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Kentucky: Energy and America’s National Spirit

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted June 12, 2017

Before folks in the Bluegrass State and parts beyond can begin sipping Kentucky bourbon – after work, after dinner, on Derby Day at Churchill Downs in the spring, or gathered around a winter’s fire – there’s a detailed, time-honored process in producing the amber-hued drink that has been the United States’ national spirit since 1964.

Thumbnail: Kentucky: Energy and America’s National Spirit

You might not know it, but bourbon-making is an energy-intensive process – from heating the mash, to distilling the alcohol, to creating the charred oak barrels in which the bourbon ages. Energy is all over bourbon manufacturing. Indeed, Kentucky bourbon is brought to Kentucky and the rest of the bourbon-imbibing world with an essential assist provided by natural gas.

Bourbon is a deeply rooted Kentucky tradition that has come a long way since its beginnings in the late 18th century. Today, thanks in part to modern energy, bourbon has grown into a $8.5 billion industry, accounting for more than 1.8 million barrels last year, says the state’s distillers association.

Bourbon is born from a grain mash. By federal law, for a whiskey to be considered “straight bourbon,” it must be made from a mash that’s no less than 51 percent corn. (It also must be aged in charred oak containers for at least two years. More on the oak barrels below.).

There are 52 bourbon distilleries in Kentucky today – the most in the state since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Many distilleries, particularly the larger facilities such as Woodford Reserve and Barton Distillery, use natural gas to heat a mix of corn, rye, malted barley and wheat in a mash cooker along with natural Kentucky limestone water.

Infographic: Kentucky Bourbon Distillers

The result is a mixture known as wort, which is placed in fermentation tanks, cooled and then combined with yeast that separates out the alcohol. This alcohol is heated again in a still, typically using natural gas, where it boils into a vapor and is condensed back into a liquid, which requires cooling equipment powered by energy.

Next comes the aging process that’s key to Kentucky bourbon’s distinct flavor and color – and natural gas again plays a critical role.

Aging requires a large supply of new barrels. Larger barrel makers (known as cooperages) like Brown-Forman’s Louisville, which supply barrels for distilleries like Woodford Reserve, build about 2,500 of them a day. After the oak is cut, dried and prepped, automated machine belts shape the wood that workers then assemble using iron hoops. When that’s done, a conveyor belt takes the barrels to natural gas-fired burners, to ensure that the inside of the barrels are crisped with an even layer of charcoal.


The distilled alcohol is poured into the charred barrels, where it sits for at least two years. Inside the barrel, it becomes golden in color and oak in taste – a flavor some have to work at. John Rhea of the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg:

“Now, I will tell you that bourbon is an acquired taste. Not everyone will like it from day one. So for those people I tell them to start off like your mom taught you to drink coffee: You probably didn’t start out on black coffee — you probably started with a little bit of coffee and a lot of cream or milk. If you’re not a bourbon drinker, start out the same way — with a little bit of bourbon and a lot of ice, or quite a bit of water.”

Sure, bourbon’s not for everyone, though touring a distillery can be interesting to a wide array of visitors.

Beyond horse racing and bluegrass music, warmer weather in late spring and early summer in Kentucky arrives with tourists taking in the scenery and goings-on in bourbon country – historically centered in and around Bourbon County, just northeast of Lexington. Visitors make their way over rolling hills and pasture land, venturing to distilleries large and small. In 2016, more than 1 million spent time on these bourbon trails.

As the doors open to a distillery, visitors take in the fermentation tanks and oak barrels filled with aging bourbon and often are met with the smell of evaporating alcohol, known as “angel’s share.” During a tour of the facility, tasting specialists guide visitors through the history, science and mineralogy lessons that each had a part in making Kentucky bourbon.

Kentucky is the birthplace of bourbon and currently crafts 95 percent of the world’s supply. As a leading industry in the state, bourbon generates 17,500 jobs with an annual payroll of nearly $800 million, according to the distillers association. Every year, production and consumption of bourbon also brings in nearly $190 million in taxes.

Kentucky bourbon is a story of tradition, craftsmanship – and energy.

Infographic: Follow the Bourbon Trail

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Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.