This piece originally appeared in The Hill newspaper on September 13, 2022.
For lifelong Kentuckians like us, Bourbon has been a subject of intense pride all our lives. First distilled in Kentucky’s Bourbon County in the 1800s, this distinctive American spirit has created jobs, supported farmers, and drawn tourists to our state for over a century. But in recent years, these benefits have gone national as craft distillers have popped up from New York to California. The pride of Kentucky has become the pride of America.
Bourbon’s rise has been meteoric. Fifteen years ago, there were fewer than 100 distilleries across the United States. Now there are more than 2,300. Many are run by local artisans who have converted old warehouses into thriving distilleries, helping revitalize their towns. They use ingredients sourced from local farms, boosting agriculture in the process. And for many, a large percentage of revenues come from onsite tasting rooms and tours, which helps support their local hospitality and tourism industries.
It’s no wonder that Congress is taking notice of Bourbon’s importance. When I (Rep. Yarmuth) was first elected to the U.S. House in 2007, Bourbon was often thought of by my colleagues as a local Kentucky interest. There was a Wine Caucus and a Small Brewers Caucus to support these industries, but there was no such caucus for America’s native spirit. So in 2009, I launched the Bourbon Caucus with 17 other founding members. Today, it’s grown to 40 members, reflecting the importance of this industry in states far and wide.
As co-chairs of the Bourbon Caucus, we’re proud of the role our own state has played in helping usher in this industry boom. Kentucky is currently home to more than 10,000,000 barrels of aging spirits—more than two barrels per Kentuckian— representing a 250 percent increase in warehouse inventory over the last two decades.
Nationwide, the distilling sector now supports more than 1.7 million U.S. jobs and counting. The Bourbon Caucus is working to empower American distillers to keep growing and hiring. We supported the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act, a long overdue update to the tax laws that for the first time eased the tax burden for small, craft distillers in the same way that prior tax law had for small brewers and vintners. This legislation, made permanent during the pandemic, has allowed distillers to expand and reinvest in their businesses and contribute even more to their local economies.
We’re also doing everything in our power to help spread the love of Bourbon around the world, where new customers are emerging every day. Today, 44 countries recognize Bourbon as a distinctive product of the U.S., which ensures consumers in those countries enjoy the real thing. American Whiskey is now being exported from 41 U.S. states to regions from Latin America to Europe to the Asia Pacific. Last year, U.S. distilled spirits exports totaled $1.6 billion and American Whiskeys accounted for 62 percent of the total.
These exports would have been even higher if it weren’t for the EU and UK tariffs on American Whiskeys imposed in 2018 as a part of an unrelated trade dispute over steel and aluminum. Earlier this year, these tariffs were suspended and we are already seeing signs that exports are rebounding. We continue to seek a permanent return to duty-free trade by the time the EU suspension is set to end on Jan. 1, 2024. We’re thrilled to see that Bourbon is having its moment, and we’re confident that the moment will prove enduring.
We’re from two different parties, but we’re hardly the first people to be united by our love for Bourbon. Now we want to expand this common cause even further. As the founder and the co-chairs of the Bourbon Caucus, we are actively recruiting new members to our ranks so that Congress will give this spirit the attention it deserves. We have both seen how Bourbon can boost entire economic sectors, especially agriculture, manufacturing, and hospitality—the latter of which continues to need all the help it can get following the pandemic.
We know these benefits of Bourbon, and now the rest of the country is learning them, too. So this Bourbon Heritage Month, let’s raise a glass to this truly American spirit, and its ability to create jobs, revitalize towns and sectors, and help us make new friends— even across the aisle. Cheers to that.
John Yarmuth represents the 3rd District of Kentucky and Andy Barr represents the 6th District of Kentucky.