Milestones of the Bourbon Boom: A Decade of Whiskey Greatness

By Chuck Cowdery / May 30, 2017

The Bourbon Boom is real. More than 10 years into it, this is more than a fad. But it is hard to see history while it is going on. To paint a picture, here are some of the major milestones of the boom and the years leading up to it.

1970 – After 25 years of steady growth, bourbon sales begin a long, sharp decline.

1980 – The Wall Street Journal publishes on its front page a favorable story about Maker’s Mark bourbon, and the tiny, family-owned Kentucky brand takes off.

1984 – The Bourbon Boom begins – in Japan. Sales reach two million cases, from a base of 2,000 cases in 1969. I. W. Harper is the #1 brand. Age International launches Blanton’s, the first single-barrel bourbon (made at what is now Buffalo Trace), in Japan and the United States.

1988 – Jack Daniel’s offers its first ‘step-up’ expression, Gentleman Jack. Jim Beam releases Booker’s Bourbon to the public, a first run of just 6,000 bottles.

bourbon color

Bourbon at a Liquor Barn (image via Liquor Barn)

1990 – Jack Daniel’s relaunches Gentleman Jack in a different bottle.

1991 – Wild Turkey introduces Rare Breed and takes eight-year age statement off flagship 101 expression.

1992 – Bicentennial of Kentucky statehood. First Kentucky Bourbon Festival held in Bardstown.

1993 – Craft brewer Fritz Maytag starts Anchor Distilling in San Francisco to craft a small batch rye whiskey.

1994 – Wild Turkey debuts Kentucky Spirit. Brown-Forman begins restoration of the Labrot & Graham Distillery (now Woodford Reserve).

1995 – Maker’s Mark begins project to double its production capacity. The Book of Bourbon and Other Fine American Whiskeys, by Gary Regan and Mardee Haidin Regan, is published.

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1996 – Brown-Forman completes the Labrot & Graham restoration, starts distilling there, and introduces Woodford Reserve bourbon. It is whiskey made at the company’s Shively distillery using the Old Forester recipe.

1999 – The Kentucky Distillers Association creates the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to promote bourbon tourism. Mount Vernon begins excavation of George Washington’s distillery, with funding from the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) and the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers (WSWA); bourbon – “America’s Native Spirit” – becomes the spirits industry’s primary public image vehicle. Online bourbon discussion site straightbourbon.com debuts. Diageo sells most of its bourbon brands and sells its only active Kentucky distillery to Heaven Hill. Number of barrels of bourbon filled in Kentucky: 455,078

2003 – Bill Owens founds the American Distilling Institute to promote and support craft distilling.

2004 – Non-distiller producers begin to scale back their offerings of whiskeys aged 15 years or more, due to dwindling supply.

2008 – Worldwide financial crisis and recession slows, but does not stop, American whiskey’s growth.

2010 – American whiskey is growing at a 2.5 percent annual rate. Super-premium brands are growing at a 16.2 percent annual rate.

2013 – Value of American whiskey exports exceeds $1 billion a year. American whiskey is growing at a 5.2 percent annual rate. Super-premium brands are growing at a 12.4 percent annual rate. Rye sales grow by 50 percent in one year as 22 new brands are introduced.

2015 – American whiskey maintains 5.2 percent annual growth rate. Super-premium brands grow at a 25.2 percent annual rate.

2016 – After a 17-year absence, Diageo (world’s biggest drinks company) is distilling in Kentucky again. Number of barrels of bourbon filled in Kentucky: 1,886,821