Before the Bourbon Distillery

There’s no doubt about it — the Bourbon industry is booming these days. And when you’re the Bourbon Capital of the World®, that’s a really great thing.

From varying mash bills to levels of barrel char, each of Bardstown’s distilleries practices the art of making Bourbon just a little bit differently. The subtle differences in Bourbon flavors are a huge part of why hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world visit us each year to take distillery tours. Folks are eager to learn about how each brand crafts its own version of Kentucky’s signature spirit.

There is one thing our hometown distilleries DO have in common, though; they all dedicate time to teaching visitors about the ingredients required to make Kentucky Bourbon — corn, wheat, rye, and malted barley. And they do this because Kentucky’s agricultural output is such an important contributor to the industry’s overall success.

For whiskey to be legally dubbed Bourbon, it must be distilled from a grain mash that is at least 51% corn. And since the demand for Bourbon production has more than tripled over the last 15 years, Kentucky distillers are now utilizing somewhere between 15 and 20 million bushels of corn annually to quench your growing thirst for our amber nectar.

Then, once a distilled spirit meets the 51% corn requirement to be considered Bourbon, the rest of its mash bill may be made up of any combination of malted barley, wheat or rye. Today, Kentucky distillers require approximately 4 million additional bushels of these tasty grains to meet production demands each year.

“You can definitely say our roots are planted in agriculture. A strong, dependable supply chain is more critical for distilleries today than it ever has been,” says Jill Hawkins, Executive Director of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. “Bourbon is having a worldwide impact right now, and the industry is focused on continuing that trend.”

According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association and the Urban Studies Institute at the University of Louisville, Kentucky farmers currently harvest enough corn and wheat each year to supply distillers’ grain needs with locally grown crops. To help champion the use of locally grown corn and wheat, many Bardstown-area farms are already growing tens of thousands of acres of crops each year specifically for use in the Bourbon industry. One such family-owned and operated farm is Peterson Farms.

Peterson Farms manages acreage in 7 counties of central Kentucky. They grow a little over a million bushels of corn annually, and approximately 95% of that corn is used by the Bourbon industry.

Like many other local farms, however, the Peterson Farms’ relationship to Bourbon-making didn’t begin with crop production. Several decades ago, Peterson Farms was first introduced to the industry by using a nearby distiller’s spent grains, a byproduct of the distilling process, as cattle feed.

“We have a really strong distilling market here, so the regional demand for corn and wheat goes up every year right alongside the demand for Bourbon,” said Daniel Peterson of Peterson Farms. “So, as long as we maintain really great crop quality, the growing success of Bourbon drives the ongoing success of Peterson Farms.”

At the end of the day, Bourbon is responsible for about $8.5 billion in total economic output—and that’s good for everyone. We’re just leading the charge here in Bardstown!

More Spirited Facts:

  • Farmland covers more than 50% of Kentucky’s total acreage.
  • Agriculture contributes $45.6 billion annually to Kentucky’s economy.
  • 91% of Kentucky’s 77,000+ farms are family-owned and operated.
  • Many Kentucky farms, like Peterson Farms, can segregate GMO and non-GMO crops, offering more specific grains to craft distillers who might be seeking niche markets.

For more information regarding the Bardstown Bourbon Industry, check out our Visitor’s Guide