Who Brought Bourbon Back?

In my new book, Bourbon: The Rise, Fall & Rebirth of An American Whiskey, I pay tribute to the men and women who built bourbon and brought it back from near extinction. These are the most important groups for bourbon’s rebirth. Next week, I detail the most-important brands.

5. Bourbon Clubs

The Bourbon Women organization was founded in 2011. Eric Gregory, KDA president (left), and Peggy Noe Stevens, founder of BW. The fact this organization's kickoff meeting was in the Kentucky Governor's mansion shows how far bourbon clubs have come.
The Bourbon Women organization was founded in 2011. Eric Gregory, KDA president (left), and Peggy Noe Stevens, founder of BW. The fact this organization’s kickoff meeting was in the Kentucky Governor’s mansion shows how far bourbon clubs have come.

Today, you’ll find hundreds of bourbon clubs that range from the Bourbon Women to StraightBourbon.com. The original groups became defacto domestic ambassadors to whiskey in the 1990s, bringing co-workers and family members into the enthusiast fold and planned vacations around the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Without these groups speaking the bourbon gospel, distillers could not make a case to their bosses that the spirit had a blossoming enthusiast audience. Of course, marketers need not look any further than Reddit, Facebook or Twitter to see people love bourbon. But in the day of fax machines, CEOs couldn’t just click a button; they actually went to the meetings to see bourbon’s impact.

 

4. Writers

Author Chuck Cowdery (left) with Jim Beam's Fred Noe.
Author Chuck Cowdery (left) with Jim Beam’s Fred Noe.

If not for former Maker’s Mark master distiller Kevin Smith telling me bloggers and writers brought bourbon back, I’d have never considered my profession, but it’s true that bourbon goes nowhere without people discussing trends, tasting notes and educating the masses about production. I entered the scene in 2006 to an already established field. Before me, legends Jim Murray, Gary (Gaz) Regan, Chuck Cowdery, Michael Jackson, John Hansell and Paul Pacult built the audiences. Of this group, only Chuck focused on solely American whiskey, solidifying the foundation for what I’m able to do today. All but Jackson are in the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame.

 

3. International Markets

Today, all major bourbon brands eye exports, but Japan and Australia led this enthusiasm in the 1990s.
Today, all major bourbon brands eye exports, but Japan and Australia led this enthusiasm in the 1990s.

In the 1980s, Japan drank so much bourbon it actually motivated distillers to create brands (Blanton’s) just for this market. Australia was similar, and Rebel Yell invested millions into bumping Jack Daniel’s in Australia. Both countries carried bourbon into the 1990s, by which time there were subtle signs of domestic growth in the super premium category thanks to Maker’s Mark. But without Australia and Japan who’s to say that companies do not pursue small batch and single barrel strategies.

 

2. Bars

Delilah's in Chicago started the bourbon bar movement.
Delilah’s in Chicago started the bourbon bar movement.

The single most important bourbon bar since the 1980s is Delilah’s, a Chicago bar that placed a neon Maker’s Mark light in its bar, an outside-the-box marketing tactic for the time, and invested in carrying every possible American whiskey. They made bourbon cool in a time nobody cared. No. 2 is Bourbons Bistro, which opened in 2005, but it took the owners four years to receive financing, because banks didn’t believe a bourbon bar could survive in Louisville, Kentucky. Bourbons Bistro led to the Urban Bourbon Trail and helped give my city pride in its whiskey heritage. Today, Louisville’s mayor champions “bourbonism” and bourbon’s the latest restaurant name buzzword, but this enthusiasm doesn’t take off without the bar pioneers.

 

1. Distillers

Although he's often placed in the old school master distiller category and rightly so, Jim Rutledge became the Four Roses master distiller in the 1990s, when the likes of Booker Noe and Jimmy Russell had already paved the way for distillers to become rockstars. In the 2000s, none were bigger than Rutledge, who helped bring back a forgotten brand.
Although he’s often placed in the old school master distiller category and rightly so, Jim Rutledge became the Four Roses master distiller in the 1990s, when the likes of Booker Noe and Jimmy Russell had already paved the way for distillers to become rockstars. In the 2000s, none were bigger than Rutledge, who helped bring back a forgotten brand.

Today, the master distillers are rock stars. But they were once unknown figures, standing behind fermenters. Jim Beam’s Booker Noe, Brown-Forman’s Lincoln Henderson, Heaven Hill’s Parker Beam, Wild Turkey’s Jimmy Russell, Old Fitzgerald’s Edwin Foote, George T. Stagg’s Elmer T. Lee and Maker’s Mark’s Sam Cecil were the 1980s-1990s master distillers who created commercially available single barrels (Lee), small batch (Noe), wrote books (Cecil) and created the whiskey stocks that would be coveted for years to come. Of these legends, Henderson, Noe, Russell, Beam and Russell sparked the multi-faceted job approach of spokesperson, brand ambassador, historian and distiller. They did everything. And although today’s distillers are built in their image, they just don’t make ’em like that anymore. These five distillers changed bourbon and opened the door for 2000s-era master distillers, such as Four Roses master distiller Jim Rutledge and Woodford’s Chris Morris, to bring bourbon back to its rightful place, atop the spirits world and in your glass.

 

Learn who else brought bourbon back in Fred Minnick’s latest book, Bourbon: The Rise, Fall & Rebirth of An American Whiskey, available now on Kindle and in stores nationwide soon. 

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One Reply to “Who Brought Bourbon Back?”

  1. Fred,
    You are not correct about “the single most important bourbon bar since the 1980’s Delilah’s” there are other bourbon evangelist beside Mike Miller who have tirelessly promoted American Whiskey for the last 21 years. The Twisted Spoke has been making bourbon cool since 1994. To be accurate Delilah’s opened in 1993 only one year before the Twisted Spoke. I am not trying to diminish Mike’s accomplishments but to say that he singled handedly revived Bourbon is just not true.

    In 1994 we hosted events with Elmer T. Lee, and Julian Van Winkle before they were household names. We went on to host every Bourbon maker alive over the years at the Twisted Spoke, sometime all on the same night.

    We bottled our own bourbon with Julian Van Winkle under the Twisted Spoke brand and then sold 100’s of cases in Japan as well as here in the Chicago. There was a growing global appreciation for American Bourbon. Before we worked with Julian I worked with Jim Beam because they had 16 year old barrels they wanted to sell.

    I personally dragged Julian and his wife Sissy to an international wine (Hospice du Rhone) event in California 15 years ago so he could do a tasting with an international audience of beverage professionals.
    There were other bars around the country that were pursuing a similar course, I think the early adopters deserve some recognition for influencing all the Johnny-come-latelies who are making the supply of good bourbon more difficult to keep in stock.

    So if you are going to profess to be an expert on the history of Bourbon perhaps you could be accurate.

    Mitch Einhorn
    Owner
    Twisted Spoke

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