About once a week, I’m asked: “When is this bourbon bubble going to pop?”
My canned answer offers an optimistic outlook for distillery stockholders, suggesting that we’ll experience another 20 years of bourbon growth and enthusiasm unless the distillers fuck up (which is possible) or the U.S. experiences trade woes (which could happen.)
I base my enthusiasm partly on covering the industry and reading market research, but much also comes from personal experience with new consumers.
At the Kentucky Derby Museum, convention groups hire me to host a bourbon bar, where I give a 15-minute talk about bourbon’s history / production styles and taste them through the differences between wheated bourbons, high-rye bourbons, extra barrel-finished products and/or non-Kentucky bourbons. I’m booked for national events, too, and I speak about my books at venues ranging from the Kentucky Historical Society to the New York Arts Club. Annually, I’ll interact with 25,000 to 50,000 know-nothing-about-bourbon consumers.
My most-prominent months are April and May, because of the Kentucky Derby, and every year I keep an unofficial log of how many vodka drinkers I’ve converted into bourbon fans and what bourbon was the favorite.
This year, I’m sad to report the vodka conversion rate was low. There’s a loyalist vodka surge that goes something like this: “Screw bourbon, give me cranberry, red bull and vodka.” I’ll ask: “which vodka?” They say: “Doesn’t matter.” Okay then.
For my bourbon poll, the hands-down favorite was Woodford Reserve Double Oak. My bar varies per event, but I consistently carried Four Roses Small Batch, Elijah Craig, Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve and Woodford Reserve Double Oak with occasional appearances of Angel’s Envy, Blanton’s, Booker’s, Larceny, Johnny Drum and Buffalo Trace. These observations were based on eight tastings, so this is by no means scientific data or even actionable information for you, the bourbon lover, but it’s an interesting gauge into how a new consumer tastes bourbon.
What I’ve learned is they’re looking for one really prominent note they can taste, which is why Woodford Reserve Double Oak makes sense. “I really like that chocolate note,” one consumer said. The use of a second virgin charred oak barrel gives Double Oak a plethora of chocolate and buttery notes that jump out of the glass in comparison to other products. In past observation years, new consumer palates picked MB Roland and Hudson Baby Bourbon (two younger craft products), indicating they like oak. (In a head-to-head taste off at the BookExpo America, Four Roses Small Batch out tasted Maker’s Mark by a margin of 3 to 1.)
This year, after consumers fell in love with Double Oak, they’d come back to taste the others. “But I still like Double Oak better. Where can I get that? And how much is Maker’s? Boy, I can really taste the spice in Four Roses. I need to get all three of these. Oh, and Elijah Craig… what’s that one made of again?”
That’s why I’m hopeful about bourbon’s future. Once new consumers taste a brand they like, they want to taste more…. unless they’re vodka and cranberry loyalists, in which case there’s no saving them.
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