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Bourbon makers bet on a sales rise

The inventory of bourbon is at its highest point since the 1970s.

Associated Press/file 2014

The inventory of bourbon is at its highest point since the 1970s.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In a business where patience is part of the process, Kentucky bourbon makers are making a big bet by stashing away their largest stockpiles in more than a generation.

To put it in bartenders’ lingo: Distillers are putting up the tab for millions of rounds of bourbon years before they are even ordered. The production poses an inherent risk, but hitting the moment right — a big supply meshing with big demand — could mean a serious payday for companies big and small.

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Missing the target would leave bourbon makers awash with supply and leave future production in question, particularly for craft distilleries, which have seen a surge in popularity.

‘‘People keep asking us, ‘When will the bubble burst?’ ’’ said Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association.

For most in the business, the answer is: not anytime soon.

Large companies are banking on continued international demand from places such as China and a US culture that currently has a taste for bourbon.

‘‘We are busier than I ever could have imagined,’’ said Chris Morris, master distiller at Brown-Forman Corp., producer of Woodford Reserve and Old Forester bourbons.

Last year, Kentucky distilleries filled 1.2 million barrels with bourbon — the most since 1970, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. Inventory has topped 5 million barrels for the first time since 1977.

Production has surged by more than 150 percent in the past 15 years in Kentucky — home to 95 percent of the world’s bourbon production.

‘‘For many, many years, bourbon was considered a Southern gentleman’s drink,’’ said Jimmy Russell, longtime master distiller at Wild Turkey. ‘‘Now bourbon’s become a worldwide drink.’’

The last time the industry spiked production, in the 1970s, distillers ended up with a glut when demand went in a tailspin. Back then, the industry had grown stale, and many consumers switched to vodka, Scotch, and other spirits.

Now, distillers are constantly dabbling with premium small-batch offerings or putting new twists on recipes and flavors, and companies are looking to real-time data from the digital world.

Sales trends and developments are tracked worldwide. The numbers are crunched to make the best educated estimate of future consumer demand for a product that takes years to mature.

Straight bourbon whiskey ages a minimum of two years in new charred oak barrels, though the average maturity is four years or older. Many popular super-premium brands age six years or longer, and are the toughest to keep stocked in bars, restaurants, and liquor stores.

‘‘Bourbon as a category is on fire,’’ said Bill Thomas, a Washington, D.C., bar owner. ‘‘Every week, there’s stuff that’s out of stock.’’

A disparity between supply and demand has put pressure on the distilleries. In 2013, Maker’s Mark caused a backlash when it announced it was cutting the amount of alcohol in each bottle to stretch its whiskey supplies. The idea was soon scrapped.

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