How can you not be enamored of a state that has more barrels of an aging spirit in it than it does people? That’s what drives my newfound love affair with the Commonwealth of Kentucky—Louisville in particular. I recently took a trip out to the Bluegrass State to explore a little bit of bourbon country, as well as Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail. I had always managed to idealize and romanticize the region in my mind, like I do a lot of places very beverage centric. But I have to say it really lived up to my expectations, and them some.
I was in awe of the sprawling operation that is the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Ky, with its industrial architecture and equipment that appears to have been largely untouched—save for some automated control and monitoring stations—since the period immediately following the repeal of Prohibition. But I also enjoyed the more intimate affair that is the Willett Distillery in Bardstown, where the scent of aging bourbon in charred-oak barrels inside tin warehouses knows no equal.
The bourbon renaissance has enabled 77-year-old Willett to resume distilling activities for the first time since the early ’80s (It was still aging and bottling in the interim, just not distilling at its Bardstown site).
Those were the dark ages for bourbon. The spirit had been seen as “your grandfather’s drink.” The spirits market as a whole was on a similar downward trend a couple of decades ago.
But thanks in part to the premiumization trend, those days are very much over. Super-premium whiskey has been helping pull the spirits category up to the tune of 3 percent year-on-year. Whiskey alone was up nearly 7 percent last year, thanks not only to the single malt Scotches and Irish whiskeys, but to bourbon and Tennessee whiskey as well. The American offerings’ volume was up nearly 10.5 percent in 2012, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. Super-premium spirits in general enjoyed the greatest gain of all the price segments, up nearly 9 percent last year.
There’s no better time than now for consumers to celebrate bourbon and there’s really no better place to do it than Kentucky. No other region of the U.S. is more closely aligned with a beverage alcohol product than Kentucky is with bourbon. And before every California wine maker cries foul, I argue this because the varietals that are produced there, by and large, did not originate in the U.S. They don’t call bourbon “America’s native spirit” for nothing.
And no other American city showcases its signature beverage better than Louisville. Five years ago, the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau created the Urban Bourbon Trail, a network of bars and restaurants in which one can enjoy the native spirit, for just that purpose. There are currently 27 stops (and counting) across Louisville.
It’s clear that bourbon’s time has (once again) arrived and not just in Kentucky. The Urban Bourbon Trail is really just part of the global bourbon trail as aspirational and curious consumers worldwide embark on their own journey.