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Kentucky Distillers Association President Eric Gregory On The Bourbon Tourism Boom

May 30, 2017

Bourbon continues to enjoy a bull run, reaching 20 million nine-liter cases in the U.S. market last year for the first time in three decades. Rising interest in the category has brought a wave of Bourbon-related tourism traffic to Kentucky, where around 95% of all Bourbon is made. The Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA) has helped spur the tourism boom through the Kentucky Bourbon Trail—which includes stops at Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Wild Turkey and Four Roses, among other distilleries. Its offshoot, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, is also popular. SND senior editor Christina Jelski recently spoke with KDA president Eric Gregory to discuss Bourbon’s thriving tourism scene, investments by major distillers and the category’s long-term outlook.

SND: What’s the visitor demographic behind the boom in Kentucky Bourbon tourism?

Gregory: Last year, we recorded 1 million visitor stops for the first time since the Kentucky Bourbon Trail was founded in 1999. The average Kentucky Bourbon Trail visitor is from a very high-end demographic. Their median household income is between $75,000 and $100,000, with 42% making above $100,000. In terms of age, 70% are between 25 and 54 years old, and they’re mostly trending younger. The average out-of-state group spends between $400 and $1,200 during their trip. So it’s a young demographic with disposable income, which is advancing Kentucky tourism at a rate we never expected.

SND: How has Kentucky adapted to upgrade its visitor experience lately?

Gregory: We’ve been working with the state legislature to break down barriers and allow our distilleries to reach their potential as Napa Valley-type experiences. One of the laws passed last year was a bill that allows distilleries to sell cocktails. Previously, you could give away samples, but you couldn’t sell a cocktail. Today’s Bourbon visitor is highly educated about the category and wants the full experience.

SND: What’s the update on expansion efforts at key Kentucky distilleries?

Gregory: Capital investment in Kentucky is through the roof—our industry is right in the middle of a $1.2 billion expansion phase, and it may even surpass that. For example, the new Bulleit Distillery in Shelby County, Kentucky recently opened, and the day of the ribbon cutting, (Diageo) announced that they’re already looking at a second expansion. Production is also booming—we’ll probably surpass 2 million barrels of Bourbon this year. We keep hearing about fears of a shortage, but we can assure you there’s plenty of good Kentucky Bourbon to go around. Consumers may have a harder time finding certain brands, especially the limited releases, but there are a host of heritage brands that are in good supply.

SND: Any predictions on how long Bourbon’s boom cycle will last?

Gregory: I truly think we’re in it for the long haul. Everybody asks us when the bubble will burst, but I believe the global market will stave off the kind of slowdown we saw in the 1970s and 1980s. We didn’t have the global interest back then. Now, with China and India emerging, and markets like Japan and Australia continually improving, I think we’ve just scratched the surface in terms of Kentucky Bourbon’s global potential.

The summer issue of Whisky Advocate, which will be available on newsstands next week, features a cover story on the key brands and destinations of Bourbon Country.

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