September is National Bourbon Heritage Month, a celebration of the uniquely American whiskey distillers have been producing and perfecting for hundreds of years. And while plenty of goods grow stale with age – passed over in favor of the shinier, modern creations (see: mezcal) – interest in bourbon has no ceiling.
Take DC for example, where bourbon-based drinks like the Old Fashioned and Mint Julep are fast becoming menu staples. And many bars and liquor stores now make a point to appeal to customers with a variety of bottles, from the rare to the everyday.
Some may take that as proof that society has reached peak bourbon. But there’s plenty of evidence its trajectory is still on the rise.
“We are seeing growing demand driven in many ways by consumer recognition that Americans can make world-class whiskey [that’s] highly crafted and deliver an amazing array of enjoyable drinking experiences, whether neat or mixed,” says Mark Brown, president and CEO of Frankfort, Kentucky’s Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Few sources are better plugged into the bourbon world than Buffalo Trace, which runs the oldest continually operating distillery in the U.S. The Buffalo Trace name was adopted in 1999 with the release of its namesake bourbon, but bourbon has been produced at the site for over 200 years. More than 200,000 visitors a year travel to its headquarters, which was named a national historic landmark in 2013.
What started as a small, 50-employee operation has grown to 450 employees and earned more awards than any other distillery. The rapid growth is a telling snapshot of bourbon’s momentum as a coveted liquor.
When asked what he loves most about bourbon, Brown points to its versatility and flexibility. Bourbon drinkers aren’t afraid of having a little fun.
“I love the approachability, taste and mixability of bourbon,” he says. “We are not tied to stuffy traditions around how whiskey should be consumed.”
As its popularity has grown, bourbon has also become a bridge connecting likeminded drinkers who bond and share experiences tasting and collecting new and favorite bottles. Creating those experiences is the result of art, science and many crafty hands. Just ask Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley, who’s worked at the distillery since 1995.
“[Bourbon] is produced from the fields of farmers and brought to the table of consumers by craftsmen that are truly passionate about producing a quality product,” he says.
Wheatley still sees an opportunity to educate customers about the history and intricacies of bourbon. In addition to the manual work involved, for example, there are legal requirements to follow for a whiskey to be designated a bourbon. Among them: the spirit must be produced in the U.S., it must come from at least 51 percent corn and it must be aged in new American oak barrels.
Each bourbon brand also comes with its own quirks, pedigree and way of doing things. That’s all the more important in 2018, when the sheer amount of bourbon choices can be overwhelming even for its biggest fans.
“I think once people understand the history and stories behind the brands, they begin to respect and appreciate the brands a little more,” Wheatley says.
Experimentation has become a bigger part of the bourbon world, too. As general interest expands, distilleries across the country – including One Eight Distilling in Ivy City – are inventing their own twists on the classic bourbon profile. Wheatley says that while it “would be easy to be distracted,” by these new offerings and styles, Buffalo Trace plans to stay the course going forward.
If there’s one downside to the bourbon craze, it’s that consumers are seeing their unquenchable demand met with higher prices. Enjoying bourbon can become a rather expensive and overwhelming hobby. It’s not hard to find bottles for a hundred dollars or more.
It’s a challenge Buffalo Trace, along with all American distillers, must embrace in 2018 and beyond. But as long as there are tasty bourbons being produced, its popularity seems far from peak.
“We are only at the very beginning of bourbon,” Brown says.
Pearl Dive’s Bardstown Derby, A Bourbon HitBuffalo Trace bourbon is the featured spirit in the Bardstown Derby, a cocktail mainstay at Pearl Dive Oyster Palace in Logan Circle. The featured libation on our September cover takes its name from the historic town of Bardstown, Kentucky and has been on the restaurant’s menu for a number of years. It’s a clear customer favorite.
“It’s a riff off a Brown Derby,” says George Sault, bar director for Black Restaurant Group, which owns Pearl Dive.
The drink tweaks the standard Brown Derby formula of bourbon, grapefruit and honey with additions of tart fresh lemon juice and a floral, rich, house-made orange blossom honey syrup.
“It’s our most popular cocktail after the Pearl Cup, which is a gin-based cocktail,” Sault says.
Along with mixing up plenty of Bardstown Derbys on busy nights, Sault has plenty of experience steering bourbon drinkers of all levels toward a great cocktail or dram from Pearl Dive’s menu of both approachable and complex whiskeys. When it comes to bourbon newcomers, Sault says to “dive into what they usually drink.”
Some people gravitate toward citrus-forward drinks or stirred boozy cocktails like an Old Fashioned. Others prefer a simple pour of whiskey, neat or with some ice. From that point, there are endless bottles to explore and taste.
“If someone is well-versed in whiskey, then you start diving into some of the whiskeys that you don’t see on the everyday bar shelves,” he says.
2 oz. Buffalo Trace bourbon
0.5 oz. fresh lemon juice
1.5 oz. fresh grapefruit juice
0.75 oz. orange blossom honey syrup
Add all ingredients into a shaker and shake vigorously. Strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice.
Pearl Dive Oyster Palace: 1612 14th St. NW, DC; 202-319-1612; www.pearldivedc.com