A few weeks ago, I gave Bourbon, the spirit, a moment in the sun (Happy Hour, October 15), and that was simply not enough.
For a beverage that has been around since before this country was a country, Bourbon is really right now a “hot” beverage. It’s been on a tear at the cash registers in every bottle shop in America. Somebody out there really likes Bourbon. In fact, you are likely one of those folks.
So, what happened? Why suddenly did vodka decide to take a dive and Bourbon head into overdrive? There are a few theories on this – and we will get into some specifics a bit later – but at the core of those thoughts are the traditions of the American people: there aren’t any. Traditions that is. We have plenty of Americans.
From the beginning of this country, we have never had an ours-only core beverage, something everyone drinks because it was invented here, is made here from local ingredients, and was a part of all of our shared heritages. Actually Bourbon comes the closest to being such a beverage, but it was brought here mostly by Scotsmen who had no desire to miss the product of distilled grains they enjoyed in the Auld Country.
Since America was a land of newcomers and immigrants, mostly with little or no money, we simply went along with whatever was out there at the moment. The Italians brought grapevine cuttings from their home; the Irish liked beer; Germans enjoyed schnapps; English made gin; and so forth. No single beverage ever took the lead among all the nationalities and said, “Drink me. Now you are an American.”
So, to this very day, we drink beverages from all over. I was once asked by a French winemaker if I liked wine from France or from the United States. I told him I did not have to make a choice. I liked them all. Plus I am an American.
You know when you travel abroad and you sometimes go out of your way to try the local liquid. Well, that’s likely all they drink in that locale. Try getting a California sparkling wine in Burgundy. Or buying Bourbon in Great Britain. When it is available, it’s priced at an outrageous cost. But right here at home, you can get it all and you can get it all over the place. Want a wine from Bordeaux in Napa Valley. No problem. And the cost is reasonable, or at least as reasonable as any Bordeaux’s asking price can be.
So along comes vodka and we go nutty for it. Then we play along and even purchase vodka in crazy flavors like bubble gum, birthday cake, red velvet, candy apple and, for gosh sakes, popcorn. Those are fun, maybe, once, and then they get tiresome. The novelty, which is the flavoring not usually the quality of the spirit, wears off rather quickly for even the most stalwart vodka lover.
And while all of that was happening, Bourbon makers were diminishing production. Not because there was no demand, but because they decided to separate themselves from mass manufactured spirits by going to small–batch goods. It took time to turn around and supply the demand, but when placed on the market, the market responded in a most positive way. Small batch bourbons are all the rage, so much so that demand at the moment, for certain high-end labels, far exceeds supply.
While I know that a strong case can be made for New Orleans being a key to the proliferation and success of Bourbon when the spirit was in its infancy in the mid- to late 1700’s, I am also going to make a case that the national and international resurgence of Bourbon is due to the influence of the Crescent City.
The Sazerac Company, administratively headquartered here, took its name from the oldest named cocktail in the world, which was created here in the early 1830’s. Before there was a Sazerac Company, founded 1850, there were Sazeracs.
The Company owns a number of Bourbon producers and is the largest distiller in the United States. One of its brands, Buffalo Trace, named because the distillery is located on a trail used in pioneer days by wandering buffalo herds, was the first Bourbon house to produce a single-barrel bourbon, in the early 1980’s. They continue to experiment with certain types of wooden barrels and differing aging periods. They are also involved in the production of the incredibly hard to obtain, highly-revered Pappy Van Winkle bourbon.
Sazerac is not just committed to small-batch distilled products. An example of going another way is evidenced by their huge recent success, the high-volume Fireball. But for the most part, less is more and the quality of the products produced is a testament to corporate focus.
Bourbons are winning the minds and palates of affluent, older American consumers. Layered, in-depth, interesting flavors and aromas can only be achieved with top-quality distillation production done in small quantities.
For a number of years, higher-price-point-per-bottle whiskey sales have exceeded vodka total dollar sales. By 2018, it is predicted that whiskey sales will exceed vodka’s in volume also.