Distillery tours have changed a lot since I started working in the industry in 1991. In 1991, distillery tours were limited to Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey, who had visitor centers and offered tours. You could tour the other distilleries, but they were very informal tours. These distilleries did not have visitor centers and gift shops catering to their fans. This started to change with people coming to the Bardstown Bourbon Festival. As people wanted to learn more about their favorite Bourbons, they would go to the distilleries and ask for tours. The distilleries started to build visitor centers and gift shops. But the real changes came later into the 21st century.
Brown-Forman led the way at the Labrot and Graham (now Woodford Reserve Distillery) by building not only a visitor center and gift shop, but with event space and restaurant with a house chef. It was a success from the start and as other distilleries were opened, they often included a restaurant that offered food to tourists and created event space. Today, there are very good food offerings at distilleries such as the Willett Distillery, Bardstown Bourbon Company and Maker’s Mark Distillery.
The next step was to get the laws changed to allow distilleries to sell bottles of their products at the distillery and offer tastings of their products. This took some effort and time to do, but with the leadership of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, it happened. The main opposition came from liquor stores who feared the competition for bottle sales, but after the law was written so that the distilleries had to sell at the manufacture suggested retail price and not discount their bottles in any way, the law was passed.
The next step was to allow distilleries to sell cocktails sold at the distilleries. This law allowed distilleries to turn their tasting rooms into full-fledged cocktail bars, with cocktails featuring their products. This proved to be very popular as it caters to the visitor who may be with a whiskey fan, but does not want to drink straight whiskey. It proved to be so popular, that distilleries are now attracting people to come in just for a cocktail. When combined with a restaurant, the distilleries are becoming a destination, not only for tourists, but with locals looking for a nice dinner out with friends.
The latest change to the laws allows distilleries to create tasting experiences outside of the distillery. A distillery can create a tasting room with a bar in a building located somewhere other than the distillery, such as in the local town square. This gives the tourist a reason to visit the local town and have a drink, and shop the local stores and eat at local restaurants. A good example of this is Dueling Grounds Distillery. The opened a tasting room at a local inn located on the original Linkumpinch farm.
Whiskey Tourism has become a major source of tourism in Kentucky and elsewhere. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail has become very popular and other states are now creating their own “whiskey trails” to attract tourism. Pennsylvania is now offering a Whiskey Rebellion Trail. Tennessee has a Tennessee Whiskey Trail. Indiana has a Rye Whiskey Trail. Other states will soon create their own versions of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail focused around their own distilleries. If they have not already, California and Oregon should create a “Brandy Trail” for their many brandy distilleries.
People love their distilled spirits. Tourism has proven to be a great source of income for new distilleries and old alike. Whiskey tourism has been a great economic benefit for many small towns. It will remain so as long as state governments continue to change laws that allow this growth.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller