Whiskey and Women: Kentucky Bourbon Industry's Big Boom

by Jill Gleeson

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday October 6, 2017

America's only native spirit is pretty much feted every day of the year, and for good reason. Kentucky -- where bourbon was invented by settlers as a way to use excess corn -- is responsible for crafting 95 percent of the world's supply.

Bourbon is big business there, bringing in oodles of cash thanks not only to production and consumption, but also tourism. And what's just as hot as bourbon's slow, sweet burn is that as the amber ambrosia has stepped into the spotlight so, too, have the women helping it hit the big time.

What Women Want

By all accounts, women have long been a crucial component of Kentucky's bourbon industry, but there's no doubt their roles are evolving. Not only are women working in every facet of the business, but they are also being recognized for their work as never before. From Castle & Key Master Distiller Marianne Barnes, the state's first female master distiller since Prohibition, to Jackie Zykan, master taster at Old Forester, women are now routinely crushing it on the front lines.

According to Susan Reigler, president of the Bourbon Women Association, women are naturally predisposed to enjoy whiskey. "When the Bourbon Women Association holds blind tastings, almost always more women than men prefer the higher-proof, older, more complex bourbons. There's an excellent reason for that. Women have 50 percent larger olfactory sensory regions in their brains than men. About 40 percent of the people buying bourbon are women."

And these women, the industry has figured out, don't need to be coddled. "They've moved away from old school thinking of having to 'girl it up' with feminine packaging, adding sweeteners or making it petite size," notes Linda Ruffenach, founder of Whisky Chicks, a group with more than 1,300 members that seeks to make learning about Kentucky bourbon fun. "The truth is, women want the same thing that men want, authentic brands that produce really good tasting whisky."

Going Gangbusters

Certainly, the growing cache bourbon enjoys with women hasn't hurt the skyrocketing sales of Kentucky's most beloved export. Bourbon production has increased 250 percent since 1999 and the spirit is also driving tourism in a big way. The Urban Bourbon Trail, which winds through Louisville's best bourbon joints, continues to increase in popularity.

Meanwhile, The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which includes nine famed distilleries, set a new record for visits in 2016 with 888,733. The Kentucky Bourbon Craft Tour, which stops at 11 distilleries, was up 32 percent in attendance last year.

Feeling the Love

Undoubtedly a little of the love reserved for bourbon owes to its singular nature, a result of where and how it's made. "The stars aligned in the promised land of Kentucky," says Jill Hawkins, director of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, an annual week-long event that draws 55,000 guests. "Fertile soil allows our farmers to grow rich grains. Our limestone water and seasonal changes add to the magic in those barrels. And don't forget the hard-working folks in this state -- they pull it all together for a taste that can't be beat."

So what's next for Kentucky bourbon? Zykan says she hopes "brands and producers recognize that with all eyes upon us, we should be doing the legacy of bourbon justice and conduct ourselves in ways which prioritize hospitality, collaboration, and positive support. Of course, we never want the boom to end, our business is making bourbon. But should it taper off, we will still be there and we will survive it until the next boom. We've made it 147 years...I think we'll be alright."

Taste For Yourself

Upcoming Kentucky Bourbon Events

October 10, 6 p.m. - 8 p.m.
Spirited Bourbon Yoga at Whisky Chicks Loft, Louisville
Yoga, mediation and bourbon tasting.

October 12, 6 p.m. - 8 p.m.
Bourbon Women Night at Jeptha Creed Distillery, Shelbyville
Women-owned distillery gives guests a chance to taste bourbon in the middle of aging.

October 26 and November 9, 3:45 p.m. - 9 p.m.
Heaven and Evan, Mint Julep Tours
Visits to Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown and Louisville's Evan Williams Bourbon Experience.

December 7 & 9, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Candlelight tours at Maker's Mark Distillery, Loretto.

Jill Gleeson is a travel and adventure journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Find her on Facebook and Twitter at @gopinkboots.