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On National Bourbon Day, It's Worth Asking: What Started the Bourbon Boom?

Abbey Oldham, WKU Public Radio

Hartfield & Company opened their doors in September of 2015, making it the first bourbon distillery in Bourbon County since Prohibition. It’s a small craft operation that opened with little fanfare — but it’s already outgrown its space.

“We can’t keep our stuff on the shelf, actually,” says founder Andrew Buchanan. “We are currently in about 2,000 square feet, but to keep up with demand we need a much larger facility and are moving into about an 18,000-square-foot building.”

This is just one example of the “bourbon boom” that the spirit industry is experiencing, and it’s a development that has a real economic impact in the state. As part of the Kentucky Bourbon Affair — a six-day schedule of tours and tastings at local distilleries — Mayor Greg Fischer welcomed nearly 2,000 thirsty visitors to the city Tuesday.

“Today is National Bourbon Day, and there’s no better place to celebrate our signature spirit this week than Louisville,” Fischer said in a news release. “We look forward to sharing our unique Bourbon culture and booming culinary scene with a glass of Kentucky’s finest amber nectar.”

Fred Minnick, author of “Bourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker,” says the increased demand for bourbon didn’t actually start with drinkers, but with the producers.

“The thing is, bourbon has always been here, has always been supporting the state,” Minnick says.

In 2009, an additional sales tax was added to bourbon distillers. After that, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association decided they were tired of paying more taxes.

“If you bought a bottle of bourbon in the store, it was 60 percent tax,” Minnick says.

He says up until that point, distillers had often relied on “lore and legends” to sell their product, but they changed tactics to focus on the economic effects that bourbon had on the state. Distilleries began releasing or collaborating on impact studies in an effort to convince local governments to reduce taxes.

And it worked — leading, in part, to the subsequent surge in bourbon’s popularity.

A 2013 study by the University of Louisville found that Louisville is one of the biggest winners in the bourbon renaissance, with distillers providing 4,200 jobs, $263 million in payroll and $32 million in tax revenue each year.

Barry Kornstein, the lead researcher of the study, says bourbon also helps create jobs outside the industry.

“For every one job in the bourbon industry it leads to 3.5 jobs in other areas of the state, like in agriculture, for example,” Kornstein says.

And that number is growing, with nearly $130 million in capital investments as distilleries flock to the city and its historic Whiskey Row, including Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, Brown-Forman’s Old Forester Bourbon Experience, Angel’s Envy, Kentucky Peerless, the Bulleit Experience at Stitzel-Weller Distillery, the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse, Michter’s, Copper & Kings and more.

“One of the things (distillers) like to say is that there is more barrels of bourbon in Kentucky than people,” Minnick says. “It’s a fun little quote to throw out there, but it’s true. There is a lot of bourbon aging in warehouses here, and that’s all going to help build roads and schools and government infrastructure.” 

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