The Bourbon Bubble Is Starting To Look Like Craft Beer In The 1990s

Fortune boubron issueFORTUNEThe new issue of FORTUNE

For the first time in history, exports of U.S. bourbon and Tennessee whiskey crossed the $US1 billion mark in 2013.

Thirteen years ago, there were 24 craft distilleries in America. Today there are over 430, and most either make or will make whiskey. Find new bottles with whiskey apps. Stay fresh with whiskey shaving cream.

The question has to be asked: Have we reached peak whiskey? Are we at the top of the bourbon bubble?

In the new issue of Fortune, New York Times editor and whiskey author Clay Risen chronicles whiskey’s decades-long rise from solitary confinement to international fame. And Risen asks that critical question.

“The whiskey industry has been in bubbles before, when spikes in demand drove up production, only to have sudden changes in consumer preferences pull the floor out from under it,” Risen writes.

Like in the 1950s, when Kentucky bourbon had its “golden age” as whiskey-soda became the national post-war drink.

As they always do, American tastes changed. By the 1960s and 70s, people wanted vodka and tequila over the brown stuff, Risen writes.

For distilleries, the problem with timing Americans’ taste for whiskey is that it requires exactly that — timing. Unlike vodka, whiskey is aged, sometimes upwards of 20 years. Business models are based on current demand (that’s why consumers can’t get their hands on the mega popular Pappy Van Winkle, which is operating on a business plan from the 1980s).

Now distillers are on a building spree, Risen writes. “For the first time since 1977, distillers are sitting on nearly 5 million barrels, significantly more than one barrel for every man, woman, and child in the state of Kentucky.”

A similar boom happened with craft beer in the 1990s. And that should give some bourbon-lovers pause. From Fortune:

If a bust comes, it will hit the craft sector hardest. Like any new industry being flooded by startups, only a relatively small number have the right combination of quality, talent, and management acumen to make it. Many people compare the present craft boom to craft beer in the late 1990s. “It got to where everyone and their brother was making beer,” says [Whiskey Advocate editor John] Hansell. Then, when the recession of the early 2000s hit, hundreds of those newbie breweries couldn’t stay afloat. “There will be a similar shakeout in distilling,” he says. Then again, the shakeout in brewing cleared the field for stronger craft producers, like Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head, to expand rapidly in the subsequent decade.

Will there be a bourbon bust?

“Whereas the previous whiskey boom was mostly domestic, the global nature of the current expansion makes it unlikely that a correction will affect every market at the same time,” Risen concludes.

But if it does, only the strong liquids will survive — and maybe that’s a good thing.

NOW WATCH: Why Pappy Van Winkle Is The White Whale Of Bourbon

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