Published: August 2021
To earn the label of “bourbon,” distillers must follow a strict set of guidelines, from its corn content to its American origin. But despite the parameters that may seem to limit innovation, the bourbon industry is experiencing major changes and drawing in new drinkers to appreciate “America’s Only Native Spirit.”
From to the rise of the craft cocktail movement to DIY culture, demand for quality spirits is at an all-time high among consumers. As a result, bourbon production has been booming for the past 20 years, during which the number of barrels rolling out of distilleries nearly quadrupled. (However, tariffs imposed on American whiskey by the European Union in 2018 has meant a steep decline in bourbon exports.)
And despite the closures, protocols and pivots of 2020, sales of bourbon in the first half of 2020 were up almost 30 percent over the same period the previous year, thanks largely to off-premise sales.
The largest growth can be found online, where more consumers are turning to learn about, explore and shop for fine spirits. Those brick-and-mortar businesses that invested in an online presence during shutdowns are poised for success. Experts say online purchases will continue to rise post-pandemic.
With many tasting rooms temporarily closed last year, distilleries turned to social media to bring some of the bourbon experience to consumers, hosting virtual tastings and posting informative clips. As a result, more people than ever are learning about the spirit, contributing to changing demographics.
While the core bourbon drinker is still overwhelmingly an older white male, more young people, women and people of color are joining in. The number of Black or African-American bourbon drinkers is up 22 percent since 2013, while Asian bourbon drinkers rose 36 percent in the same period.
And though Kentucky remains the birthplace and of classic American bourbon, other places are staking a claim on the spirit, with regional styles growing in popularity. These local craft bourbons – from the Southwest, New York and Pacific Northwest – capture the unique flavors, botanicals and “terroir” of each region.
Bourbon makers are also experimenting with new blends and flavors, as well as kosher and organic varieties. Secondary barreling into a wine or spirit casks adds new complexity. These creative variations can act as a “bridge product” for new consumers to enter the market – drinkers who may one day be purchasing more high-end or traditional bottles.
From those “beginner” bourbons to streaming bourbon documentaries to bourbon social influencers, today’s consumers have an increasing number of entry points to the world of bourbon. Additionally, a craving for authentic experiences and a connection to the past ensure that bourbon will remain a top choice for drinkers for years to come.