The ideal situation for any maker, in the words of the poet W.H. Auden, is to be considered “local, but prized elsewhere.” Auden might have been specifically comparing poets to makers of “some local cheese,” but that lofty aspiration also applies to drink makers, too. In the case of most whiskeys, his aphorism holds true: Japanese whisky is a local product that is beloved outside Japan. Scotch is considered the standard of quality around the globe. And Irish whiskey is growing so fast it might catch up to Scotch in the U.S. in less than a decade.
But American whiskey, and bourbon in particular? Well, not so much.
In terms of Auden’s axiom, our national spirit is now in a bizarre Upside Down. Paradoxically, bourbon is a local drink for U.S. consumers that is currently prized almost to the point of ridiculousness at home, with interest approaching “mania,” as noted whiskey journalist Clay Risen wrote late last year. Prices are getting stratospheric, with some drinkers complaining that they can’t find certain bourbons for sale at less than two times the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. Rare and allocated bourbons, like the bottles in the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, can be exceedingly hard to find, with more than a few reports of fistfights taking place among would-be customers who stumble across one.
And yet “elsewhere,” meaning outside the U.S., there’s no such mania — not even in Europe, home to the biggest whiskey drinkers in the world. According to Stefan Wyrsch, founder of the Swiss-based European Bourbon and Rye Association, EU consumers have a different default setting when they hear the word “whiskey.”
The World’s Biggest Whiskey Drinkers
That’s quite a paradox when you consider that many Europeans seem to go through whiskey by the barrel. On a per-capita basis, France has long been reported to have the world’s largest whiskey consumption, drinking about 50 percent more whiskey per person than the United States, while Spain is ranked No. 5 and Ireland is No. 8. (Fair warning: Those figures date back almost a decade, and more recent studies don’t appear to exist.)
Another conundrum: Many American whiskey distilleries are now owned by European conglomerates. Milan-based Campari is the home of Wild Turkey and Russell’s Reserve. Paris-based Pernod Ricard owns Rabbit Hole and Jefferson’s Bourbon. Luxembourg’s Stoli Group helms Kentucky Owl, while the French luxury-brand powerhouse LVMH owns the craft bourbon producer Woodinville, while also holding a minority share of Vermont’s WhistlePig.
That makes Europe feel like a natural home for American spirits. Indeed, a temporary removal of devastating reciprocal tariffs led to a 29 percent annual increase in U.S. whiskey exports to the EU in 2022, hailed by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) as a “banner year” in a report earlier this month. Two of the world’s top five importers of American whiskey are EU countries, the report says, including the category’s No. 1 export market, the Netherlands, as well as fourth-place Germany, which comes in just behind the technically-European-but-no-longer-EU market of the U.K.
Those increased numbers might be significant, but it’s worth remembering that they don’t come from the EU countries with the biggest whiskey consumption. And while imports are now up, they’re generally not the best bottles.
“If you talk to bartenders, they are more in favor of bourbon and rye whiskey, because those are the products they usually work with. But if you have the same conversation at a whiskey fair, there are sometimes really snobbish reactions.”
“We really only get the standard things, and most of it is used to mix cocktails,” Wyrsch says. “This is where the quantities are consumed.”
While European drinkers are not unaware of American whiskey, familiarity with the bourbon category itself is lagging. “Bourbon whiskey is more likely to be known by brand names — Jim Beam, Four Roses, or Wild Turkey,” Wyrsch says.
That lack of general knowledge can serve as inspiration. When the Austrian bartender Thomas Domenig was studying for a spirits certificate, he had serious trouble finding information about American whiskey in German.
“The only information you were getting was in English, and all the whiskey books around were all about Scotch,” he says. “I thought there could be a room for a book on American whiskey, written in German.” After a few years of writing and research, his book “Bourbon” came out in 2019, picking up several German-language book awards in 2020 and 2021. For him, bourbon has benefited from the growth of cocktail culture in Europe, but it still isn’t catching up to the elevated status of single malt.
“If you talk to bartenders, they are more in favor of bourbon and rye whiskey, because those are the products they usually work with,” he says. “But if you have the same conversation at a whiskey fair, there are sometimes really snobbish reactions.”
In part, he says, that might have to do with opinions about bourbon’s main ingredient, among both drinkers and producers in Europe.
“Almost no one is willing to pay excessive prices for hyped bourbons, especially since bourbons like Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year were used for mixing cocktails until just a few years ago.”
“Corn isn’t a typical grain to use in spirits production here,” he says. In turn, that could lead curious drinkers to America’s other whiskey archetype. “I think if someone would go more to the American style, that would be rye.”
A French enthusiast who blogs about whiskey in English, Christophe “Coldorak” Roi is a co-founder of the Rennes Whisky Club in Brittany and a regular at events like Whisky Live Paris. Although he owns hundreds of bottles, his collection currently includes just one bourbon, he says. (For the record, it’s the 24-year-old Bourbon Whiskey #1, sourced from an unnamed U.S. distillery and bottled by That Boutique-y Whisky Company in the U.K.) While some of his friends prefer bourbon to Scotch, the overall lack of high-quality choices isn’t likely to help the drink grow in popularity in France.
“We don’t get the good stuff,” he says. “We don’t have the store picks. We have the very bottom-range regular releases, 40 percent ABV, entry-level stuff, and that’s not the best bourbon there is.”
Dusties and Private Imports
Europe’s lack of bourbon mania can lead to some interesting situations for U.S. whiskey fans. Sure, there isn’t a lot of craft bourbon in the Old World, but when you do find a bottle, it’s probably not going to be sold at a big markup, since Europeans have not traditionally considered bourbons suitable for serving neat.
“Almost no one is willing to pay excessive prices for hyped bourbons, especially since bourbons like Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year were used for mixing cocktails until just a few years ago,” Wyrsch says.
“There was a big wave around 2013 and 2014, where all the importers went crazy,” he says. “Bourbon was the next thing, but there was still plenty of capacity. So they sent over a lot of stuff to Europe and the stuff sat on the shelves for like four or five years.”
And while most American whiskey exports to Europe are mass-market spirits, rare bottles do come through, though mostly not via professional importers, Wyrsch says. When those companies do get an allocated or rare bottle, such prizes don’t usually hit the retail market. Instead, they’re quietly sold off to collectors or friends. Any real rarities currently coming in are probably happening on an individual basis.
“All the completely hyped, super-rare, limited, small-batch or whatever are mostly sent to Europe privately,” he says. “You can get any bourbon in Europe, if you have the right contacts in the USA and the necessary pocket change.”
Collectors say things were very different just a few years ago. Originally from Ohio, Henry Danziger has lived in the Czech Republic since the early 1990s, building up a whiskey collection of over 500 types of whiskey, mostly bourbon, roughly a third of which he purchased in Germany or elsewhere in Europe. A co-founder and occasional host at the regular “Whiskey Wednesday” tastings at Max’s Steakhouse in Prague, Danziger says that importers and producers initially bet big on interest in bourbon in Europe about a decade ago, only to find that their wager didn’t pay off.
“There was a big wave around 2013 and 2014, where all the importers went crazy,” he says. “Bourbon was the next thing, but there was still plenty of capacity. So they sent over a lot of stuff to Europe and the stuff sat on the shelves for like four or five years, and I would buy it when it would go on sale.”
If you’re hoping to find some sought-after bottles at cheap prices on your next vacation, Danziger says that the treasure hunt is much harder nowadays. Bourbon rarities are, well, rare, and many desirable bottles in Europe are now being sold at or above their American MSRPs.
At the same time, I’m not so sure, having stumbled across a number of decent bourbons in recent years, including a Prague wine shop offering stacks of Weller Special Reserve at the non-mania price of about $30 just a couple of years ago. In early 2021, I picked up a couple of $45 bottles of Elijah Craig 12 Year Old Small Batch, which had lost its age statement some five years earlier, on behalf of the whiskey writer Zachary Johnston. As I type this, I’m contemplating a European e-shop’s listing for the once widely distributed Evan Williams Single Barrel, a fan favorite that became a Kentucky-only release in 2022. At less than $44 in local currency, including sales tax, it feels like a deal when compared to the $100 some U.S. retailers are currently charging for similar bottles.
But those are exceptions, of course. The vast majority of American whiskey in Europe is either basic Jim Beam or standard Jack Daniel’s. As long as Americans are going crazy for bourbon, most producers will probably continue to focus on their domestic sales — despite publicly stating otherwise. And most Europeans, Roy believes, will keep drinking what they already know.
“I guess it’s just that we are creatures of habit, and we are used to Scotch whisky,” he says. “So when the bottle of Glenfiddich 12 is done, they’ll buy another Glenfiddich 12, because they’re just used to it.”