Non-Kentucky Micro-Distilleries Could Help Define What Comes After Bourbon

Manager Nick Reifsteck looks at the stash of bourbons at Old Town Wine and Spirits in Louisville; there’s a wall full of brown liquor.

How many bourbons would you say you carry here at Old Town? I ask.

“I don’t know, a couple hundred. I don’t know, I’ve never counted them,” he says.

Reifsteck points to only a few from out of state, but says there are more now than ever before.

“A lot of these boutique brands. They don’t even distill or age their own bourbons. They buy from other distillers and they label them however they want,” he says.

Some say that’s not the future of bourbon,  a whiskey defined by specific federal regulations.

Kentucky produces most of the country’s bourbon, but not all. And that’s changing fast. There are 10 times more micro-distilleries in America than there were a year ago, according to the American Distilling Institute. And a handful of industry insiders and aficionados think these newcomers might spark an innovation in the history-rich bourbon and could help develop the next American taste.

They must, Clay Risen says.

“The people who lose are going to be the people who say I’m in this industry to make another Maker’s Mark. That’s just not a winning proposition,” he says.

Risen is an editor at the New York Times and author of American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide To The Nation’s Favorite Spirit. He compares the rise of micro-distilleries to that of craft beer and says in our do-it-yourself culture, drinking connoisseurs want craft.

But eventually it’ll come down to natural selection, he says.

“Consumers are going to get savvier and they’re going to start to say this is good, this is not good. And even though its craft I don’t particularly like it. And those distillers are going to fall out,” Risen says.

Right now, it’s the top shelf premium bourbons that have attributed most to revenue growth the past few years, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S.

But despite a rise in production all over the U.S., micro-distilleries are still dealing with the myth, the question: Isn’t bourbon only from Kentucky?

“Yeah, we get that question just about every day,” says Bill Welter, founder of Journeyman Distillery in Michigan.

“We tell them, No actually bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. And people are often times in disbelief and actually refuse to believe it,” he says.

If anyone has had to answer this question its Donald Outterson, owner of Woodstone Creek Distillery in Ohio. He compares his non-Kentucky operation just across the river like this.

“Just like you look at a French brewery right next to the German border, they’d say, ‘Gosh I bet there’s an influence there. I bet that has a flavor that’s probably exotic and different but a bit of familiarity as the same time.’ It’s a global perspective,” he says.

Many of these outside distilleries are putting their own touch on bourbon by using indigenous ingredients. In New Mexico, Don Quixote Distillery uses organic blue corn; other startups aren’t necessarily tied to the history and tradition that has helped make bourbon strong.

Federal law says to be called bourbon it needs to include at least 51 percent corn and must age in new charred oak barrels, but those regulations restrict the more creative distillers who want to develop a more complex flavors that will take whiskey to a new level, says Lance Winters, the master distiller at St. George Spirits in San Francisco.

“The contribution that you’ll see from a lot of the small distilleries that will be the most valid contribution is the breaking down of a lot of those rules. Changing things, getting new recipes, getting more interesting recipes, shifting the paradigm for what a multi-grain whiskey can be all about,” Winters says.

Most in the industry say investing in any aged product, like bourbon whiskey, is somewhat of a gamble. Demand now is booming and distilleries are banking on the drink remaining popular. Take Kentucky’s Pappy Van Winkle, the most sought after bourbon in the world. 

Back at Old Town Wine and Spirits, Nick Reifsteck says this year they sold out in a matter of days.

“Well in 20 to 25 years from now the demand for bourbon might be very low so you’ll see stacks and stacks of Van Winkle bourbon. Twenty years from now we might not be able to give this stuff away but right now there’s not enough of it to go around,” he says.

Reifsteck agrees that non-Kentucky bourbons are a good thing for the evolution of the spirit. He’s also confident that no state will replace Kentucky as bourbon’s homeland. But as whiskey evolves, the next great taste might not have to compete with Kentucky.

And it might not even be called bourbon at all. 

This story is part of WFPL’s Food & Drink Week. We’ll be exploring dining and libations in the Louisville area ahead of Thanksgiving. You’ll find new stories here everyday through the holiday.

Do you have a Thanksgiving dish that you want to share? Call WFPL at (502) 627-0485 or send us an e-mail here to let us know how it’s made and why you love it. We’ll post some of the submissions next week. Be sure to include your name.

Devin Katayama

Devin Katayama host middays for WFPL and reports on education and other Louisville issues.

@DevinWFPL

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