Can you “Out-Bourbon” Kentucky?
I’m writing this a day after I attended a local whiskey tasting event here in Missouri. It was a lot of fun and I had an opportunity to really get to know the types ofcustomers that I would want as a craft distiller. There were aficionados, regular working stiffs, localvores, and curious attendees. I had the same opportunities that they did to taste a LOT of different whiskies, and it confirmed my belief that I should not be making bourbon whisky and chances are, most distillers probably shouldn’t either.
Let me first give you a disclaimer; I’m a distiller. Notice that I didn’t put “craft”, “master”, or “artisan” in front of the word distiller. I’m an amateur. Yeah, I’ve been making alcohol since I was about thirteen, and yeah, I can tell the difference between heads, hearts, and tails on a pot still, but compared to the nearly 200 years of generational knowledge that sitting in Kentucky, I’d be an amateur in making bourbon no matter how long I’d been doing it. I don’t have the financial backing, the warehouses, or the football sized scientific team that goes into crafting a consistent tasting product. I’m one guy with a mashtun, a still, and some empty bottles.
So let me give you (the “craft distiller”) a break down of your competition. Beam-Suntory, Brown-Forman, Heaven Hill, and Diageo have combined assets of nearly 53 billion dollars (That is with a B). They have lobbyists that probably make more than you do on any given year, and they have never had to stir a pot of boiling corn mash. Diageo alone had a marketing budget of nearly a billion dollars in 2016. They put up posters, slam your Facebook feed, and take so much shelf space on the aisle that you will be lucky to be sitting on the bottom shelf next to the bottled water. You think your crafty google ad-words campaign is really going to make an impact? Probably not.
So I know what you are thinking now: “But I make bourbon better than anyone in Kentucky.” Maybe you do. Maybe you got your best friend to help you. Maybe you both have truly epic beards and you both visited Scotland and the bourbon trail both while you were in college. It doesn’t matter. You don’t have the time, which is something that Kentucky has lots of. They can afford to make a sub-par product if they want to and just wait for it to get better in the barrel. Do you? Nope. You better be making some damn good moonshine and hope that the American consumer will change their minds and think that it actually tastes good. Actually go hit some bars like I did and try to tell someone your selling moonshine. You will have a hard sell. Harder still? Sell them some of your bourbon. They will automatically think about Kentucky, and with good reason. The first mention of bourbon was in Kentucky, and that was in 1821. What I’m getting at here is that bourbon is synonymous with a state that I don’t live in. Even if I made the best bourbon in America, I’d always be the distillery that is doing something that Kentucky started and I’d always be years behind.
This is why I don’t make bourbon and probably never will. I know that I will never out-bourbon Kentucky. Don’t get me wrong. If you make a great tasting bourbon, your making money at it, and the bottles are flying off the shelf, then by all means you should keep doing what you’re doing. On the other hand, if you’re wondering why there’s dust sitting on the bottles in the local liquor store, then perhaps you should consider placing a little extra effort in crafting a spirit that encompasses your local terroir, is within reach of the average consumer, and offers a taste that will set you apart from the titans of the whisky business. Just keep working on it. After all, all you have to lose is time, which Kentucky has shown can be quite profitable.