Kentucky Bourbon Surges In Popularity

fromLPM

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival is underway in Bardstown, and the state's celebrated spirit is riding a wave of popularity. Kentucky bourbon is attracting bar patrons with its mix of the traditional — and the trendy. But its basic recipe hasn't changed.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: And I'm Michele Norris. Thousands of people have descended on Bardstown, Kentucky this week. They've gathered to celebrate one of the state's signature industries: bourbon. It's the 20th Annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival, and as Rick Howlett of member station WFPL reports, the barrel-aged Kentucky spirit is enjoying a remarkable surge in popularity.

CHRIS MORRIS: Just take a little sip, hold it on the palate for a count of 1,000, 2,000, then slowly swallow.

RICK HOWLETT: One of the festival's opening events is a tasting. A sellout crowd turned out to sip bourbon, one of which was Woodford Reserve, where Chris Morris is the master distiller.

MORRIS: So you're looking for barrel character, fruit, spice, grain character.

HOWLETT: These are heady times for Kentucky bourbon, a drink that's more than 200 years old and made under strict content regulations. Bourbon can be aged only in charred oak barrels and could not be mixed with any other type of spirit. According to the Kentucky Distillers Association, about 95 percent of the world's supply is produced in the Bluegrass State, and association president Eric Gregory says more of the world is enjoying it.

ERIC GREGORY: In the '70s and '80s, bourbon was in a downturn. People liked the clear spirits: the vodka, gin and rum, and things like that. Bourbon just wasn't seen as a cool drink. It was your grandfather's drink. And it really was the growth of the single-barrel and small batch bourbons in the late '80s, early '90s that really have been driving the bourbon revolution.

HOWLETT: Gregory says both big names like Jim Beam and new micro-distillers are turning out those more expensive, high-quality brands to growing foreign markets, like China and India, all while targeting new drinkers in the U.S. It's apparently working. There are now 4.7 million barrels of bourbon aging in Kentucky, outnumbering the state's 4.3 million people. In fact, business has been so good that distilleries are investing $200 million on expansions and improvements.

They're also selling the bourbon experience. Tourists can follow the Kentucky Bourbon Trail through six distilleries. It drew 400,000 visitors last year. One of the stops is Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg, where 76-year-old master distiller Jimmy Russell presides over a brand-new $50 million operation.

JIMMY RUSSELL: If it smells good - it's like a bakery - you know you're making a good product.

HOWLETT: Jimmy Russell has been making Wild Turkey for nearly 57 years. The plant now produces more than a dozen varieties.

RUSSELL: For many, many years, it's a Southern gentleman's drink. And then now, you know, everybody's drinking bourbon. And the ladies drink as much bourbon as the men do right now.

CARLA CARLTON: Bourbon traditionally has not been marketed to women.

HOWLETT: That's Carla Carlton, also known as the Bourbon Babe. That's the name she's given to a blog she just started up. She talked bourbon over drinks at Louisville's historic Seelbach Hotel.

CARLTON: I like my bourbon neat. I kind of - I have to admit I like the double take that I often get from the server when I order bourbon neat, and they say, you know, you don't want to mix that with something? No, I want to actually taste the bourbon.

HOWLETT: Joining us is Bernie Lubbers, Jim Beam's whiskey professor. He travels the world, holding bourbon tastings to promote the company's brands. Lubbers says the craft has held fast to its 200-year-old roots. New drinkers are embracing the old tradition and the complex flavors enticed from that simple mix of cooked grains distilled and matured in charred oak barrels.

BERNIE LUBBERS: It's truly American. It's truly pure, and it's cool and retro to like bourbon.

HOWLETT: And Kentucky's bourbon makers are raising a glass to their new prosperity. For NPR News, I'm Rick Howlett in Louisville.

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