15th Anniversary

Bourbon’s Next Golden Age

Believe it or not, its best days are ahead

Photo: Squire Fox/AUGUST

A bourbon old-fashioned, photographed at the Bar at Husk in Charleston, South Carolina.

If you’re pacing your consumption of bourbon—especially if your doctor advises you to do so—we suggest you plan for ramping up your intake in, say, a decade. Because by that time, the range and abundance of sipping whiskeys will almost certainly be extraordinary. Yes, even more so than now.

Whiskey is a curious product. What comes out of the still today may not go into a bottle for eight or ten or twelve years. It needs time in a barrel to lose its callow impudence and become an amber statesman. Which also means that makers need to predict demand that far out.

 Distillers, alas, have a spotty track record as prognosticators. For the most part, they failed to predict the past decade’s boom in demand for whiskey, leaving some cherished brands hard to find and the cost of indulging in the South’s favorite twilight pastime rising astronomically. “Prices have been nuts,” says Lew Bryson, author of Whiskey Master Class: The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Scotch, Bourbon, Rye, and More. “It’s like college tuition.”

Producers have responded to the demand by vastly expanding their output. “Every major distiller has doubled its capacity in the past ten or fifteen years,” Bryson notes. Kentucky alone now has something like ten million barrels of bourbon aging in warehouses, quietly awaiting the coming Golden Age.

Bourbon is surging outside Kentucky, too. (Bourbon does not need to be made in Kentucky, despite what your brother-in-law insists.) The prospect of non-Kentucky bourbons—many from new craft distillers experimenting with bold new approaches, including barrels made from non-Ozark oak—thrills Bryson: “There are stave mills being built east of the Appalachians. You’re getting completely different flavors.”

Luckily, the refilling of the bourbon supply pipeline may mean a break on prices. That would be doubly true if fickle American consumers lose interest in whiskey and switch to drinking organic pond water chilled with pink quartz crystals, or Lord knows what else, in the future. All that excellent whiskey may go unloved and unwanted, resulting in a glut like the one that visited the industry in the 1980s, resulting in high quality at bargain prices.

But don’t count on that. Bourbon tabs will continue to rise if more consumers clamber into the market or the international trade in whiskey booms, as many predict. To hedge your bets, we suggest buying two bottles of each of your favorite whiskeys today. Drink one, slowly, at a rate that will appease your general practitioner. Hide the other away for fifteen years. Because the one thing we know is, well…you just never know.