I was incredibly honoured recently when someone so respected in the bourbon industry, and world-renowned for what he does offered to give up his time to be asked a load of questions about whiskey. So below is a summary of my interview with Kentucky Master Distiller – Steve Beam.
So Steve, firstly, thank you for your time and I’m keen to know about the industry so, in your opinion, what state is the bourbon industry in today?
This is an exciting time to be in the bourbon business. There are over 7.5 million barrels of bourbon aging in Kentucky, the most since the early 1970s. Distilleries are operating at or near capacity, there is a lot of bourbon going into barrels. Interest in bourbon has skyrocketed, not just domestically but internationally. Today’s bourbon drinkers can enjoy a plethora of straight and cask finished whiskeys. Enthusiasts have become quite knowledgeable in brands, their process and history. With this comes a more discerning, and demanding customer. I think this is great as it forces more transparency and pushes everyone to their best.
Amazing, so how does this differ from five and ten years ago?
Ten years ago essentially all bourbon was made by a handful of large distilleries. There were hundreds of brands, all of which came back to these distilleries. While the large distilleries can make some exceptional whiskey, it led to a somewhat homogenous profile for the industry. Ten years ago there were fewer than 100 small distilleries in the U.S. now we are pushing 2000. This will expand the profile of American spirits. Interest in classic cocktails and authentic products fuelled the interest in bourbon. Ten years ago people were more likely familiar with a few brands or something recommended by a friend. As the market began to mature you saw consumers experimenting with new brands and taking the time to become more knowledgeable about what they are drinking.
Superb insight, fascinating stuff, and what is the UK’s appetite for bourbon looking like? Any surprises in where demand and intrigue is?
It appears to be part of a larger trend among millennials who see all things American as being cool, especially on a cultural level. The people who have turned London neighbourhoods such as Brixton, Shoreditch and Bermondsey into centres of “hipsterdom”. Movies, TV shows (Mad Men), rap, the proliferation of American food – high-end burgers and barbeque are popular – are all part of the this trend. Thus you have a younger, more experimental crowd coming to American whiskey, and they’re looking for something new and special.
What, in your opinion, will be the next big thing from the American whiskey industry?
Bourbon is here for the long haul, that said we will see Bottled-in-Bond play an increasingly important role. With the increase in craft distilleries I believe we will see more whiskies that experiment with grain, such as heirloom varieties, mash bills percentages and we will continue to see an interest in barrel finishing. American malt whiskey is certainly gaining interest as well.
In your opinion, what will the bourbon industry look like in ten years?
I think there will certainly be a shake out of smaller distilleries. This is not an easy business and people need to love what they do or they won’t last. That said in 10 years many of the craft distilleries will have well aged stock so I think the profile of the American whisky and will certainly be expanded. I don’t really see there being a slow-down in demand. Currently international sales are a small percentage of overall sales, so I think this will continue to fuel growth. One thing I can assure you, Limestone Branch Distillery and my family will continue making bourbon and rye whiskey, just as we have done, for the past 7 generations.
What is your proudest achievement in the bourbon industry?
Certainly, bringing the Yellowstone brand back home was one of my proudest moments. My Grandfather was the distiller there before prohibition and it played such an important role on both sides of my family. To be able to distil this again using the recipes and yeast that my Grandfather once did, is really a dream come true.
Which brands have surprised you with their products / approach / marketing?
One of the things in general that has surprised me is the interest in extra aged bourbon. Traditionally, and I am talking old school, all of the Master distillers I knew preferred bourbon from 6-12 years old. Anything over 15 was considered past its prime. So I have been surprised at the number of 12+ year old whiskeys out there. Kentucky Bourbon is forced into and out of the wood of the barrel each year, after 12 years the barrel has given up about all it can. I think people mistakenly compare the age of a good Scotch with the aging of bourbon.
Why is rye seeing such a focus at the minute? Do you think volumes could ever match that of bourbon?
Again, I think this goes back to the interest in classic cocktails. Rye holds up well, not being overshadowed by the components of cocktails. Rye on its own can be a bit aggressive for many folks so I question if it will ever meet the popularity that bourbon has. Our Minor Case rye with its sherry cask finish tames some of that aggressiveness, not only making a great cocktail, but is fantastic neat as well.