LONDON—It’s becoming a bourbon-soaked world out there. For about a decade now, more and more whiskey drinkers internationally, far beyond the drink’s home state of Kentucky, have been developing a taste for the American spirit. And Europe, which was the single largest destination for U.S. spirit exports in 2016, has been at the center of the world’s bourbon renaissance.
“Bourbon has witnessed spectacular growth rates across the world, especially in Western Europe,” Spiros Malandrakis, the head analyst of alcoholic drinks at market-research company Euromonitor International, told me. Mad Men had something to do with it, he said (the AMC show features an Old Fashioned-clutching protagonist in the person of Don Draper), and so has the rise of cocktail culture around the world.
But bourbon’s fortunes may be changing, and the uncertain fate of one liquor distills many of the bigger forces unleashed by Trump’s burgeoning global trade war. But what does happy hour have to do with metal tariffs? When Trump decided to slap import taxes on steel and aluminum from Europe and other U.S. allies, Europe opted among other things to hit the booze—with taxes, that is. The EU put bourbon on a list of more than 100 American products that now face increased tariffs by the European Union, meaning importing them to Europe will be more expensive. As of Friday, American whiskey exports to the EU will face a 25-percent levy; assuming that sellers in Europe make consumers absorb all these costs, that could mean that, say, a bottle of Maker’s Mark that usually costs 35 euros at the grocery store would now cost as much as 44 euros. To the extent this drives consumers to opt for the Glenlivet instead, the tax threatens to hinder the bourbon industry’s growing export market, of which the EU claims nearly half. It also hurts Europe’s bourbon drinkers, for whom smaller bourbon brands could become more expensive—or simply disappear from the continent’s shelves entirely.