by Colonel Steve Akley
Bourbon historians will point out that despite the boom going on right now, we aren’t even to the all-time highs in levels of production we saw in the late 60s, heading into the very early 70s. When you combine that fact, with there idea there were 205 million Americans in 1970 and over 325 million today, the signs point to the best of bourbon is yet-to-come.
I think another indicator we have to consider is the difference in bourbon consumers today versus those 50 years ago. Leading up to it’s previous peak, bourbon was a legacy spirit. If you were a bourbon drinker with two children, you had likely created two future bourbon drinkers. This kept going on until the late 60s/early 70s when the political climate and culture began to change. individualism reigned supreme, and people didn’t want to drink what their parents drank. In fact, they wanted to step outside of that and get into something totally different. That’s why we saw large-scale growth of the white spirits: vodka and gin and bourbon was left behind.
Ultimately, in the between the 80s and early 2000s there were a series of happenings that came together to push bourbon in the right direction leading to where we find ourselves today. The big four I typically hear are as follows:
Maker’s Mark Wall Street Journal Article - On August 1, 1980, the Wall Street Journal ran a front page article about Maker’s Mark, then a tiny distillery supplying bourbon only in Kentucky. The spillover for the bourbon industry was incredible. While people couldn’t necessarily get bottle from a small distillery out of Loretto, Kentucky, it created a renewed interest from consumers ready to give bourbon another chance after foregoing it a decade before for white spirits and cocktails.
Blanton’s is Introduced - In 1984, as Elmer T. Lee was capping off his career with George T. Stagg Distillery (now Buffalo Trace), he introduced the world to the first ever large-scale single barrel bourbon offering. At the time the notion of an ultra-premium bourbon was unheard of but the unique flavors of the single barrels handpicked by Freddie Johnson’s father Jimmie Johnson, Jr. opened consumers eyes to what a very sipping-friendly neat bourbon could be.
Booker Noe Hits the Road - In the early 1990s, Booker Noe, the legendary distiller from Jim Beam, hit the road to introduce four new bourbons from Jim Beam that Booker himself dubbed the Small Batch Collection. Not only did the idea of premium offerings capture the attention of the consumers, the man himself created a huge splash interacting directly with consumers. This larger than life character, in size and personality, would fascinate audiences with his fun stories, down home approach and good old boy demeanor. This was the first time a master distiller was presented as the face of a brand and it would change that role and bourbon from that point forward.
Pappy Van Winkle Scores a 99 - In 1996, the Beverage Institute of Chicago awarded 20-Year-Old Pappy Van Winkle a score of 99, the highest score ever given to a bourbon. This would lead to Pappy landing on man “best bourbon” lists and holiday shopping lists which would forge the way for it to creep into popular culture. By the time celebrity Chef Anthony Bourdain declared it the best bourbon he’d tasted, there was a frenzy surrounding the brand that took it far beyond the typical bourbon consumer.
In my mind, all four of these certainly had a role getting bourbon back on-track and headed towards the explosive growth we have seen over the last decade. There are certainly other factors besides these four and the one I would like to hone in on today is a person. It’s Jason Brauner, owner of Bourbons Bistro in Louisville, Kentucky, one of the top bourbon bars in the world.
The idea for Bourbons Bistro came in 2001. There were no places with bourbon in its name. There weren’t “bourbon bars.” No one was building a concept around a distilled spirit made in the U.S. of at least 51% corn and aged in a brand new charred oak container (and a few other subtle rules).
Jason was different, though, He wanted to start a bar/restaurant that focused on bourbon. Not whiskey, which features many types of aged spirits, but specifically, bourbon. The reason for that was, as a Kentucky resident, having grown up around bourbon all of his life (several relatives worked for National Distillers in Louisville), he wanted something that celebrated the State and people of Kentucky. Initially, it was going to be Bourbons Steakhouse, but then he reasoned it would be too limiting. “Bistro” would open it up to more offerings and also embraced Louisville’s French roots.
It would take four years for Jason to secure financing and gut/remodel the building where Bourbons Bistro stands today. While all of this was going on, he wasn’t just taking on meetings with banks for financing, filling out paperwork for licenses and swinging a hammer to remodel his building, he was also educating himself about bourbon. He immersed himself in the history and heritage of bourbon. He studied the brands and the people of bourbon. He went to any event where he thought he could run into someone from a distillery and even took an early Bourbon History class from noted author and bourbon historian Mike Veach.
Bourbons Bistro wasn’t just meant to be a place where you could find any bourbon you were looking for, though, Jason would seek out anything from distributors with bourbon on the label, instead it was destined to be a place where you could immerse yourself in bourbon. It would become an experience. You come in and talk bourbon.
Not sure what you are a fan of? Well, let’s talk about different tastes and types of bourbon.
Love bourbon? Great, let’s find something you haven’t tried yet!
Also a fan of bourbon history? Let’s have a conversation about bourbon’s past.
Bourbons Bistro, with Jason standing on the other side of the bar, became a place to not only enjoy bourbon, but educate yourself about it. Several individuals today, who make their living off of bourbon, came in and sat on the bar stools and Bourbons Bistro across from Jason Brauner and said, “Tell me about bourbon.”
If Jason’s only contribution to bourbon would be the first true bourbon bar and a focus on the story and history of bourbon, he would still be a notable character in the bourbon renaissance we have happening at the moment. There are three key things Jason was likely the innovator in bourbon that really cements his legacy:
Flights - Today, there probably isn’t a bourbon bar of any substance that isn’t offering bourbon flights. It’s so commonplace you forget that flights is a “wine thing” and not something that had a place in bourbon. Jason, who also studied wine for a short time, brought the concept to bourbon. This expanded consumers interest in trying different bourbons and taught fans how to properly assemble a bourbon flight.
Barrel Picks - Perhaps the biggest trend in bourbon right now are barrel picks. Clubs, liquor stores and bars are buying their own barrels which typically offer a taste variance from the normal offerings of the same brands on the shelf. Recognizing the unique experience of curating different flavor profiles, long before barrel picks were a “thing” Jason sought out to purchase of barrels from distilleries. There weren’t the slick programs we see today. In fact, he can list many where he was the first person to ever buy a barrel from. Along the way, Jason gained a reputation as having one of the top paletes in the bourbon game, and his barrel picks remain some of the most sought after today.
Bourbon Experiences - Perhaps the number one reason why the run bourbon is on right now truly has legs, and is going to keep going for a long time, is the concept of bourbon experiences. Going above-and-beyond simply just drinking bourbon, to incorporate the people behind the brands into an experiences helps build loyal customers for life to a brand. Jason immediately brought this concept to Bourbons Bistro when he opened it. Once-a-month, they would host Bourbon Dinners where distillers or key individuals from the bourbon world would host a dinner. In addition to a great meal and bourbon, the person would talk. The only reason why Bourbons Bistro would stop doing this was because bourbon experience events would become so popular in many different forms (dinners, liquor store appearances, keynote speeches and bourbon festivals) he began having a hard time getting people to commit to once-a-month events.
When you factor in all of the innovation and compound it by the volume of people coming through the doors of Bourbons Bistro from Louisville and all over the world as they visit Bourbon Country in its 14 years in business, you start to comprehend the impact Jason has had on the business as a whole. The one person you will never hear bragging about this is Jason himself. He simply doesn’t have a the gene in him that would allow him to dote on his accomplishments. Instead, he just keeps contributing to the industry that he loves, standing on the other side of the bar from people new and old to bourbon.
Hopefully, we see all of this payoff one day with the ultimate recognition by the bourbon industry with a spot in the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame because outside of firing up a still and cooking a mash, you’re hard-pressed to find someone with more contributions to the industry than Jason.