The Kentucky Bourbon Boom Isn’t Making Life Better For Distillery Workers

Workers at Jim Beam are striking for better working conditions.

The Kentucky Bourbon Boom Isn’t Making Life Better For Distillery Workers
[Photo: Luke Sharrett/Getty Images]

As traditional jobs disappear from coal country, there’s another industry that’s taking off that offers a hopeful source of growth in the state of Kentucky.


Kentucky is the home of bourbon–producing 95% of the world’s total output–and bourbon (as well as whiskey in general) has become the trendiest liquor among young people over the last few years. Last year, production hit the highest levels since 1967.

But while the bourbon boom has been good to distilleries and the state’s $3 billion industry, it may be less of a positive for workers. This week, about 250 workers at two Jim Beam distilleries have gone on strike to protest difficult working conditions, according to the Associated Press.

The main complaint seems to be about being overworked. Because of staffing shortages, many workers are putting in 60- to 80-hour weeks, to keep up with growing demand. Beam Suntory, the Jim Beam brand owner and the world’s third largest “premium spirits company,” is also accused by the union of turning to temp workers to fill labor gaps, without regard to seniority of veteran employees.

“We’re thrilled that bourbon is booming, that’s great for all of us,” employee and union representative Janelle Mudd told the Louisville Courier Journal. “But if it’s booming that well, then you should be able to hire people and put them to work.”

This strikes at the heart of a growing problem in today’s economy: In many sectors, what used to be good jobs are turning into low-wage or temporary, contract-based employment.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.