Manufacture This

The blog of the Alliance for American Manufacturing

Kentucky Bourbon producers support thousands of American jobs.

Just outside Frankfort, KY, Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley is turning Midwestern grain into liquid gold. He’s a leader in the Bourbon renaissance and Kentucky distillers, and their suppliers, are enjoying this success.

"We touch so many industries and so many lives because of this production that we all are doing. Like farmers and trucking and gas and supplies and equipment and welders and pipefitters and the families that are involved and touched by all that. The entire infrastructure of the U.S. is really what we’re talking about.” — Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley

My guide that morning, Freddie Johnson, is a third generation distillery worker. A photo of his granddaddy hangs on the tasting room wall to prove it.

As Freddie leads me into Warehouse C, built in 1885, I can smell the history of America’s oldest, continuously operating distillery. Taking in the 24,000 whiskey barrels resting patiently above us, you have to admire the 6”x6” red oak beams that hold the sleeping product.

Around the corner in the dump house, Freddie and I meet up with Leonard Riddle. Riddle is one of the icons at Buffalo Trace, one of those 6”x6” studs carrying the weight of experience and teaching the next generation. He started at the distillery in 1963 and is now watching over the next generation as they empty barrels for a batch of Buffalo Trace’s signature Bourbon.

Riddle remembers the lean times. The times when people drank Russian vodka instead of good old American whiskey. Back then the distillery was down to just 50 employees.

Today, 425 workers make Bourbon from Kentucky corn, and rye and barley from the Dakotas. It’s distilled in copper stills made in Louisville. It’s aged in American white oak barrels coopered down the road in Lebanon, KY, from trees grown in Missouri forests.

Workers at ISC's Lebanon, KY, cooperage can't make Bourbon barrels fast enough.

Independent Stave Company, a barrel supplier for Buffalo Trace, helps with the aging. They employ 350 barrel makers at their Lebanon, KY, facility. And, with demand so strong, ISC is actively recruiting.

In fact, Bourbon is doing so well that employment is up over 20 percent since 2000, increasing 10 percent between 2012 and 2013, according to the Kentucky Distillers' Association.

“Everything we make, we sell,” said Wheatley. “People want more, and we hope that they’ll stay patient and continue to want more as we make more…but it takes a while to age it up.”

This scene is replicated throughout Kentucky at a range of scales, from the craft shops like Paul and Steve Beam have at Limestone Branch, to the automated giant Wild Turkey run by the venerable Jimmy Russell.

The Bourbon boom is fueling jobs throughout Kentucky because consumers are getting wise to the value of tradition and the great products we make here in the United States. But it’s also because the industry remembers the lean times and looks out for the wood, water, and grain they rely on. Without those three things, none of this is possible.

Just remember, Bourbon is protected by law and can’t be Bourbon unless it’s made in the United States.