Skip to main content

Bourbon’s Boom Fueled by Regional, Artisan Tastes

Many people choose to celebrate with spirits. From beer and wine to crafty cocktails, the market for alcoholic beverages has been booming for a while now and, even during the pandemic and beyond, it shows very little signs of stopping. Nowhere do we see more of a surge than in bourbon and whiskey.

People often confuse the terms “bourbon” and “whiskey.” It’s good to remember, as Food and Wine magazine reports, that all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Both brown liquors, they might appear to be the same, but there are some key differences.


First of all, bourbon is a type of whiskey, much the way that champagne is a type of sparkling wine. One of the things that makes bourbon distinct from other whiskeys is its aging and manufacturing processes. The type of grain and kind of barrels determine the type of whiskey—and, according to the American Bourbon Association—to be classified as a bourbon, the distillation must be a mixture of grains (a.k.a., “mash”) that is at least 51% corn. The sweeter flavor one tastes with bourbon is mostly due to the corn.


The type of barrel also is key: bourbon must be aged in new, charred white oak barrels. While other types of whiskey can be aged in other receptacles, such as rum, sherry, or port casks, bourbon must be aged in new, pristine white oak barrels for at least two years.


An important standard in bourbon production is that its mash needs to be distilled at 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume) or less, then aged in barrels until it is no higher than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol). The result is further filtered and diluted to no less than 80 proof (40% alcohol). These numbers make up the alcohol by volume (ABV) marks.


According to Forbes, there are some distinct trends to watch in the bourbon market. These include the growth of American single malt and the rise of different regional malts (such as “Nevada malt” or “Texas malt”). Speaking of Texas, it will increasingly be perceived as a major whiskey region. Forbes predicts that whiskey “tourism” in Texas will grow rapidly once the pandemic ends.


Another big trend is the experimentation of matching casks with the type of whiskey being matured. This points to more European oak, larger casks, casks from local cooperages, lighter char levels on barrels, and finishing casks unique to the region where the bourbon is produced.


The move toward eco-friendly, carbon-neutral, or reduced waste industrial facilities is here to stay, and some in the bourbon/distillery industry have attempted to meet many of the challenges involved in reducing their carbon footprint. Carbon neutrality can be achieved by balancing emissions of carbon dioxide with its removal (often through carbon off-setting). The term is used in the context of carbon dioxide-releasing processes associated with transportation, energy production, agriculture, and industry. Carbon neutral, or net zero carbon, can also be used to describe the state of a company, service, product, or event where the carbon emissions are balanced out by funding an equivalent amount of carbon savings elsewhere in the world.

Bourbon distillers are making a move toward eco-friendly, carbon-neutral, or reduced waste industrial facilities to reduce their carbon footprint.

From the Bluegrass State to the World


Kentucky reigns supreme when it comes to this liquid ambrosia. While bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky, most of it is; a whopping 95% comes from the region. The designation of “Kentucky bourbon” carries with it a certain cache—and it must be distilled and aged in the Bluegrass State. In fact, the name bourbon comes from what is now Bourbon County, KY.


As noted, bourbon has seen skyrocketing sales in recent years. International demand has put a spotlight on the industry, as well. Last year, Kentucky distillers filled more than 1.7 million barrels of bourbon (nearly quadruple the total from 1999). Production in Kentucky is the highest it’s been since 1972, according to data from the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA). And, while the term “boom” usually implies a “bust” on the horizon, most experts, including Nielsen, agree that there does not seem to be any slowing down this time.


Needless to say, the demand for bourbon has meant good things for regional Kentucky economies, according to the KDA. In fact, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association is the first and only organization in the state to advocate for Kentucky Bourbon and distilled spirits at local, state, federal and international levels. They work alongside their member distilleries and partners, helping to support “sound public policies, strong partnerships, and responsible initiatives to drive modernization and meaningful change.”

Bourbon sales are skyrocketing, and, to keep up, Kentucky bourbon distillers are producing at a rate not seen since 1972.

To learn about how Gray is perfectly positioned to partner with organizations to help grow the world of bourbon, visit our distillery experience.

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

    Get the Latest.