The following is an op-ed piece authored by Kentucky Chamber President and CEO Ashli Watts
Providing Kentuckians with more than 22,500 good-paying jobs and $1.23 billion in payroll, as well as an economic output of around $9 billion, Kentucky’s signature bourbon industry is as strong as it’s ever been. For the first time in history, the average salary for a worker in the distilled spirits industry in Kentucky has surpassed $100,000.
It wasn’t just Mad Men and chic mixology manuals that created bourbon’s explosive popularity across the globe. Thousands of hard-working Kentuckians deserve credit for laying the groundwork to make this “bourbon boom” a reality, elevating the industry into what we now refer to as the golden era for Kentucky bourbon.
In an ever-evolving industry with global demand, it is critical that Kentucky continues to provide a welcoming business climate that allows our signature distilling industry to thrive and adapt to global trends.
For more than a decade, the Commonwealth’s elected leaders have worked diligently with the bourbon industry to lower barriers to entry for new distilleries and allow distillers more privileges to sell and market their products to visitors and connoisseurs alike.
In 2014, the Kentucky General Assembly approved a new law to offer distilleries a corporate income tax credit against the amount of barrel taxes paid — with a requirement that distilleries reinvest that money in their Kentucky operations. When the Kentucky Distillers’ Association released its annual economic report in 2014, the industry reported 15,400 jobs and $707 Million in payroll, meaning Kentucky has increased jobs in the bourbon industry by 46 percent and payroll by nearly 74 percent since the law was passed.
The considerable reforms enacted allowed the Kentucky Bourbon Trail experience to grow and single-handedly change the face of tourism in Kentucky, attracting a more diverse demographic with over 70% of them coming from out-of-state. Prior to the pandemic, Kentucky welcomed more than 1.7 million combined visits in 2019 at bourbon tourism facilities.
Furthermore, the distilling industry has been there for Kentuckians in times of need as an upstanding corporate citizen, raising millions of dollars for tornado relief in Western Kentucky last year and for flood relief in Eastern Kentucky the past two months. And we all remember when the pandemic hit, the industry shifted operations to produce much-needed hand sanitizer when it was in high demand.
Kentucky’s marriage with its signature distilling industry is as good as it’s ever been, and we plan to continue helping navigate that valued relationship to maintain our status as the true authentic home for bourbon in the world.
As we celebrate National Bourbon Heritage Month, let’s all raise a glass to the industry that has done so much for the Commonwealth.
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