Bourbon and rye are so popular that it’s hard to imagine that they were once moribund spirits.
Yet the 1970s saw a crash for the whiskey business, caused by a mass shift away from whiskey worldwide toward drinks like wine and vodka. Distilleries closed and venerable brands withered away as the business hit rock bottom, but by the 1980s, bourbon and rye were starting the long road back to popularity. Only in the last couple of years has the production of bourbon reached pre-crash levels, and a handful of brands serve as milestones in that decades-long journey.
After The Crash: Elijah Craig 12 Year Old
Few bourbon expressions exemplify what the world whiskey crash of the 1970s meant in practical terms, as well the path out of the ruins, as Elijah Craig 12 Year Old. Years of sitting on top of a lake of whiskey that few wanted to buy meant that by 1986, Heaven Hill was able to introduce a reasonably priced, middle-aged expression that would serve as a trailblazer for the small-batch bourbons that would emerge several years later.
The Small-Batch Era: Woodford Reserve
Bourbon began to show some signs of revival in the early- to mid-1990s, with a lot of buzz coming from the introduction of “small-batch” whiskeys. The crowning event of the era was the landmark reopening of the historic Labrot & Graham Distillery, with its still-unique, Irish-style triple set of copper pot stills. Although none of the initial bourbon was actually made there, attached to the return of the distillery was the 1996 introduction of Woodford Reserve.
Rye Makes Its Comeback: Bulleit Rye
Driven by mixology and an interest in antique cocktail recipes, rye whiskey began its well-deserved comeback in 2011. Most of the sudden demand for rye was from sourced and bottled brands, and nearly all of these drew from the 95% rye, 5% malted barley whiskey made by Indiana’s MGP. Arguably the most ubiquitous example of that MGP whiskey stock is Bulleit Rye.
Pappymania: W.L. Weller 12 Year Old
As the bourbon boom gained speed, more attention came to be focused on the Pappy Van Winkle line and its middle- and very-aged whiskeys, and those whiskeys became pricier and harder to obtain. In 2013 and 2014, drinks journalists starting labeling Weller 12 as “baby Pappy,” because it was made by Buffalo Trace, the latest and current supplier of Pappy Van Winkle’s whiskeys. In a potent symbol of how feverish the craze for Van Winkle whiskey had become, Weller 12 was soon just as absent from store shelves as all the other Pappys.
Boomtimes are Back: Coopers’ Craft
With whiskey fast becoming more popular than ever, everyone in the business is trying to fashion new twists on a classic product. Filtering bourbon through charcoal before bottling was a practice that had fallen into obscurity in the bourbon industry, even though it is said to produce a mellower whiskey. Brown-Forman breathed new life into the practice in 2016 with Coopers’ Craft, and gave it a prominent place on store shelves.