Jim Rutledge, master distiller for Four Roses Distillery, checks the bourbon mash in fermentation tanks at the Four Roses plant in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Photo by Bloomberg via Getty Images.
Jun Araki isn’t from Kentucky. That much is clear when he speaks. He is calm and clear in Japanese with his friends, and slower and less sure in English with a gift-shop clerk. But when Jun Araki took a vacation, he chose to visit central Kentucky. He knows someone here.
“I like Jim Beam,” he says as he finishes the Maker’s Mark distillery tour. The Jim Beam distillery is a few miles away. It’s close to the headquarters of Araki’s third-favorite bourbon, Four Roses.
Araki and his friends are a new hope for Kentucky. They’re tourists who come to travel the Bourbon Trail, a path between distilleries that takes so many turns through the bluegrass hillside that it’s best to avoid heavily sampling the native spirit if you plan to visit more than one or two of the seven featured stops in a single day.
Hundreds of thousands of people visit Kentucky each year to see how bourbon is made. State officials promote bourbon tourism.1 The savvy ones call Kentucky the “Sonoma of bourbon.” But bourbon is stronger than wine, and the bourbon distillery tour is a similarly high-proof experience. It’s an experience typically found in theme parks: complete brand immersion.
The grounds are excellent
It’s hard to separate a bourbon from its brand and from its target consumer. Maker’s Mark is traditional but kind of sly.2 Woodford Reserve is a bit more genteel — with copper hues and a pleasant serif font, it seems right at home in Kentucky’s horse country. Jim Beam’s new small-batch bourbons are named after distillers and project a devotion to craft. The classic Beams are unpretentious; Kid Rock is their spokesman.
This all shows in the distillery. Woodford Reserve is in horse country. Jim Beam’s gigantic new welcome center, called the American Stillhouse, isn’t snooty. It reflects the fact that there are a lot of varieties of Jim Beam.3 Videos on loops remind visitors that Jim Beam is one of the world’s most popular bourbons, so if you’re going to drink bourbon, why not drink the same brand that’s enjoyed everywhere, even at Kid Rock’s house?4
Maker’s Mark was one of the first to offer commercial tours and to use those tours to further its brand. From the gift shop countertops to the linings of the urinals in the men’s room, everything at the distillery is highlighted in red to coordinate with the wax that tops each bottle of the whiskey. The shape of the Maker’s Mark bottle is cut into the window shutters on most of the buildings. The campus gives off the same vibe as the drink: not too showy, fully trustworthy, and unchanged since it first went on sale in 1958. Same as it ever was — at least until a few days ago, when Maker’s announced plans to water down its bourbon. But more on that later.
“[The] idea was to have the campus and the grounds reflect the liquid they were distilling,” says Rob Samuels, the president of Maker’s Mark and the grandson of Maker’s Mark inventor Bill Samuels Sr.
Bill Samuels Sr.’s wife, Marjorie, masterminded the distillery tour. She also developed the Maker’s Mark name, logo, bottle shape, label, and wax dip. All but the wax are essential elements of each bourbon brand and essential to bourbon’s growth. (Maker’s has a lock on using wax, which was upheld in a “trade-dress” suit by an appeals court last year.)
“The distillery tour turns casual fans into nutters,” says Jason Falls, a marketing professional who worked on several Beam Inc. projects. “If you have a good experience, you’re theirs. If you go to many, the one that presents the best story is the one that wins you over. You’re going to establish an emotional connection because you’ve been there. You’ve stuck your hand in the brewer’s yeast.”5
Falls has a joke. In the 1970s, to make a new bourbon ad, all the agency had to do was switch out the bottle.6 They all played on tradition. Many print ads star gentlemanly colonels dressed in white suits and other generic, vaguely southern imagery.
“The bourbon industry got a little complacent and didn’t invest in brand-building,” says Phil Lynch, a vice president and director of communications for Brown-Forman, the beverage giant behind Woodford Reserve.7
The moderate popularity of bourbon in the post-war years fell, driven by lazy marketing, innovative ad campaigns for clear spirits, and a generation of people who didn’t want to drink what their parents drank. Many bourbon distilleries either closed or started making store brands for supermarket chains.
Plus, bourbon didn’t always taste very good.
“The quality [now] is much more consistent,” says Michael Veach, an associate curator at Louisville’s Filson Historical Society and author of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage. “Fifty years ago there were some pretty good bourbons, but there were a lot of dogs. You don’t get that anymore,” he says.
There are many factors behind bourbon’s rise from its charred-oak casket, but Veach highlights two: increased imports of single malt scotches, and ads — mostly in Japan — that broke from the American tradition and sold bourbon as sophisticated.
There was also the article. In 1980, the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page profile of the Maker’s Mark company. The Samuels family cites it as a pivotal moment for their product, raising awareness that premium bourbon existed and that Maker’s Mark was one of the few available.
As interest grew, Maker’s Mark was sold to a company that broadened distribution outside of Kentucky. Blanton’s Single Barrel bourbon emerged in 1984. The premium bourbon arms race was on, in flavor and in branding.
Out of the vat and into the still
Unlike vodka, bourbon distillers can’t just make more to meet demand. By law, bourbon has to age.8 The good stuff takes at least six years. To make sure they don’t run out or have expensive, unsold inventory, distillers have to predict how much bourbon people will want, put it in the barrels, and then pray while they wait for the wheel of seasons to turn around and around. And in the 1980s, a lot of distillers started praying.
By the 1990s, enough bourbon had been matured and bottled for business to pick up. The 1996 Woodford Reserve rollout signaled what was to come, but not just in taste. Woodford’s distillery, a perfect representation of the brand, stood just a few miles from the highway — an easier drive from the nearest airport than Maker’s Mark. “We sort of upped the ante,” says Phil Lynch of Brown-Forman.
Three years later, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail opened. “Thirty years ago, distilleries were knocking down warehouses and selling the wood for scrap. This year, we’re building three new warehouses,” says Rob Samuels of Maker’s Mark.
That seems like an aggressive move, but in some ways it’s coming a bit too late. Customers today are drinking more Maker’s Mark than the company put into the barrels five to seven years ago, draining the inventory faster than it decants new bourbon. A shortage of its flagship drink looms. This isn’t unprecedented. Four years ago, Knob Creek bourbon ran out in many areas because it underestimated demand nine years earlier.9
In what some see as a misguided effort to boost production and revenue, Maker’s says it will reduce the alcohol by volume in its bourbon by three percent from 45% to 42%, which changes its proof — an archaic measure calculated by multiplying 7/4ths by the percentage figure — from 90 to 84. The change in proof reveals more starkly a nearly 7% reduction in the volume of alcohol.
Jason Falls thinks the taste will remain unchanged or close to the original, but the damage to the brand will be more severe. Many people aren’t mad that they’ll be getting a slightly less powerful product; rather, they seem to feel betrayed by a brand that has so long been both down to earth and refined — the fun bourbon maker. It’s like the class clown stole their prom date.
More, more, more
But despite the occasional and looming shortages, the bourbon sections of liquor stores are growing. In addition to the old and new brands, there are variations: double-aged, rye, 100 proof, port-barrel finished, unaged.10 Not only are the distillers making more bourbon, they’re making more types of bourbon.
“They’re taking generally the same product, some variations on the theme, and they’re saying, ‘This is bourbon, but this is sophisticated,’” says Falls.
Falls is quick to point out that quality still has to be in the glass for these new brands to survive. The bourbon market is massive, but the distillers are staying close to craft and quality this time, Maker’s Mark’s literal and figurative dilution aside. Most companies are more eager to put out a select single-barrel variety than to slap a generic label on discount swill.
Distillers have filled more barrels with aging bourbon than there are people in Kentucky. These liquor makers have spent millions wagering that the bourbon boom isn’t a trend, and that not only will new fans want what’s in these barrels, but they will want to see where those barrels are stored. They are betting that bourbon won’t go back to being a regional drink, enjoyed by Kentuckians for pride as much as taste.
If they’re wrong, I guess we’ll have a lot of drinking to do.
This issue’s cover is based on a photo by Linda Golden.
Clarification: This article notes several characteristics defined by Maker’s Mark in the 1950s that form the basis of modern branding, including its “wax dip.” We should have noted that the use of wax on the bottle is unique to Maker’s, which has defended it as protected “trade dress” successfully all the way to appeals court so far.
Correction: This article originally incorrectly stated one of the requirements for labeling whiskey as bourbon was aging it for two years. That was incomplete. To be called straight bourbon, two years’ aging is required. All the bourbons the author could find, however, are “straight.”
Feelings on bourbon vary among those not in office. About half of the counties in Kentucky are dry, and the rest have tight rules on when and where liquor can be sold. ↩
For years, Maker’s Mark’s tagline was “It tastes expensive…and is.” Modern print ads generally involve a bottle in front of a black background and a short caption. One ad shows the wax melting off a bottle and says “Global Warming.” Another ad around the holidays has no words, but shows a cookie in the shape of a Maker’s Mark bottle. The company has its favorite ads archived online. ↩
Jim Beam, Jim Beam Black, Jim Beam Rye, Jim Beam Choice, Jim Beam Seven Year, Jim Beam Devil’s Cut (named after the high-proof, flavorful liquor that can be sweated out of the wood of used bourbon barrels), Jim Beam Jacob’s Ghost (not technically a bourbon, but aged a single year, and somewhat closer to moonshine), Baker’s, Basil Hayden’s, Booker’s, Knob Creek, Knob Creek Single Barrel, Knob Creek Rye, and three flavors (Black Cherry, Honey Tea, and Cinnamon) of an infused bourbon called Red Stag. Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark share a parent company: Beam Inc. Beam Inc. keeps the brands separate. ↩
To further fit your lifestyle, distillery gift shops offer any number of products graced with the logo of your favorite beverage. Some items I saw: rocks glasses, shot glasses, snifters, mugs, thermal cups, stoneware plates, T-shirts, oxford shirts, hats, vests, purses, poker chips, sunglasses straps, bar gear, golf gear, candy, cigars, acrylic tumblers, and logo-emblazoned boards for a bag-tossing game locally known as Corn Hole. ↩
Brewer’s yeast — also called brewer’s beer — is the fermented mixture of yeast, water, and grains that is eventually distilled and barreled to make bourbon. It smells like bread. Tour guides usually let visitors stick their hands into the vats that hold the brewer’s beer and taste it. It does not taste like bread. ↩
This joke is funnier to marketers. And to people who have had a few drinks of bourbon. ↩
Among Brown-Forman’s other brands are Old Forrester bourbon, Early Times bourbon, Canadian Mist whiskey, Collingwood whiskey, Korbel champagne, Sonoma-Cutrer wine, Finlandia vodka, Pepe Lopez Tequila, Tequila Herradura, Don Eduardo Tequila, Chambord liqueur, and Southern Comfort. ↩
The Code of Federal Regulations (Title 27, Chapter I, Subchapter A, Part 5, Subpart C, Section 5.22) stipulates that any whiskey labeled bourbon must be mostly made of corn, aged in new charred oak containers, and bottled at specific proofs. To be considered “straight” bourbon — which likely includes everything on your local liquor store’s shelves — it has to age for at least two years. It does not have to be made in Kentucky, though good luck finding a Kentuckian who agrees with that. ↩
The company even ran a wry, Maker’s Mark-style ad in the New York Times addressing the shortage. ↩
Unaged whiskey, often called white dog, is essentially moonshine. You can taste it on tours or buy it in well-stocked liquor stores. ↩
Gabe Bullard is the program and news director of public radio station WFPL. The rest of the time, he edits Toothpick Swords, a cocktail blog. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.