The Distilling Industry has grown tremendously in the last two decades. In the 1980s and 90s, distilling of whiskey was limited to basically, Kentucky and Tennessee with Seagram having a distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana making whiskey for their blends. Brandy was being distilled on the west coast and some apple brandy on the east coast. Now every state has artisan distilleries making whiskey, brandy, vodka and gin. I have to laugh when I see some of the distilleries with stickers and tee-shirts saying “I don’t care if you are from Kentucky”. I applaud their desire to be independent and unique from Kentucky distillers, but there are definitely things they need to learn from Kentucky distillers. After all, Kentucky is where the distilling industry survived after it died in other states in the 1970s and 80s.
The first and most important thing the distillers in other states should learn is the fact that “A rising tide lifts all boats”. You can compete with the other distillers in the marketplace, but still cooperate in making good products. Even back into the early years of the artisan distilling movement, the major Kentucky distillers were telling the new distillers that, if they had technical problems with their production, please come to them for help. Bourbon was growing rapidly and the major distillers did not want to see inferior products ruining the growing reputation of Bourbon.
The second item is closely related to the first – never say anything bad about other distillers or their products. This only leads to strife and in the long run, hurts the reputation of the distillery that is saying such things as much as the distillery being attacked. Let the quality of your product be what sells bottles for you. Your products are what is important when talking to consumers, not the products being made elsewhere.
Next, organize the distilleries in your state. Kentucky has the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA) and every other state should have a similar organization. The KDA works at lobbying the Kentucky legislature to promote legislation that helps the distilling industry, whether it is dealing with taxes or promoting distillery tourism. The government pays more attention to an industry when they set forward an organized front on an issue.
Such an organization can also be very valuable when dealing with tourism. In this day and age, tourism is a valuable part of any new distillery. A statewide organization can promote tourism for all of the distilleries in the state more effectively than a lot of individual campaigns. Tourism is not only a source of revenue at the distillery through sales of bottles in the gift shop, but also a person who visits a distillery is more likely to purchase a bottle in their local liquor store.
Finally, the KDA plays a role in promoting Bourbon and other products made in Kentucky distilleries through educational programs. They help educate not only the public, but also people in the service industry. They support Bourbon events such as the Kentucky Bourbon Festival and Bourbon and Beyond for the education of the general public. They also support events that target bartenders and servers such as Camp Runamok. These events help all distilleries in the state. The KDA has even expanded this type of involvement to other states and have had a presence at events such as the New Orleans Bourbon Festival.
Artisan distilling has spread to every state in the United States. Every distillery should be proud of their state and their own products, but there are things that they should learn from Kentucky. Kentucky has over two hundred years of experience in the distilling industry and has learned many of these lessons the hard way. Artisan distillers should learn from this experience.
Photo courtesy of Michael Veach