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The Kentucky Bourbon Year That Was 2016

When 95 percent of the world’s bourbon supply comes from one state in a union of 50, you can imagine things stay busy in the Bluegrass, especially during this ongoing boom. The Whiskey Wash has had its work cut out trying to cover it all, so this summer it dedicated an editor (that’s me) and a team of writers whose sole focus is finding out what’s happening Kentucky distilling and its next door neighbor, Tennessee.

So read along and see if you can believe all this happened in just the past year. From the cringe-worthy to the cheers-worthy, we reported on it.

Golden Age of Whiskey

There’s lot of bourbon to enjoy (image via Kentucky Distillers Association)

January

Younger is better? The head office at Heaven Hill announced that longtime favorite Elijah Craig 12-year bourbon would lose its age statement. The reason? The need to keep up with high demand by blending in younger stock. No cheers were heard among the bourbon-loving populace.

February

Rallying toward the record! In the Kentucky Distillers Association’s 2015 annual industry report, bourbon production showed incredible volume and sales gains. The state’s distillers laid down 1.88 million barrels last year, which is the most since 1967. Not far off is the industry record of 1.92 million. Bourbon volume production rose 2.3 percent, while revenue increased 4.1 percent. Export volume growth was 3.4 percent. The KDA credited chose gains to product innovation, improved access and consumer premiumization.

March

Cocktails, anyone? The passage of Senate Bill 11 in Kentucky cleared the way for distilleries to begin serving cocktails, larger samples of its whiskeys and the ability to buy more bottles from gift shops. For years, distillers and distillery visitors were frustrated by previously paltry amounts allowed for onsite sipping and take home souvenirs. Six months later, Jim Beam became the first distillery to begin selling cocktails onsite.

April

Lots of talent, but little capital. In April, Four Roses’ legend and retired master distiller, Jim Rutledge, announced the formation of the J.W. Rutledge Distillery. Curiously, the venture began with crowdsource funding, which yielded so little return it was soon cancelled. That left the man who led the turnaround of Four Roses still in the hunt for funding.

Jim Rutledge

Jim Rutledge, formerly of Four Roses, went on to found his own distillery (image via screen grab)

You can’t sell booze on Facebook! Or can you? In a surprise move, Facebook pulled the plug on several bourbon secondary market groups, pointing out that reselling bourbon was illegal and that it would not be a channel for it. Yet for reasons unknown to us, those groups reappeared and the untaxed selling resumed shortly after.

May

Barton master distiller retires. Ken Pierce, the longtime master distiller at Barton Brands in Bardstown, retired after 30 years at the company. Interestingly, little was said about it by the company, and Pierce did not comment on his departure. The affable distiller was instrumental in the creation of its highly successful 1792 Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey line.

Fourteen million and counting! Jim Beam filled its 14 millionth barrel of bourbon since its founding two centuries ago. It’s a milestone no other company can match. Together, the company’s two distilleries fill about 500,000 barrels per year.

June

Doubling up for demand. Michter’s Distillery announced it would double its production capacity of 500,000 proof gallons per year to 1 million proof gallons by adding a second shift and four new fermenters. By the fall, the new system was in place and running at full capacity. The current still in the Shively, Ky., distillery will max out at 1.5 million proof gallons.

Castle & Key

Ancient distilling equipment and young master distiller will work together at Castle & Key. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

From ruins to gardens and distilling. As spring greenery took over the grounds at Castle & Key Distillery, distilling equipment went in and restoration to the legendary and once derelict Old Taylor Distillery continued. By November, five months behind schedule, master distiller Marianne Barnes announced that bourbon was running through the stills for the first time since the site was closed in the 1970s.

July

Miniature, but major. In July, Wilderness Trail Distillery opened and began running bourbon in Danville, Ky. Owned by Shane Baker and Pat Heist, the men behind Ferm Solutions, a yeast manufacturer for some 500 distilleries around the world, Wilderness Trail’s distillery and rickhouse looks like a movie set miniature compared to its Kentucky behemoth brethren. But make no mistake, it’s a serious operation.

Pepper brand returns to Lexington. News that the James E. Pepper whiskey company would return to its original Lexington site lit up the newswires. In recent years, the derelict distillery site has been repurposed as a home for restaurants, breweries, a micro distillery and private event space returns. But the brand’s owner, Amir Peay, wanted it to have a permanent home. A small amount of the brand’s whiskey will be made there, but the bulk of it will continue to be produced on contract.

That’s our corn! Using corn grown on its own grounds, Buffalo Trace distilled its first estate bourbon, giving the spirits giant its first grain to glass whiskey. Owner Sazerac has stated publicly that it will expand corn production on the site to develop the terroir of its estate bourbon.

August

Wild Turkey gets an attractive new tom. Wild Turkey’s announcement of its partnership with actor Matthew McConaughey as brand spokesman turned heads and drew praise from many sources. It appears the historic brand wants to pair the actor’s rugged good looks with its down-home whiskey reputation to reach new audiences. Whether those new drinkers are expected to be equally rugged and good looking men or, well, just ladies who like such types, wasn’t specified by owner Campari.

Jefferson's bourbon

Jefferson’s bourbon cruising down the river (image via Nate Morguelan)

Ahoy, matey, we’ve got bourbon aboard! If anyone needed more proof that it doesn’t suck to be Trey Zoeller, the owner of Jefferson’s Reserve Bourbon showed everyone what the boss can do with his time by launching a months-long river boat trip to recreate a down-river ride for whiskey barrels exposed to the sun on a flat boat.

Granted, Zoeller’s vessel was not a flatboat and fully powered by engine, not the current. But his captain was instructed to pilot the boat with power only when getting into and out of river locks or docking. The journey would lead from Louisville to the Gulf of Mexico, to Key West and then up the East Coast on a sailboat to New York City. The fall hurricane season stalled the trip midway south on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Zoeller hasn’t reported if the boat resumed the trip.

September

Kentucky Bourbon Festival turns 25. When the festival started, it was humble, to say the least. But in its 25th year, the KBF drew more than 50,000 annually to Bardstown, where the population is only 13,000. This huge event mixes black-tie events with golf outings and hot rod runs and general family fun. Oh, and they drink a lot of bourbon there, too.

October

Bourbon’s First Lady (master distiller). When Pamela Heilmann became Michter’s master distiller this fall, she was the first to gain that title at an actual working distillery. But long before she took on that role, she ran the Booker Noe Plant in Boston, Ky., the largest bourbon distillery in the U.S. Suffice it to say, she knew how to “turn the dials” long before the Michter’s promotion.

Buffalo Trace ruins

The area Buffalo Trace was digging up (image via Buffalo Trace)

A Bourbon Pompeii at Buffalo Trace. During remodeling of an older building on its sprawling campus, Buffalo Trace uncovered the amazingly well-preserved remnants of the O.F.C. Distillery there. So amazing was the find that Buffalo Trace changed its building plans to include turning the old distillery site into a tourist attraction. No word yet on when that will open.

November

Angel’s Envy gets a home in new distillery. Not every bourbon brand becomes highly sought after years before it distills its own liquor, but that’s what’s happened to Angel’s Envy, a whiskey line created by the late Lincoln Henderson. His son, Wes Henderson, hosted the press and VIP reveal party for the grand opening of the distillery, which eventually will produce all its bourbon and rye.

Jeptha Creed opens in Shelbyville. The opening of this brand-new micro-distillery not only marked the first distillery running in Shelby County since Prohibition, it beat the opening of Diageo’s massive Bulleit Distillery a few miles away. The impressive family-run operation raises and grinds its own Bloody Butcher corn to make its whiskeys.

December

It can be all yours for $5,000! When Michter’s released its 2016 Celebration Sour Mash Whiskey, it came with a suggested price of $5,000. Per bottle. Our staff reviewer deemed it an arguably flawless and complex whiskey, but admittedly one far out of his budget. This is the second release of Celebration. The 2013 price was $4,000.

Sazerac purchases Popcorn Sutton Distillery. Saying he knew it was time to get into the Tennessee whiskey game, Sazerac president and CEO, Mark Brown, bought the Popcorn Sutton Distillery in Newport, Tenn.—but without the Sutton white whiskey brand. The distillery site and its two master distillers are what the brand wants to give the spirits giant a new foothold in a segment wholly dominated by Jack Daniel’s.

popcorn stills

The stills at Popcorn Sutton (image via Popcorn Sutton)

Our gift to you, Mr. President, is bourbon. Bardstown Distilling Co., which opened in September, filled a private barrel with its wheated whiskey for none other than President-Elect Donald Trump. The company said the gesture was to remind the nation’s leader of the importance of bourbon to the U.S. Not needing any convincing of bourbon’s importance, Constellation Brands bought a stake in the new distillery in November.

Maker’s Mark opens Whisky Cellar. Maker’s Mark’s rickhouses are not temperature controlled. So for th past six years, aging its Maker’s 46 brand could only be done during cold weather months. Now, however, with the creation of its one-of-a-kind Whisky Cellar—which actually is a man-made limestone cave on its campus—it can make 46 year-round using the Earth’s constant 50 F temperature.

A lump of coal from Beam Suntory. So you love Booker’s Bourbon? Well, we hope you’ve stocked up on it because the suggested retail price of this legendary whiskey will rise to $99 in 2017. Beam believes it’s time for its headliner brand to get the price respect it deserves so it’s effectively doubling it. Drinkers understand the right to do that, but what they don’t get is why it took the brand so long to make the increase. When launched in 1989, Booker’s cost $39. As recently as November, it was selling for that same price in a Louisville Costco store.

About the author

Steve Coomes

Steve Coomes is an award-winning restaurant industry veteran turned food writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. In 2013, he published his first book, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke." A past restaurant critic for Louisville magazine, he pens features for Edible Louisville, Food & Dining Magazine and ghostwrites for multiple clients.