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By Mark Green

From Pikeville to Paducah, in counties wet, dry and moist, the commonwealth’s signature spirit is taking on a new mantle and bringing home the bacon.

Many like to cite the statistic that there are more barrels of bourbon in Kentucky than residents – 4.7 million barrels compared with 4.38 million residents (and that’s not counting 300,000 barrels in reserve for use in products aside from straight bourbon). A new study from the Kentucky Distillers’ Association quantifies that particular claim, and demonstrates some startling statistics about just how supportive bourbon really is to Kentucky’s economic structures.

Young professionals enjoy the bourbon selection at Jefferson Davis Inn in Lexington, one of the city’s newest bourbon bars.
Young professionals enjoy the bourbon selection at Jefferson Davis Inn in Lexington, one of the city’s newest bourbon bars. (Photo by Shaun Ring)

No longer only relegated to its somewhat sacred role at the end of a long day – or the beginning of a good time with friends – bourbon has been revealed as a much more sophisticated spirit, and a more stable provider, than perhaps previously thought.

Kentucky’s bourbon industry currently includes 19 major distilling operations in eight counties, plus a dozen craft distilleries also have surfaced recently. The uptick in craft operations mirrors growth in established companies, with overall production increasing 50 percent the past 10 years.

Kentucky prevails in the global marketplace, boasting production of 95 percent of the world’s supply. And bourbon is the largest export category of all U.S. spirits – to the tune of 25 million proof gallons to 126 countries in 2008.

But just because Kentucky exports such a great amount of bourbon to the world doesn’t mean the world doesn’t also come to Kentucky. In fact, the state has seen notable increases in revenues associated with bourbon tourism.

The distilleries participating in the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, Evan Williams, and most recently the new Alltech Town Branch Distillery) have experienced 1.7 million visits in only the past five years. In 2010, more than 9,000 people completed the Bourbon Trail tour, up 300 percent from 2009. Many who complete the trail are from out of state, relatively affluent and complete multi-night hotel stays in Kentucky, according to Bourbon Trail officials.

“I can tell you without any hesitation we’ve seen a tremendous surge in bourbon tourism,” said Mary Quinn Ramer, vice president of marketing for the Lexington Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “We have seen what people were seeing all across the region, which is a pent-up demand for an authentic bourbon experience. What’s been great is that they are not just interested in product, they’re interested in the people who make it, the stories and the lore – everything that goes with it.”

The notable tourism influx in Lexington may be even more indicative of bourbon’s reach since, unlike Louisville, which boasts a well-established bourbon distillery infrastructure with popular attractions such as its Urban Bourbon Trail bars and well-known bourbon restaurants such as Proof on Main, Lexington is still developing specific tourism attractions. The first is Alltech’s Town Branch Distillery, in the heart of downtown Lexington.

“Even before we had Town Branch, we were seeing an increase in bourbon tourism, in earnest probably since 2005 or 2006,” Ramer said. “And now we can say even in the midst of the city center, you have an authentic bourbon experience – with great bourbon bars and great restaurants that feature bourbon in their dishes.”

Lexington is home, too, to the Barrel House Distillery, a member of the new Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour created late last year to complement the Kentucky Bourbon Trail experience. Barrel House is located just west of downtown on the site of the old James E. Pepper Distillery. Currently four products are produced there: Pure Blue Vodka; Devil John Moonshine; OAK Rum; and a still-to-be-named bourbon whiskey that is quietly aging.

Outside of the urban bourbon center of Louisville and the burgeoning Lexington scene, Bardstown – the “Bourbon Capital of the World” – is a popular spot to rest, with distilleries dotting the countryside, and bed and breakfasts catering to travelers from far and wide. Estimates from the recent KDA research indicate that, for each 1,000 completions of the Bourbon Trail, these adventurers spent $585,000 in the region (divided among food and beverage, retail shopping and gas, as well as hotels and B&Bs).

Those who have moved to or visited Kentucky for the first time within the past 10 years might be accustomed to the notion of the commonwealth as a tourist destination. Along with bourbon, the region boasts the beautiful rolling hills of horse country and the world-famous races for which those grazing beauties prepare, not to mention the global stage on which Kentucky performed while hosting international guests during the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

Young professionals enjoy the bourbon selection at Asiatique in Louisville, a stop along the Urban Bourbon Trail. (Photo by Marty Pearl)
Young professionals enjoy the bourbon selection at Asiatique in Louisville, a stop along the Urban Bourbon Trail. (Photo by Marty Pearl)

At its heart, though, the Bluegrass State has a long history and tradition of hard work in manufacturing. And bourbon is true to that heritage, with a reach that extends to support jobs and tax revenues even beyond bluegrass borders.

Throughout the eight counties with noted bourbon operations, jobs directly attributed to bourbon number nearly 3,000 and, throughout the state another 3,100. The annual payroll for those jobs is nearly $250 million, including positions at Brown-Forman Corp. in Louisville – one of Kentucky’s 10 Fortune 1000 companies.

Brown-Forman, as an example, boasts $3.78 billion in revenue and operates one of the largest spirits production centers in Kentucky. The Louisville headquarters manages worldwide production, distribution and marketing for the company and its many brands, which include the iconic Woodford Reserve, as well as Early Times and Old Forrester, along with many other notable wine and spirit brands.

Other major operations include Sazerac, which operates bourbon brands Blanton’s, Buffalo Trace and the fanatically sought after Van Winkle line. Add in Campari Group, which operates Wild Turkey, and it’s not hard to see how the jobs add up. In addition to internal production and management at these bourbon behemoths, support industries benefit from the spirit’s popularity as well.

For every bottle, a range of other products and services exist: wooden barrels and pallets, plastic bottles, manufacturing equipment, labeling, trucking, electricity, construction and more. Innumerable other products and manufacturing operations are affected by bourbon, and contribute to the relatively high employment and payroll multipliers for distilling. The KDA estimates the distilling industry in Kentucky is responsible for 8,690 jobs in the state – and that those jobs account for a payroll of $413 million.

Additional hard-to-quantify benefits include unique secondary markets. Many of the hard goods also are recycled after use in bourbon production. Barrels are resold and reused for aging brandy or other beverages like ale or for novelty furniture and accessory manufacturing.

Meanwhile, corporate citizenship by the spirits companies or their foundations accounts for consistent contributions to arts and cultural organizations.

Finally, perhaps one of the most important elements of this economic boon is that the distilling industry, unlike so many other industries in recent years, is stable. During the past decade, which saw the most significant recession in recent history, distilling industry employment was up 4 percent, while other manufacturing sectors were down 33 percent collectively. Spirits have become recognized as relatively recession-proof.

That’s good for employees and jobseekers as well as the places they live and work. While employment has been supported, likewise have state and local governments. KDA estimates that in 2010 distillers paid about $11.7 million in inventory property taxes and $2.7 million in property taxes (for buildings, land, equipment and inventory). These property taxes fund important school and government operations. Overall, it is estimated that state and local governments receive $126 million a year.

Most Kentuckians know – and pride themselves on – the contributions bourbon makes in many areas, but this new study sheds light on the depth of the distilling industry’s economic impact in the commonwealth. It bears a heavy burden in supporting Kentucky financially, so let’s raise a glass to prosperity!

Anne Sabatino Hardy writes for BG Magazine, a young professionals magazine produced by The Lane Report.

The Urban Bourbon Trail

Centered in downtown Louisville, with a few stops in other neighborhoods, the Urban Bourbon Trail guides visitors through the history of the city’s bourbon heritage and some of the world’s most celebrated bourbon bars. In addition to bourbon-inspired culinary specialties — such as mint julep pancakes,­ bourbon barrel smoked salmon or a bourbon ball milkshake — most of the establishments are stocked with anywhere from 50 to 150 varieties of Kentucky’s signature spirit.

Much like the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the urban version includes a printed booklet passport that can be picked up at the city’s visitors center or at any of the participating locations. An electronic version is available for download on smart phones.

Visitors who collect six stamps for their passport earn the rank of official “Bourbon Country Citizen” and are awarded an Urban Bourbon Trailblazer T-shirt.

There are 27 official stops along the trail. Staff at establishments along the trail have been trained to explain the nuances and tasting notes in the different bourbons offered, according to the Bourbon Country website.

A trail map can be downloaded at http://bit.ly/TkBNgR

Urban Bourbon Trail stops

1767 Bardstown Rd.

The Evan Williams Experience is scheduled to open this fall in downtown Louisville.
The Evan Williams Experience opened this fall in downtown Louisville.

The Bar at BLU
280 W. Jefferson St.

Baxter Station Bar & Grill
1201 Payne St.

Bourbons Bistro
2255 Frankfort Ave.

Bristol Bar & Grille
614 W. Main St.

The Brown Hotel 
Lobby Bar
335 W. Broadway

425 W. Ormsby

Charr’d Bourbon Kitchen & Lounge
1903 Embassy Square Blvd.

Corbett’s: An American Place
5050 Norton Healthcare Blvd.

Derby Café: at the Kentucky Derby Museum
704 Central Ave.

Dish on Market
434 W. Market St.

Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse  & Raw Bar
127 W. Main St.

Equus & Jack’s Lounge
122 Sears Ave.

624 E. Market St.

Haymarket Whiskey Bar
331 E. Market St.

Jockey Silks Bourbon Bar
140 N. 4th St.

1147 Bardstown Rd.

10001 Forest Green Blvd.

Maker’s Mark Bourbon House & Lounge
446 S. 4th St.

Marketplace Restaurant
651 S. 4th St.

The Old Seelbach Bar
500 S. 4th St.

Proof On Main
702 W. Main St.

Ramsi’s Café  on the World
1293 Bardstown Rd.

The Silver Dollar
1761 Frankfort Ave.

St. Charles Exchange
113 S. 7th St.

2106 Frankfort Ave.

Vernon Club
1575 Story Ave.

Village Anchor
11507 Park Road

Vincenzo’s Italian Restaurant
150 S. 5th St.

Volare Ristorante
2300 Frankfort Ave.

A bourbon revolution in Central Kentucky

A bourbon mixed-drink is poured at Jefferson Davis Inn in Lexington. (Photo by Shaun Ring)
A bourbon mixed-drink is poured at Jefferson Davis Inn in Lexington. (Photo by Shaun Ring)

From bourbon on the rocks to the Old Fashioned, Central Kentuckians are drinking more bourbon. And they have more bars than ever to try out iconic brands.
Lexington has a dozen or so establishments that bill themselves as “bourbon bars.” One of the newest is a throwback to a former campus hotspot – the Jefferson Davis Inn or the JDI. The original downtown bar closed in 1996, but the new and improved version opened earlier this year at the corner of Cedar and Broadway. The three-floor bar boasts nearly 70 bourbon selections.

Other places to wet your whistle:

Arcadium – Located at the corner of 6th Street and Limestone, you can choose from 50 bourbons and drop a pocketful of quarters into beloved vintage arcade games, such as Frogger, Donkey Kong, Ms. Pacman, Tetris and Galaga.

Bluegrass Tavern – Located in Cheapside, this bar offers more than 200 different varieties of bourbon. It has been named to Southern Living magazine’s
annual list of “Best Bars of the South.”

Horse and Barrel – This upscale British pub at deSha’s in Victorian Square has one of the largest collections of single barrel and ultra premium bourbons in the state.

Jonathan’s at Gratz Park – Jonathan’s offers more than 100 bourbons and features Kentucky bourbon in a variety of gourmet dishes.

Parlay Social – Black-tie bartenders pour more than 50 bourbons and several signature cocktails. Finish a bottle of Maker’s Mark and become an honorary Maker’s Mark Ambassador.

Paulie’s Toasted Barrel – Located on Main Street, this bar boasts more than 100 bourbon brands and has a Maker’s Mark VIP room.

There’s also The Jax, Drake’s, Dudley’s, Harry’s, Bellini’s and Portofino, among others.