Whiskey expert and author Mitenbuler said vodka’s main assault on bourbon began in 1946 with the birth of a particular cocktail.
“Sales of the white spirit [vodka] remained weak, and a Heublein executive named John Martin was wondering how to boost them when he ran into a bartender friend who was trying, unsuccessfully, to push imported ginger beer at his bar in Los Angeles,” Mitenbuler wrote in “The Bourbon Empire”
“His creation: the Moscow Mule, a cocktail composed of ginger beer, vodka, and half a lime, served in a copper mug,” he wrote. “Like all cocktail origin myths, there are alternative explanations for the drink’s creation, but this one seems most likely.”
Mitenbuler credits the Moscow Mule as the vodka-based Trojan horse that captivated the market and displaced bourbon and whiskey from their dominant position in America.
But the world still can’t get enough of bourbon. China and the EU, in particular, have expressed a significant thirst for American whiskey.
Today, Kentucky, the birthplace of bourbon, produces 95 percent of the world’s supply, employs approximately 17,500 workers and generates a cool $8.5 billion annually.
Last year, China imported $12.8 million worth of U.S. spirits. Nearly $9 million of that total was whiskey, according to figures provided by the Distilled Spirits Council, a trade association representing the liquor industry.
Meanwhile, the Bluegrass State exported $154 million worth of bourbon in 2017 to the EU, according to data from the International Trade Commission.
While it is still too early to tell what may come of a possible trade war, Mitenbuler noted, American whiskey is battle-tested and will rally with help from its loyal market of connoisseurs and craftsmen.