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What is Bourbon Heritage Month? Why We Celebrate "America’s Native Spirit"

Barrels of bourbon whiskey

Each September, whiskey enthusiasts nationwide raise a glass to celebrate bourbon whiskey. While the argument can be made that each day could constitute a celebration of the spirit, September seemed like the appropriate time to designate a memorable holiday. It’s Bourbon Heritage Month! Let’s look at the history and heritage of bourbon whiskey in America and why an entire month is dedicated to celebrating it. 

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A Brief History of Bourbon and Its Native Roots

The history of bourbon whiskey goes back hundreds of years. The spirit has come a long way from a simple agricultural product to the global commodities market. Bourbon got its start in the early 1700s in Kentucky, which at the time was part of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The area was populated mainly by Scotch-Irish immigrants who were granted swaths of land to grow corn. Having knowledge of the distillation process from back home, they produced distilled spirits from the corn they grew, creating a distillate known as whiskey.

Bourbon wasn’t a term in those days, and whiskey as we know it today, wasn’t either. Bourbon gets its name from Bourbon County Kentucky, more specifically, Limestone, a riverside port town. It was there that producers shipped their whiskey down to New Orleans via the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

Elijah Craig, a preacher and distiller, is thought to be one of the first to add whiskey to barrels as a cheaper means of storage while shipping it south. By the time the whiskey reached port three months later, the charred oak barrels had turned the whiskey a slight caramel color and added a charming flavor. In 1818, Dr. James Crow, founder of The Old Crow Distillery, is credited with inventing the sour mash method of which almost all bourbon whiskey today is made. 

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Today, bourbon whiskey is one of the most popular spirit categories in America. According to IWSR, bourbon held a 26 percent volume share of the whiskey market in the U.S. in 2016. In 2021, that number had grown to a 30 percent share and IWSR forecasts it to grow to a 31 percent share by 2026. Presently, there are 809 whiskey and bourbon distillery businesses in the U.S., an increase of 13.7 percent from 2022. 

Americans have a growing taste toward the spirit. The consumption of bourbon whiskey in the U.S. increased by 65 percent from 2002 to 2020. Even more, consumers' tastes are increasingly gravitating toward top-shelf bottles. The premium and super-premium tier is the largest driver of spirit sales growth in the U.S., led by agave and whiskey products. Christine LoCascio, DISCUS chief of public policy & strategy, reported that while the premiumization trend slowed overall in 2022, the growth in the American Whiskey categories (alongside Tequila/Mezcal) allowed the trend to remain strong.

While bourbon is experiencing stellar growth today, it wasn’t until the 20th century that it started to gain recognition around the world. 

How and Why We Celebrate Bourbon Heritage Month

Bourbon quickly grew in popularity worldwide in the 20th century thanks in part to Prohibition loopholes, where consumers could be prescribed whiskey for their “ailments.” It also grew in cultural significance. Frank Sinatra’s nightly tipple (read: bottle) of Jack Daniels skyrocketed the small Tennessee distillery into the stratosphere in the 1950s. It became a household product during the 1960s "mad men" era and enjoyed widespread popularity among American consumers, especially as consumption of alcohol increased, peaking in the 1980s.

At the start of the Cold War era, however, producers grew weary of its newfound fame. Fearing that other nations might attempt to appropriate America's indigenous product, the Bourbon Institute was established in 1958, exclusively dedicated to securing international regulatory protections for bourbon akin to those enjoyed by product categories such as Cognac and Champagne. Through active lobbying in Congress, bourbon was officially granted the prestigious designation of a "distinctive product of the United States" on May 4, 1964. This recognition ensured that bourbon could only be produced within the United States. 

This designation led to the modern renaissance in whiskey. Flavored whiskeys hit the market in the 1970s. The 1980s spawned the birth of single-barrel and small-batch runs, with brands like Blanton’s becoming hugely successful, particularly beloved by Japanese consumers. Cue the emergence of Pappy Van Winkle in the 1990s and today’s pursuit of hard-to-find, collectible bottles with MSRPs on par with vintage Burgundy, bourbon is more popular than ever before. 

With all this history, it’s no surprise that in 2007, a resolution was passed by the U.S. Senate, declaring September as National Bourbon Heritage Month. Introduced by Kentucky Republican Senator Jim Bunning, the bill asked that anyone who appreciates bourbon and its heritage, openly celebrate it responsibly. 

Bill S. RES. 294 not only cemented the establishment, culture and craftsmanship of the bourbon industry, but also enshrined it as a proud and enduring chapter in the rich tapestry of American history. This legislation reinforced the significance of the 1964 Act of Congress, which officially recognized bourbon as "America’s Native Spirit."

Celebrating Bourbon Heritage Month in Your Bar or Restaurant

Looking for ways to celebrate Bourbon Heritage Month at your bar or restaurant? Consider the following ideas as ways to promote the month-long appreciation to bourbon enthusiasts in your area.

1. Hold Bourbon Tasting Events

Host bourbon-tasting events featuring a variety of bourbon brands and expressions. Offer tasting flights with a curated selection of whiskeys for customers to sample. Provide tasting notes and background information on each selection.

2. Pair Bourbon With Your Food Offerings 

Create unique bourbon and food pairing menus, matching select bourbon whiskey with dishes that complement their flavors. Offer pairing flights that include small bites or appetizers.

3. Feature Bourbon Cocktails of the Month

Feature a "Bourbon Cocktail of the Month" on your menu. Rotate different bourbon-based cocktails each week to keep customers excited. Keep it old-school with twists on classics like the Old-Fashioned and Manhattan or showcase modern classics such as the Paper Plane or Gold Rush.

4. Educate Guests With Bourbon Education Nights

Host ticketed educational sessions or workshops on "America’s Native Spirit," its history and its production process. Invite bourbon experts or brand ambassadors for guest appearances. Not only is it a great way to connect and engage with guests, but it’s also a great way to drive additional revenue during off-hours. 

5. Create Bourbon Tasting Flights

Offer bourbon flights with a selection of whiskeys from different distilleries or regions around the U.S. Allow customers to customize their flights or offer preset options. Gamify it by creating a placemat with space to write in information on the distillery, age and any nuances on the mash bill. The person who gets the closest to guessing everything right can win a complimentary bottle of bourbon or receive a credit to the bar. 

6. Organize a Special Bourbon Giveaway

Have a highly sought-after bottle? Organize a bourbon giveaway using raffle tickets. Have customers purchase raffle tickets for a chance to win and use the proceeds to donate to a charity of your choice. Drive demand by marketing the giveaway on your social channels and the on-premise. Consider partnering with a local distributor or distillery to donate a specific bottle and leverage their community to promote and drive ticket sales. 

7. Pair Bourbon and Cigars

A good bourbon and a good cigar are a perfect pairing — partner with a local cigar shop to host bourbon and cigar pairing events. Provide guidance on pairing bourbons with cigars of varying strengths and flavors. It’s a great way to connect with aficionados in your community and establish yourself as a go-to option for bourbon. 

8. Throw Bourbon Happy Hours

Host bourbon-themed happy hours throughout September with discounted bourbon cocktails and neat pours during specific hours. Be sure to promote happy hour specials on social media and via email to those who subscribe to your mailing list

9. Partner With a Local Bourbon Whiskey Distillery

Partner with a local bourbon distillery for special promotions or exclusive tastings. Collaborate on limited-time bourbon releases or cocktails. Host an event and leverage each other’s community of customers to drive brand awareness. 

10. Host a Bourbon Cocktail Competition

Organize a bourbon-based cocktail competition among local bartenders, inviting industry veterans to judge and participate. Highlight the winning cocktail on your menu. To make it even more exciting, partner with a local distributor or supplier to highlight a specific brand of bourbon to use. 

Focus Your Social Media Campaigns Around Bourbon

Run Bourbon Heritage Month campaigns across your social media platforms, sharing bourbon facts, house cocktail recipes and customer stories. Encourage customers to share their bourbon experiences with a dedicated hashtag. Remember to promote your Bourbon Heritage Month celebrations well in advance through your website, social media channels and email newsletters to attract customers and create buzz. By offering a variety of bourbon-related experiences and promotions, you can make the most of this special month dedicated to "America's Native Spirit."

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Corey Hines

Career bartender turned Content Marketing Manager at Provi, covering all things beer, wine and spirits.


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