We like to close the year with a recount of significant happenings surrounding bourbon. 2019 continued many of the trends we’ve been observing in bourbon in recent years, but with some surprises along the way. There were ups, downs, and plenty in between. As 2019 draws to a close, journey with us as we look back at the year in review.
All indicators suggest the American Whiskey industry, which includes bourbon, continued its strong growth pattern in 2019. Large distilleries continued to expand operations and ramp up production, with production and supply reaching all time highs. Premium brands continued to drive growth, which can be evidenced first-hand simply by talking with your local liquor store. Rye’s resurgence continued as well, with demand growing for bourbon’s spicier sibling. Brands continued to focus on connecting with consumers and establish or maintain their identity within the expanding market.
In mid 2018 a 25% tariff was levied on bourbon and American whiskey exports by the European Union in response to U.S. tariffs put in place by the Trump Administration. It's theorized that the long term impact could have a significant impact on the industry, and as of late 2019, just over a year after the tariffs were imposed, evidence of a negative impact has already emerged.
Despite the tariffs, according to the Kentucky Distillers Association the bourbon industry is as strong as ever. As of January 2019, total bourbon inventory across the state reached 7.5 million barrels, the highest since 1972. Overall bourbon production more than doubled over the decade, increasing by 115% since 2009.
Because of bourbon’s growth in popularity and the nature of three tier system distribution, bourbon and whiskey enthusiasts have for a long time sought means to buy, sell, and trade rare whiskeys directly with one another in the aftermarket, otherwise referred to as the secondary market. While these off-record transactions have always occurred, over the past few years, secret Facebook groups slowly became the platform of choice, connecting willing buyers and sellers of rare and highly sought out whiskeys. Though threats had occurred in the past with little follow up, in 2019 Facebook cracked down heavily on groups formed for such a purpose. While the driving force behind this remains unknown and theories abound, Preston Van Winkle, the great-grandson of Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle and one of the key people behind the family-run Van Winkle brand, revealed onstage during a seminar at the Bourbon & Beyond festival that the Van Winkles had hired lawyers to engage in shutting down the secondary market on Facebook. Debates on the topic continue, as the demand for a platform to buy, sell, and traded these rare whiskeys - legal or not - remains strong.
Large distillery expansions continued, and the total number of craft distilleries across the United States remained strong at over 1,800 according to the American Craft Spirits Association.
Buffalo Trace is now three years into their massive $1.2 billion expansion. Notably, Buffalo Trace filled one of the historic Bourbon Pompeii fermenters for the first time in over a century. As a nod to E.H. Taylor, the fermenter is currently holding an old style sour mash whiskey.
Beam Suntory, Jim Beam's parent company, broke ground on their new Fred B. Noe Craft Distillery located at its Clermont, Kentucky site. It's part of a larger $60 million investment that includes overhauling their visitor experience.
Pernod Ricard continued their buying spree in 2019, acquiring a majority stake in downtown Louisville’s Rabbit Hole Distillery, a full stake in Texas based Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. and its Whiskey Ranch, and most notably, an 89.52% stake in Castle Brands, parent company of Jefferson's Bourbon.
In more disappointing distillery news, a large barrel storage warehouse at the O.Z. Tyler Distillery in Owensboro, Kentucky partially collapsed in June following the warehouse collapse at Barton 1792 distillery approximately one year earlier. Barton 1792 Distillery experienced another tragedy in 2019, as 120,000 gallons of mash spilled as a result of a tank collapse. In July, a warehouse fire at the Jim Beam in Versailles, Kentucky caused the loss of 45,000 barrels of bourbon. Runoff from the fire made its way into the Kentucky River and Glenns Creek, threatening wildlife and ultimately resulting in a $600,000 fine as a result of the environmental damage.
In late December, the bourbon world mourned the loss of Al Young, Senior Brand Ambassador of Four Roses who spent 52 years with the distillery. Young passed away on Christmas Day at the age of 77. Beginning in 1967 at the Louisville Seagram Distillery, Young worked his way up in the company and eventually became a brand ambassador in 2007. In 2017, Four Roses released a 50th Anniversary Small Batch Bourbon in Young’s honor. The bottle design was a throwback to the 1960s, representing Young’s start at the distillery.
Denny Potter, former Heaven Hill Master Distiller and Vice President of Operations, finished up his first year as the newly appointed Master Distiller and General Manager for Maker's Mark. Ironically, before joining Heaven Hill in 2013, Potter had previously spent 10 years at Maker's Mark.
A shock to the bourbon community, in May Master Distiller Marianne Eaves (Barnes) announced her departure from the historic Castle & Key distillery. Eaves had previously shocked the community approximately four years ago when she departed from Woodford Reserve to take on the Master Distiller role at the newly renovated Castle & Key distillery. Eaves left to pursue a consulting role within the industry.
Super premium releases continued to drive overall growth, and producers continued to release expensive limited releases to seemingly endless demand. However, a number of producers introduced new notable and exciting everyday bottlings giving bourbon enthusiasts something to get excited about. The disappearance of age statements has seemed to have finally reached its floor, and in some cases returned such as with Knob Creek Bourbon which lost its 9 year age statement in 2016, then announced it would return in 2019. Notably, Knob Creek also underwent a label redesign which debuted earlier this year.
In a surprising victory, Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bottled in Bond, a relatively common readily-available bourbon found for about $30 at the time, took first place in the 2019 San Francisco Spirits Competition. Being a single barrel "everyday" bourbon, this sparked a tidal wave of debate, including an opinion piece of our own.
On the topic of everyday bourbons, a number of new releases hit the market in 2019. Old Forester released Old Forester Rye, a sub $30 rye derived from their first new mashbill in 150 years. Four Roses released Small Batch Select, their fourth and highest proof ongoing release. After discontinuing their Kentucky-only 6 year Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond in 2018, Heaven Hill introduced a 7 year Bottled in Bond as its replacement. While the bourbon will eventually see nationwide distribution, Kentucky was not on the short list of first release states. Continuing their release trend, Heaven Hill also announced Elijah Craig Straight Rye which will become available in limited markets and Larceny Barrel Proof, which will become available nationwide - both scheduled for January 2020.
Like other recent years, 2019 saw plenty of limited releases. Wild Turkey released Master’s Keep Cornerstone Rye, their oldest rye ever. Heaven Hill released the first ever Parker's Heritage Collection rye, Heavy Char Barrels Straight Rye. The 13th edition in the Collection, this eight year old rye was met with a lukewarm response. Maker's Mark boarded the limited release train with its first ever nationwide limited release, Maker’s Mark Wood Finishing Series 2019 Limited Release: Stave Profile RC6. A cask strength release comprised of 255 barrels, each barrel was finished using 10 proprietary staves similar to Maker's private barrel program.
Buffalo Trace announced Eagle Rare 17 Year, one of the five bottles included as part of the annually released Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, would see a permanent increase in proof from 90 to 101. The bottle was also released at 101 proof the previous year in honor of the brand's original, and often forgotten, 101 proofpoint.
And then there were ultra-limited releases. The Woodford Baccarat Decanter, a $1,500 bottle, released in May. 299 bottles of Buffalo Trace's 20 year old Double Eagle Very Rare hit shelves at $1,999 per bottle. O.F.C. Vintage 1993 arrived briefly in late 2018/early 2019 at a suggested retail price of $2,500.
Matthew McConaughey and Wild Turkey launched Talk Turkey, a YouTube video series where McConaughey chats with inspirational people over a glass of bourbon. Now in his fourth year as Creative Director for the brand, McConaughey's unique marketing methods have received positive response within the bourbon community.
Jim Beam listed its American Stillhouse on Airbnb for a limited number of one night stays for the same price as a bottle of Jim Beam Black - $23 per night. Not surprisingly, the available nights which ran from October through December sold out immediately.
Bourbon festivals continued to bring people together. Its third year running, Bourbon & Beyond held in late September in Louisville, Kentucky expanded to three days of music, food, and bourbon. With 91,000 in attendance, it shattered its previous record. The Kentucky Bourbon Festival, also held in late September in Bardstown, Kentucky celebrated 27 years. And if you wanted to partake in a growing festival outside of Kentucky, the New Orleans Bourbon Festival, typically held in February/March, celebrated its third year.
Celebrity whiskeys, and other celebrity spirits for that matter, have continued to surge in popularity. In late 2019 Walking Dead Bourbon, a Spirits of the Apocalypse brand co-created by Diageo and Skybound Entertainment, was released in conjunction with the show's 10th season. It joined other celebrity style whiskeys including Metallica Blackened, Heaven's Door whiskeys, Wild Turkey Longbranch, Virginia Black, and Old Forester Statesman.
In 2019, bourbon further solidified its role in bringing people across the country together in a major way to raise money for good causes. While there were many successful charity drives on this front in 2019, two in particular are highlighted here.
Buffalo Trace once again donated bottles to charities to raise money for their causes with the 6 Millionth Barrel of Buffalo Trace Bourbon. Bottled in 375 ml bottles, Buffalo Trace released 400 bottles to charities across the country. While the total amount raised is still to be reported, we are happy to report that we helped a local charity who received a bottle raise awareness, and an unexpected infusion of funds, for their cause.
The Bourbon Crusaders, a diverse group of bourbon enthusiasts, once again spearheaded an effort to raise money for charity. Barrel Through Hunger, a joint effort with Four Roses Distillery and Fred Minnick, successfully raised approximately $375,000 to benefit food banks in Kentucky.
Breaking Bourbon celebrated five years in 2019! Since our initial launch, we’ve completed 260 in-depth whiskey reviews, launched Tasting Note Tuesdays, and posted a wide range of articles including opinions, surveys, flights, and face offs. We continually update our Bourbon and American Whiskey Release Calendar, which remains the most popular page on our site. In 2019, we moved the website to a new platform which resulted in a mobile responsive version and more robust underlying framework. We also introduced a Press Release section, where we publish syndicated industry news on an ongoing basis.
Our fan-supported Patreon campaign has helped us take Breaking Bourbon to the next level. Our Single Barrel Club, a benefit first introduced in late 2018, saw tremendous growth in 2019. We selected 15 barrels and released 13 to club members in 2019, with more on the way for 2020. Our fan-supported campaign has grown tremendously since launch and we want to take this opportunity to thank all of our supporters and retailer partners for making this possible.
Our online shop continues to grow and add custom new designs. In 2019 we expanded a number of designs and added custom caps and beanies. New designs will be released on an ongoing basis.
We are humbled by the growth in popularity of Breaking Bourbon, which has increased in popularity year over year at a feverish pace that we had not anticipated upon initial launch. In 2019, breakingbourbon.com saw nearly 2 million unique visitors serving up over 8 million pageviews, which is expected to grow significantly in the upcoming year.
Because of this incredible demand for bourbon-related content, we remain committed to being the world’s leading online source for bourbon enthusiasts. As we look forward to 2020 and beyond, we seek to curate and introduce new content that bourbon enthusiasts of all experience levels will find valuable.