The Top Bourbon Moments of 2021, According to Industry Insiders
Last year was anything but perfect, but let’s be honest: In a blind tasting, 2021 would beat 2020, hands-down, every. single. time. Dare we say it was actually a remarkable year in the world of Bourbon?
From sipping in person with family and friends to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® distilleries re-opening their doors to visitors, the glass was definitely half full (of Bourbon) in 2021.
To celebrate a year of new milestones and memories, we asked eight of the biggest whiskey lovers we know to share their most memorable Kentucky Bourbon moments, straight from the barrel.
Here’s what they had to say:
1. The Brough Brothers Shattered Glass Ceilings
Sara Havens, freelance writer, Bourbon consultant and tour guide
“It was a rainy summer day in July when Brough Brothers founders Christian, Bryson and Victor Yarbrough braved the weather for a moment that had been nine years in the making: the opening of their own Bourbon distillery in Louisville’s Park Hill neighborhood.
Local politicians and industry leaders, including members of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, were there to help commemorate such a significant occasion. After all, Brough Brothers is the first and only African American-owned, licensed and operating distillery in Kentucky, and with Bryson Yarbrough in charge of distilling, he’s the Commonwealth’s first black master distiller as well.
The Brough Brothers Distillery not only brings more diversity into the industry, it’ll help create opportunities for more people in the Yarbroughs’ community and beyond.”
2. Retaliatory Tariffs Removed
Eric Gergory, President, Kentucky Distillers’ Association
“KDA members – and distillers across America – rejoiced in late October when it was announced that the U.S. and the E.U. had agreed to remove retaliatory tariffs on Kentucky Bourbon and American Whiskey. And it couldn’t have come at a better time: the 25% tariff was set to double on Dec. 1.
These unfortunate tariffs had slashed exports of Kentucky Bourbon by 50% to the E.U. and the United Kingdom, costing distillers, industry partners and farm families hundreds of millions of dollars. Kentucky Bourbon exports had enjoyed double-digit growth for a decade before the tariffs were imposed in 2018.
The steadfast leadership of the Biden Administration, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, Congressman John Yarmuth and officials in Europe was key in resolving the ongoing trade dispute and restoring fairness in overseas markets for Kentucky’s signature distilled spirits industry.
While the E.U. tariffs are suspended for three years, the 25% levy on American whiskey exports to the United Kingdom continue. The KDA urges leaders from both the U.S. and U.K. to resolve this tariff dispute so our legendary distillers can return at long last to doing what they do best – crafting the finest Bourbon for all the world to enjoy.
After three long years, it’s time to raise a glass!”
3. Distilleries Banded Together to Support Their Neighbors
Fred Minnick, renowned whiskey authority
“When I saw the devastation caused by the Kentucky tornadoes, my heart sank and I immediately started making phone calls to the Bourbon community, an incredibly philanthropic people, to see if there was something we could do as a community. Very quickly, it became clear that Eric Gregory of the KDA was doing the same and so was an organization I belong to–the Bourbon Crusaders. Instead of us all doing our own benefit, we pooled our resources to create a three headed dragon with a mission to help Western Kentucky.
We recruited Bill Menish Auctions and Westport Whiskey & Wine within the day and two days after the devastation we had a rough idea of what we wanted to do–a Bourbon Auction dubbed the Kentucky Bourbon Benefit. The KDA and Bourbon Crusaders reached out to their respective memberships for donations, while I reached out to celebrities, distiller friends and connoisseurs to donate meaningful experiences and products. That part was public facing. Behind the scenes, the KDA worked with the Kentucky ABC and the governor’s office to make sure the auction was in compliance with state and federal laws, while we were all setting up auction rules and infrastructure.
By day three, we had so many significant donations that we knew we were onto something special and that we could really help the victims. In my career, I’ve done a lot of charitable auctions, and they typically take six months to a year to plan. We all dropped what we were doing and organized this in three days. Before we turned on the OneCause online auction portal, we set an internal goal of $1 million. But when the Angel’s Envy barrel eclipsed $30,000 in less than an hour, I knew $1 million could be shattered.
The days leading into the live auction were full-on promotions and calling every potential bidder we knew. Now that we had the goods we needed the people to bid, and prominent celebrities, such as James Bond and Westworld Actor Jeffrey Wright, and national media promoted The Kentucky Bourbon Benefit. By December 21, we likely touched every bourbon drinker in the world. Whether they would bid or not, I couldn’t say, but in all my years of promoting music festivals and books, I had never seen a promotion effort be so effective so quickly. It’s because we all wanted to help.
When our AV partner Prestige Audio & Visual, who donated their time, turned the lights on and counted down, ‘5, 4,, 3, 2, … LIVE,’ Bill Menish and I were ready, and I could feel in the pit of my stomach how important this moment was and how it so well defined the Bourbon community. We come together in times of tragedy, and we wanted to help our neighbors in Western Kentucky. As the auction items shattered record after record, the Westport Whiskey & Wine tasting room had a few tears wept.
We know the $3.4 million raised is not going to bring back what was lost. And we wish we didn’t have to do the Kentucky Bourbon Benefit. And I hope we never have to do one again. But when I meet with bourbon lovers from Sydney to Alaska and from Japan to Canada, I see the same thing in their eyes that I saw when I first shook Jimmy Russell’s hand–heart. And in times of tragedy, big hearts rise to help. They always will.”
4. The Kentucky Bourbon Festival Boomed, Rain or Shine.
Steve Coomes, Bourbon+ Magazine freelance writer
“After last year’s virtual event, we were all itching for a face-to-face experience at the 2021 Kentucky Bourbon Festival, especially for its 30th anniversary. What no one wanted was the flood that came 24 hours prior to the Sept. 16 kick off date.
Late that morning, 6 inches of rain fell on Bardstown in three hours. When I arrived the following morning, the grounds were soggy and sodden—but salvageable in the eyes of Donald Blincoe, president of Buzick Construction (a builder of whiskey rickhouses who also stands on the Festival’s Board of Directors.) He had seen worse in his years raising those complicated structures, and he had an idea: Call a colleague in the carpet business to see if he had any extra rolls to donate to the cause.
To make some of the Festival’s footpaths walkable, crews would carpet them. Over grass and mud. His idea not only worked, but the long, wide swaths of carpet actually gave the grounds some appealing visual contrast. Genius under the gun!
With the weather situation, there were plenty of “We’ll figure it out” moments at this year’s Festival. But what’s special to me about all of them was they reflected the collaborative, ready-to-help nature of the Kentucky whiskey industry.”
5. The Bourbon Women Association Soared at SIPosium
Maggie Kimberl, President, Bourbon Women Association
“When the Bourbon Women Association hosted our annual SIPosium conference, we were thrilled to not just be in-person for the event, but to also celebrate our 10th anniversary!
Our organization has grown significantly in ten years, including a 40% increase in membership since the start of the pandemic—so this was a major milestone for us. We now have members in 39 states and Australia, as well as 15 branches and growing.
At SIPosium, we brought 200 of our members together for a three-day weekend full of distillery excursions, classes, and just plain quality time with friends old and new. Our limited tickets sold out in just five days, so we are looking forward to hosting 400 women next August in Louisville, Kentucky!”
6. Maker’s Left its Mark with a Private Selection Experience
Chris Zaborowski, owner and certified Executive Bourbon Steward, Westport Whiskey & Wine
“On June 21, we went down to Maker’s Mark to do a Private Selection for Westport Whiskey & Wine. We were greeted by Brand Ambassador, Thomas Bolton, who took great care in showing us all of the new sustainable projects at the distillery—from the new gardens, to the beef cattle, the new fruit orchard and the wheat fields, we were able to see it all.
After being whisked away in a new electric cart to a barrel warehouse, we thieved a sample of barrel proof Bourbon to begin our selection at the newly opened lake house.
What I really enjoy about the Maker’s Private Selection process is the challenge to the senses. It’s that balance of left-brain and right-brain thinking that leads to something special. By that I mean our right brain is the side that looks for the decadent flavor and the left brain gets to decide just how that needs to be constructed and just how much is needed to achieve that flavor.
This barrel was selected with the season in mind, which in this case was for late fall and winter. I wanted some weight and viscosity in the mouthfeel with complex flavors and a long, warm and spicy finish. And I think this one delivers.”
7. The Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild and Castle & Key Shared an Untold Story
Mike Adams, vice president of the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild
“My Top 2021 Bourbon moment, hands-down, is the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild’s collaboration with Castle & Key on the Untold Story Series.
The Castle & Key Untold Story Series of Kentucky Whiskey is not just American heritage within a bottle. This special release rightfully connects African American contributions to that very Americanism going back to the dates of slavery. Make no mistake about it, this project boldly confesses a truth that most have been reluctant to merely utter aloud. Our organization is proud to work with such a courageous, forward-thinking, and fair organization as Castle & Key.
We were honored to reach such a milestone, and to receive the proclamation that November 13th is Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild day only put the icing on the cake!”
8. Log Still Distillery Created the Ultimate Bourbon Destination
Dan Scofield, founder and publisher at DistilleryTrail.com
“DistilleryTrail.com got wind of Log Still Distillery on National Bourbon Day in Bardstown back in 2019, and we’ve been following its progress ever since. Located in Gethsemane, Kentucky, just south of Bardstown, Log Still has turned out to be more than just a distillery. It’s a truly unique Kentucky destination filled with history, family and of course, Bourbon.
What they’ve built is a true 360-degree Bourbon experience and destination that includes a historic property, a 12-acre lake, overnight accomodations, a visitor center, a chapel, a full-service restaurant that’s coming soon, as well as a fully operating Bourbon distillery. It’s also home to The Amp, a 2,000-seat outdoor event venue where bands like Little Big Town, Kansas, Gin Blossoms and Everclear have taken the stage to perform.
Touted as the ‘Disneyland of distilleries,’ you could easily stay for a full day (or longer) exploring the grounds, enjoying immersive experiences, hearing live music and just taking it all in.”
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