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Bourbon is beginning to settle into a “been there, done that” period. Since the bourbon boom started about a decade ago, producers have been looking for ways to stand out from the pack. Constant innovation and creative gimmicks can only last so long no matter the industry. As bourbon consumers finally come down off this “high,” the question arises: What direction will bourbon move to drive consumers to continually stay invested in it?

At this point it seems like every producer has offered a single barrel, double oaked bourbon, a plethora of wine, wood, and spirits finishes, and so on. Every time a company announces their new finished bourbon, I ask myself the question, how is their release any different from the hundred others that came before it? Is their brand strong enough to get people to care about their yet another [insert finishing style here] bourbon?

If we’re not there yet, we’re dangerously close to reaching a plateau of consumer interest regarding bourbon’s next new finishing style. You can only feed the beast of consumer excitement for the next new thing for so long before complacency sets in. Demand for limited editions from well known brands will remain, but the industry can’t survive on $150+ bottles of bourbon. Just like how the “chase” is fun for a period of time before it fades, one’s appetite for the next quirky style eventually becomes fulfilled.  

Where does bourbon go from here? Like with anything in life, when the pendulum swings far enough in one direction, it eventually returns with even more momentum in the opposite direction.

If outside finishing and other flavor agents resulted in the previous creative driving force of bourbon products, then the opposite of that would be good old fashioned straight whiskey-making. I’m not talking about an across-the-board concentration of identical flavor profiles in the industry, but instead, producers offering one-of-a-kind flavor profiles simply based on their own unique distilling prowess and regional distinctiveness. Unique flavors based on how the whiskey is made rather than an outside agent changing the whiskey from one thing into another.

This isn’t some far off concept but one that is happening now, and before you know it, could very well drive the direction of bourbon and consumer spending in the near future. While finished whiskeys are still selling great for some brands, I have little doubt that finished whiskeys will begin to be phased out over the next 5 years, or at least we just won't see new ones released in numbers like we are seeing today. There will always be demand for something that tastes special or a bourbon with a potent flavoring, but bourbon’s intrinsic old fashioned, no-frills nature could come back in a big way. It will be the combination of these two core concepts that could very well drive bourbon for the next decade with a more artisan flair.

There are a growing number of distilleries that are making a name for themselves based on a unique flavor profile. Where once oddball flavor profiles were chalked up to craft distilleries' lack of experience and poor quality of ingredients, that is no longer the case. Bourbon overall is no longer being made to taste like carbon copies of Kentucky bourbon, and instead, we’ll see an acceleration and celebration of those that taste and smell differently based on their own distilling merit, terroir, and other regional factors.

Some of these distilleries with highly unique flavor profiles and styles currently include (but aren't limited to): 291 Distillery, Balcones, Breuckelen, Chattanooga Whiskey, Corbin Cash, Finger Lakes Distilling (McKenzie), Frey Ranch, Garrison Bros., Hillrock Estate Distillery, Jeptha Creed, Leopold Bros., Mile High Spirits (Fireside), New Holland (Dragon’s Milk), Tom’s Foolery, and Wollersheim.

These distilleries all feature a one-of-a-kind flavor profile that isn’t like anything else on the market, but with that, they also run the risk of lacking broad appeal. Much like how the music, television, and movie industries moved to more specialized niche sub-genres, widespread communal connection gets lost during this transition. It is much harder to judge what is successful on a pure sales level or widespread word of mouth when the potential consumer pool is smaller due to a more niche appeal.

There are always new people getting into bourbon, and they will likely follow the same path many before them traveled. But with any boom and a quick rush of new people into a market like we’ve just seen over the past decade, it will be how the bourbon industry retains them, and relying on the status quo wouldn’t lead to that. With such a large group of now experienced bourbon drinkers, they may be ready to finally move past the big Kentucky distilleries and look for more challenging and unique tasting pours. That’s great news, as there are more amazing and diverse American whiskeys available now than ever before. The time of finished bourbon is likely coming to a close, and in so doing give rise to an authentic era of true artisan bourbon.

Where do you see bourbon going over the next decade? Do you agree finished whiskey will be phased out? What will sustain bourbon for the next decade?

Written By: Eric Hasman

March 27, 2024
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