Bourbon is booming, and this week we’ll see further evidence of that as Bardstown - the Bourbon Capital of the World - hosts the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. In 2016, 53,000 people from 44 states as well as the District of Columbia and 14 different countries attended the festival, and we are looking forward to an even more successful 2017 festival.
As Kentucky’s signature spirit continues to build appeal across the globe, I can’t help thinking about how our region is blessed with the resources and the history that make bourbon so special to our communities.
Certainly, the appeal is rooted in rich heritage, full of compelling stories of distilleries more than a century old. And people not only want to enjoy their favorite bourbons, they also want to come to bourbon country to be a part of those stories. Here, they can see it, smell it, touch it and taste it.
“Bourbon and Bardstown go hand in hand,” said Josh Hollifield, Visitor Center Manager at Barton 1792 Distillery. “It’s the rich history that the two share that really ties it all together. Every distillery has a unique history and way of doing things.”
Our entire region benefits greatly as distilleries welcome tourists though their doors to learn about the bourbon making process. From large distilleries to smaller operations like Willett Distillery where, as Britt Kulsveen explained, “people who visit our distillery know they are in our home,” bourbon creates business for our hotels, our restaurants, our retail outlets and more. The Barton 1792 distillery, for example, welcomed 30,000 visitors last year.
“The great news is, as people come in to check out the bourbon, that spills over into all our other great attractions,” said Kevin Smith, Vice President for Kentucky Beam Bourbon Affairs at Beam Suntory. More than four out of ten Kentucky Bourbon Trail visitors has an annual household income of more than $100,000, he noted, and they are spending in Kentucky.
Statewide, distilling contributes $8.5 billion to Kentucky’s economy, according to the Kentucky Distillers Association. That’s up $3 billion since 2008.
“Our industry ties together a lot of important pieces,” Kulsveen said. She notes the native grains grown by Kentucky farmers, the water, the lumber from which barrels are made and more. “Just about every piece of the process – from production to barrel – is from our home state, and that’s something so unique,” she said.
That’s a point of pride for so many in this region, because as the industry grows so does the number of Central Kentuckians who work in or otherwise benefit from it.
“At Barton 1792 Distillery, we have added more than 250 new jobs since 2009, and employ more than 400 individuals at our Distillery and Distribution Center in Bardstown,” Hollifield said. “Our Distillery also contributes more than $38 million each year to the local and regional economy through our working relationships with local barrel, coal and corn vendors.”
Kulsveen , a Bardstown native whose family bourbon history dates back to the Civil War era, said the industry is immensely important to families throughout the area. It’s a livelihood and a common bond.
“Hands at every level and in every walk of life in this town have touched this business,” she said.
According to Smith, a 28-year veteran of the business, and others in the industry, the popularity of bourbon shows no sign of slowing. Bourbon is more approachable than it was in the past, Smith said, and he gives a lot of the credit to bartenders who have triggered an increased interest in made-at-home cocktails. Add that to a market that appreciates authenticity and heritage, and it’s clear bourbonism (an emerging term for the enthusiasm around bourbon) will continue to grow.
From jobs growth at distilleries, to new demand in the tourism industry to opportunities for entrepreneurs, this storied signature spirit of ours has an incredible economic impact. It truly is an exciting time in the bourbon industry and, naturally, it’s an exciting time in the communities of bourbon country.
Kim Huston is president of Nelson County Economic Development Agency and a former member of the Lincoln Trail Workforce Development Board and Kentucky Workforce Investment Board.