Glass half full: Kentucky bourbon industry breaks economic records

Published 10:22 am Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Bourbon isn’t red or blue; it’s brown.

That’s the nonpartisan message Gov. Andy Beshear shared Tuesday at a celebration of the economic impact of Kentucky’s bourbon industry.

According to a recent study by University of Louisville economic professor Dr. Paul Coomes, the bourbon industry has reached a record $9 billion economic impact in Kentucky.

2022 was the best year for growth the industry has ever seen in the Commonwealth, producing a record 2.7 million barrels of bourbon and exporting approximately $500 million worth of bourbon, according to the Bourbon Economic Impact Report.

Since Beshear took office in 2019, the state has seen 100 spirits-related new location and expansion projects, totaling $3.9 billion in new investment and 1,670 new jobs.

“Even during a time when Kentucky’s whole economy is on fire, this industry continues to play an enormous role in driving our economy and representing Kentucky to the rest of the world,” Beshear said.

Since 2009, Dr. Coomes has completed studies on the state of the bourbon industry every two years. The reports includes data from the Commonwealth’s 100 licensed distilleries, run by 84 companies in 42 counties.

However, the bourbon industry wasn’t always on the trajectory it is now.

Senate President Robert Stivers talked about a day in 2009 when Kentucky experienced its own version of the Boston Tea Party.

That day, a committee voted in favor of a proposed law that would have raised the tax on alcoholic beverages bought in stores to 6%. In protest, about 400 workers and state liquor executives dumped bourbon on the Frankfort Capitol steps.

Afterwards, Stivers and Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, met with industry leaders to see if they could turn things around.

With the help of several bills encouraging growth and investment—including a 2016 bill that allowed distilleries to serve alcohol by the drink and increased legal sample sizes and the number of bottles distilleries can sell per customer—they did just that, Stivers said.

He added that this is what Kentucky can do for an industry by creating a good business environment—”low taxes, more jobs, greater base.”

Kentucky Distillers’ Association Board Chair Jessica Pendergrass called bourbon the “economic backbone” of Kentucky.

She said that even as one of the highest taxed industries in the Commonwealth, the industry is generating about $222 million in tax revenues, a 178% increase from 2008.

Pendergrass pointed to bourbon’s future as “robust,” even amidst challenges like tariffs, competition from other states and local headwinds.

“Bourbon is woven into our history,” she said. “It’s embedded in our culture and holds the key to our future prosperity.”