Why is bourbon so crazy hot now?

One word: Japan.

(Photo: Sam R. Gates/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In September, I strolled into a Liquor Barn outlet in Lexington, Ky., looking for a bottle of bourbon. Faced with more than 100 different labels—many in the $50-plus range—the selection was overwhelming. “If you’re looking for Pappy, good luck,” said the clerk. “Check eBay.”

That would be Pappy Van Winkle, a 20-year-old, 90-proof Kentucky straight bourbon so highly sought after there are waiting lists just to enter a lottery. Even then, it’s pricey. A bartender at the Bluegrass Tavern offered me a single shot—for $100.

But while Pappy remains elusive to most, bourbon enthusiasts have nothing to cry over. The spirit is red hot these days. In the past decade, bourbon production has grown by more than 150%. In 2011, exports exceeded US$1 billion. How did the most blue-collar of booze rise to join single-malt Scotches on the top shelf?

The answer lies in Japan. In the mid-1980s, the bourbon business was dying. Production was down and, beyond bar staples like Jim Beam and Jack Daniels, exports were virtually non-existent. “Bourbon was for the American South, and it had to be cheap,” says Charles Cowdery, author of Bourbon Straight: the Uncut and Un?ltered Story of American Whiskey.

At the same time, Japan’s growing middle class was building its own whisky culture, and the market was thirsty for something new to match its love of all things western. They wanted something as American as Levi’s and Madonna. Bourbon.

Sitting on surplus inventory, bourbon producers were happy to export their wares. Soon the Japanese began asking for something that didn’t quite exist. Accustomed to aged, single-malt Scotch, they wanted the “good stuff,” says Cowdery, “but bourbon was strictly sold on price, not quality or age.” There was no “good stuff.”

Recognizing an opportunity, distillers began marketing brands under new labels emphasizing age and exclusivity. Slowly, countries such as Germany, Australia and England took notice, asking for bottles such as Blanton’s (Sazerac) and Booker’s and Knob Creek (both Beam). The only market that wasn’t buying it: America.

Even in the early-2000s, “it was rare to talk to a true whisky connoisseur who didn’t perceive bourbon as a simpleton, gut-rot drink,” says Jason Pyle, a contributor to the World Whisky Review. But like California wine before it, all bourbon needed was some validation. Once publications like the Whisky Advocate started championing the spirit, the cork was pulled.

Now we’re seeing the result: $20 bottles of Pappy going for several hundred dollars, a cultish following for anything labelled “small batch” or “single barrel” and folks like me booking vacations in Kentucky to experience what some are calling the “Sonoma of the South” (and maybe score a coveted bottle of this fall’s new Antique Collection from Buffalo Trace while I’m at it).

Also, it’s delicious.

Bacon-infused bourbon

Bourbon may be America’s whisky, but it gets the full hoser treatment at Reds Wine Tavern in Toronto: the maple-bacon Manhattan ($10.50) features bacon-infused bourbon and a splash of real Ontario maple syrup. Here’s how to make bacon bourbon at home: In a bowl, pour a bottle of your favourite Kentucky hooch (Reds uses Bulleit) and add the rendered fat from three strips of bacon. Let the mixture steep for 24 hours. Then use cheesecloth to slowly strain everything back into the bottle. Oh, hell, just let Reds do it.

Jay Somerset is a Toronto-based writer. His quest for a taste of Pappy remains unful?lled.