From Kentucky Economic Development Guide 2024

That Grand Taste of Tradition

Notes from Kentucky’s unstoppable bourbon boom.

Bourbon and Spirits
Photo courtesy of Kentucky Distillers’ Association

unny, the great schemes born among friends sipping whiskey. Take this one, hatched at a football tailgate at the University of Kentucky, where some brothers involved in mining were sharing some spirits with a well-known distiller.

“He told us he had an idea to age bourbon in a coal mine in Eastern Kentucky,” said Evan Wright.

“We thought it was the coolest idea ever.”

Having survived on ice for close to a dozen years, that initial ember of a notion has flickered to life in the heart of Appalachia, Pike County, where Brothers Wright Distilling Co. released its first batch of mine-aged bourbon in the spring of 2023. In October, Brothers Wright announced plans for a $38 million investment in the startup venture that’s projected to create more than two dozen jobs in a region that can greatly benefit from them. The project’s master plan envisions a 12,000-square-foot distillery, a museum, tasting room and restaurant, as well as a stage for local musicians and, eventually, lodging for guests on parts of the 1,000-acre property. The brothers hope to draw from, among others, the throngs of off-road riders who flock from out of state to nearby trails.


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Kentucky Bourbon AP-2

Brothers Wright is blending Kentucky traditions and providing new jobs.

Photo courtesy of Brothers Wright Distillery


The property’s former Leckie Collieries mine, still lined with stacked rock walls constructed by Italian masons, snakes through the side of an unnamed mountain. In addition to the mine’s potential appeal to tourists, Wright believes that he can bring to bear his background in engineering to manipulate its inner temperature, humidity and barometric pressure in ways to speed the aging process, an emerging technique known as hyperaging.

Whiskey, mining and maybe even some bluegrass music all speak to Kentucky and to Pike County, where, Wright related, moonshiners once thrived but true distilleries have been few.

“We really do think that we’ve got a cool way to blend a lot of the culture that’s in Eastern Kentucky,” he said. “And beyond that, it’s an opportunity for us to help diversify the economy in the place that we love.”

Variations on a Theme

Kentucky’s bourbon boom, having sustained into a second decade, keeps evolving in new directions even as its bedrock precept, tradition, propels what has become a $9 billion industry. In 2023, bourbon’s growth continued apace with new and expanding distilleries having announced investments totaling over $700 million. Kentucky distillers are in the midst of a $5.5 billion building binge, with $3.5 billion of investment planned over the next five years. Production has skyrocketed nearly 500% since the turn of the century and 240% since 2009, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA).

Brothers Wright and its unique plan are emblematic of the industry’s increasing “customization,” according to Jack Mazurak, KDA’s director of governmental and regulatory affairs.

And not just that, but the seemingly boundless demand for Kentucky’s signature brand means bourbon keeps finding new places to be produced, thus spreading the wealth across the Bluegrass State. Blackstone Distillery — plans for which were announced in late 2023 — is an integral component of a plan to revitalize a section of downtown Manchester in South Eastern Kentucky. In Rowan County, Eastern Light Distilling is investing $143 million in a ground-up venture that’s to create at least 50 new jobs while supporting the region’s multiplying craft bourbon makers as a contract distiller.

“We’re seeing more and more distilleries locate in more remote areas in Eastern Kentucky and Western Kentucky, including counties that don’t have a history of distilling,” said Mazurak. “From an economic development perspective there’s a lot to be gained from helping these communities land distilleries.”

Distilling operations can have an outsized economic impact, especially in smaller locales. For every job created by a Kentucky distiller, according to KDA, another 3.3 jobs ripple through the economy, the highest jobs multiplier among the state’s top 20 manufacturing industries.

“You think it’s just the distilleries,” said Kim Huston of Bardstown, longtime president and CEO of the Nelson County Economic Development Agency. “But you’ve got the construction business that’s tied to building these multi-million-dollar facilities. You’ve got the barrel makers who can’t make enough right now. You’ve got the farmers who can’t grow enough corn. You’ve got the logistics people transporting bourbon back and forth. There’s a whole business of bourbon that people don’t even know about.”

“Even if it’s a small craft operation employing maybe 10 people, those are good-paying jobs,” Mazurak said. “It’s something that a community can be very proud of. And if they open a visitor’s center, it’s instant tourism.”

Fit for the Times

Kentucky bourbon as a brand has come to pack a remarkable punch. It hasn’t always been that way, bourbon having suffered periods of decline when many of those who drank it did so because they could get it relatively inexpensively. 

Somewhere between the advent of color television era and the dawn of artificial intelligence, life seems to have gotten maybe a little too fast for some, and old, golden bourbon and the simpler times it conveys fit nicely among those softer trends that can offer a sense of renewal. None other than Bob Dylan, that aging avatar of “authenticity,” has bought in, his Heaven’s Door Distillery soon to open on 160 acres in the town of Pleasureville. In addition, Dylan’s spirits business is restoring a former church in Louisville for a venue called “The Last Refuge” that’s to cater to whiskey and music enthusiasts.

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Lexington’s Barrel House Distillery is expanding to meet demand.

Photo courtesy of Kentucky Distillers’ Association


Bourbon’s big turnaround roughly traces to the turn of the century, when KDA launched the Kentucky Bourbon Trail with six participating distilleries. So overwhelming has been the response that the 18 distilleries that now comprise the trail surpassed 2 million visitors in 2022, the highest number ever. Founded in 2012 to further leverage the boom, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, dotted by 24 smaller distilleries, notched more than 730,000 visits in 2022.

The myriad ways in which Kentucky has successfully promoted its signature product are likely to offer case studies for master’s courses for years to come. And yet, Gov. Andy Beshear says the reason for the bourbon boom is simple.

“It’s a good product,” he said.

He adds that authentic bourbon is uniquely Kentucky.

“Ninety-five percent of the world’s bourbon comes from Kentucky,” he’ll tell you. “And the other 5% is counterfeit.”

Beyond marketing, Mazurak points out that KDA has pushed for legislation that’s given distillers wider room to run, chiefly by bringing about parity between liquor taxes and those assessed on wine and beer.

“Whiskey,” he said, “was the sin industry. Our goal has been to change it from sin to signature. A big part of that was improving the business climate and the tax climate.”

So, whereas there were eight licensed distilleries in Kentucky 15 years ago, they now number more than 100, according to KDA. Jeff Wiseman, co-owner of Lexington’s Barrel House Distillery, has seen it play out firsthand. Wiseman’s Barrel House, founded with childhood friend Pete Wright, was the first new distillery Lexington had seen in half a century when it launched in 2006. Last November, the Barrel House team broke ground on a major expansion in the small town of Cynthiana some 30 miles to the north. 

“We have a great location here in Lexington in the old distillery district,” said Wiseman, “but there’s only so much product we can produce here, and the demand just keeps on coming.” 

Sipping Bourbon the Right Way

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Photo Courtesy of Kentucky Distillers’ Association 


If you are tasting multiple bourbons, always start with the lowest proof (strength) and move to the higher proof.

Look at the color of the bourbon. The darker the color, the more complex the taste of the bourbon. 

Nose the bourbon by putting your nose deep into the glass and parting your lips while smelling the bourbon. 

Take a taste of the bourbon, working it around your mouth to involve your entire mouth in the tasting. Hold the Bourbon in your mouth for a few seconds, then swallow.  

The last step is to assess the finish, which is the flavor the Bourbon leaves behind after you swallow it. 

If you are new to bourbon tasting, it is fine to dilute the higher proof bourbons a little.  

Drink your Beam bourbon: “Any damn way you please.”

— Fred Noe, Master Distiller, James B. Beam Distilling Co.

Gary Daughters
Senior Editor

Gary Daughters

Gary Daughters is a Peabody Award winning journalist who began with Site Selection in 2016. Gary has worked as a writer and producer for CNN covering US politics and international affairs. His work has included lengthy stints in Washington, DC and western Europe. Gary is a 1981 graduate of the University of Georgia, where he majored in Journalism and Mass Communications. He lives in Atlanta with his teenage daughter, and in his spare time plays guitar, teaches golf and mentors young people.


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