, an unusual saviour emerged – single barrel, premium bourbon. The idea was introduced by Elmer T Lee in the early 1980s to revive the struggling bourbon industry. Single barrel bourbon assured the drinker that their bourbon came from one unique barrel, not a blend from multiple vats. This revamped production technique spawned a fresh interest among the consumers who were now intrigued by the exclusivity of the single barrel concept.
Premium and Craft Brands Revive the Scene
Additionally, the 1980s also saw the rise of small-batch brands, each fighting to produce the most distinctive, flavorful bourbon. This encouraged fine bourbon appreciation and brought in a new generation of enthusiasts. Consequently, bourbon, particularly high quality, small-batch bourbon, saw an uptick in appreciation and demand.
The Bourbon Boom Today
Fast forward to now, and bourbon is back and thriving. Bourbon tourism is a considerable draw in states like Kentucky and Tennessee. To the delight of enthusiasts worldwide, distilleries that once lay dormant are now being brought back to life and contribute to the rich, authentic heritage of American bourbon whiskey.
In essence, the bourbon industry’s turbulent journey since the 1960s is a testament to the enduring spirit of bourbon. From brushing shoulders with extinction to its triumphant resurgence, bourbon whiskey is a tale of American resilience. Like a perfectly aged bourbon, this story serves as a smooth yet complex reminder to all, that notwithstanding the highs and lows, it’s never wise to count out the enduring spirit of American bourbon whiskey.