How American Distilleries Are Transforming into Tourist Destinations - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

How American Distilleries Are Transforming into Tourist Destinations

Marjorie Samuels must’ve been a marketing genius who would’ve put Don Draper to shame. When her husband, William Samuels Sr., bought a small distillery in Loretto, Kentucky in 1953, Margie came up with the label, a signature red-wax seal for their bottles, and the name—Maker’s Mark.

She also came up with another idea that’s still shaping the American liquor experience: More than 60 years before anyone put the words “craft” and “distillery” together, Marjorie Samuels came up with the notion that liquor fans might actually want to spend their Saturday tromping around a factory floor—and eventually would pay to do it.

In the 1950s, polite Southern people like the Samuels didn’t do marketing, according to Rob Samuels, Marjorie’s grandson and the third-generation COO of Maker’s Mark. Marketing was considered a little crass, particularly by her husband, Bill, says Samuels. His grandfather cared more about what was in the bottle than about how to sell it. “She knew he didn’t like marketing in the usual way, and it needed to be more personal,” he says. “Personally inviting friends to your home—that’s the way they thought of it.”

So Marjorie made the Maker’s Mark facility into a pleasant place local people would want to visit, a picturesque village right down to the gray-and-red color scheme and bottle-shaped cutouts in the shutters. For the first 50 years, they couldn’t even give visitors a taste. When Rob Samuels worked there as a young man, most of the visitors were older and arrived on chartered buses, rather than aficionados looking to learn.

The Maker’s Mark tours eventually became a major tourist draw. Today, the facility receives 165,000 visitors a year, 90 percent of them from outside Kentucky. They’re of all ages and genders, and from all around the world—and most are serious bourbon fans. “Now, the interest level is off the charts,” says Samuels. “And they want to go deeper.”

Heavy Traffic

Today, the idea of making a distillery a wholesome and romantic place to visit is paying off for distillers all over the country, from the quarter of a million people who go to tiny Lynchburg, Tennessee, to tour Jack Daniels, to the record-setting 230,000 guests who visited the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, last year, to the more than 1 million people who travel to Kentucky every year to explore the state’s Bourbon Trail.

Touring is so successful in Kentucky that the state now has two more trails: One for craft distillers, such as Old Pogue in Maysville and Willett in Bardstown, that draws more than 250,000 visitors a year with 13 stops; and an Urban Bourbon Trail that covers 44 bars and restaurants around Louisville.

In Louisville, the massive redevelopment of the city’s West Main Street includes a revamped Whiskey Row, with two major hotels, Marriott’s Moxy and Starwood’s Westin, along with brand-new demonstration distilleries from Michter’s and Old Forester, as well as the glitzy Evan Williams Experience, complete with a bourbon waterfall.

In the city’s Butchertown neighborhood, one of the most beautiful distilleries in the country is brandy maker Copper & Kings: It showcases a water feature in a wide plaza, a comfortable tour office and waiting area in repurposed shipping containers, and a monarch butterfly garden and beehive. On the second floor is a tasting area in an art gallery, and the top floor is now a cocktail bar, Alex&nder, with a stunning view of the Louisville skyline.

Owner Joe Heron says this was all very deliberate, including placing it in Butchertown, “the Brooklyn of Louisville,” a little removed from the bourbon-focused downtown. “We have more of an opportunity to tell our story,” Heron says. “For us, we became a community asset before we were a tourist attraction. We were more interested in becoming a part of the fabric of Louisville.”

Heron and his wife, Lesley, natives of South Africa, started out as founders of Nutrisoda and later moved on to Crispin hard cider. They had experience in brand messaging: Their focus on sustainability shows that alcohol is agricultural, Heron says, and the rock ‘n’ roll theme drives home the point that they’re doing something creative. “Music represents how we think,” he says. “ ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ would be our theme song.”

The tasting room at Westland Distillery in Seattle. | Photo by Rafael Soldi.

Up Close and Personal

Not many craft distilleries can match such attractions as bourbon waterfalls and butterfly gardens. Most have set up shop in any space they can afford, from 100-year-old brick warehouses to industrial-park spaces with corrugated metal buildings. But for small distilleries, offering tours pays off in actual cash as much as brand awareness. A 2018 report on the economics of craft distilling, sponsored by the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA), found that on-site retail accounts for at least 40 percent of all sales for small distillers nationwide. For small start-up distilleries that haven’t established wide distribution chains, that money can be crucial to supporting a business. “The majority of craft distillers live and die by their tours,” says Paul Hletko, founder of FEW Spirits in Illinois and former ACSA president. “You can do very well with this.”

A distillery is basically an alcohol factory. But the romance of that business and the eclectic nature of the distillery experience make tours attractive trips for spirits fans, whether they’re well versed in the chemistry of distilling or just learning the difference between rye and bourbon. Taking a tour is about more than just smelling vats of fermenting grain and taking a sip at the tasting bar in the gift shop: A good tour can make fans into customers for life. When you visit a distillery and buy a bottle, “It’s a ‘sticky’ bottle,” Hletko says. “A trophy might be a better way to say it. It gives everybody a way to talk about it when you get home. It gives you a story.”

Hletko says he was puzzled when people started asking him to sign their bottles, popular keepsakes now at tour stops: As a distiller, he wants people to drink what he makes, not put it on a shelf. But he admits he does the same: He has his own wall of bottles, signed by friends who distill.

Taking a tour is about more than just smelling vats of fermenting grain and taking a sip at the tasting bar in the gift shop: A good tour can make fans into customers for life.

Andrew Auwerda, president and co-founder of Philadelphia Distilling, didn’t need tours to establish a following for his Bluecoat Gin. The first legal distillery in Pennsylvania since Prohibition when it opened in 2005, Philadelphia Distilling quickly found a following along the East Coast. Auwerda’s original facility was located in an industrial park. But when he opened a new distillery two years ago, he wanted it to be attractive for tours and special events. It has a cocktail bar with comfortable seating, a retail shop and outdoor space. “We had a following but rarely did tours in the old location, because it wasn’t set up that way,” he says. The new space, though, “is exactly what we dreamed of—one-on-one experiences, meeting new fans, turning people into brand ambassadors.” With so many craft distilleries popping up (Pennsylvania now has 85, with a half dozen in Philadelphia), “it’s important to cut through the clutter,” he says.

Some well-established distilleries have come up with multiple ways to experience their products. High West Distillery in Utah, for example, includes tours and tastings at the ranch-like setting in Wanship, a 20-minute drive northwest of Park City. Visitors can also stop in Park City for cocktails and a simple menu at High West’s saloon and general store, or go for the full six-course whiskey dinner at the Nelson Cottage a few doors from the saloon. If there’s not time for all that, they can just stop in at the distillery store in the Salt Lake City airport for a cocktail and a shopping trip before boarding the flight home.

A good tour does come with costs. Trained tour guides and staff make a difference between a customer who walks away in love and one who leaves with a bad impression. Tours usually range from $5 to $15, depending on how extensive the tasting will be at the end. Auwerda charges $15 for a tour and tasting, partly to cover the cost of staff, but also because charging shapes the kind of customer he gets. “That makes people committed,” he says. “They’re not just here for a laugh and a drink.”

High West Distillery and tasting room in Wanship, Utah.

Trail Guide

Distillery tours break down into several styles. Tours of large, well-established distilleries, like Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey, Buffalo Trace, Maker’s Mark or Heaven Hill in Kentucky, usually include beautifully landscaped grounds, displays of historic equipment, carefully scripted presentations—and a tasting that always happens just before they lead you into the gift shop.

At smaller start-up distilleries, such as FEW Spirits, Copper & Kings or Westland Distillery in Seattle, the experience is often more intimate. You might end up on a Saturday with the owner or master distiller taking time to tell their own stories and explain what goes into turning their grain or fruit into spirits. “The joy [of touring] is in those differences,” says Hletko. “Once you’re on-site, it gives you an opportunity to understand who’s behind it and what’s behind it. You get to know it in a way you never could by looking at a bottle on a shelf.”

Cities and states across the U.S. are breaking into the tour business. Vermont, Colorado and New York have organized “trails” like Kentucky’s, with maps and websites that guide you from place to place. In some cities with active distilling scenes, you can find organized districts where you can walk or ride share from one distillery to another for an afternoon or evening.

In Oregon, Portland’s Distillery Row has organized tours led by several companies that take visitors to eight places along the Willamette River making whiskey, vodka and brandy. In Charleston, South Carolina, it’s an easy ride share from High Wire Distilling, where Ann Marshall and Scott Blackwell make an esoteric selection of spirits, many using heirloom fruit and grains, to Charleston Distilling Co. on King Street, in the heart of the tourist district. Then it’s a short ride up to the more industrial setting of Striped Pig, in North Charleston. And in New Orleans, the easiest way to get to Old New Orleans Rum is to head to the old French Market in the French Quarter: A battered van labeled “Rum For Your Life” shuttles visitors to the distillery in the industrial Chantilly neighborhood, about 15 minutes away.

Because laws vary so widely from state to state, how much you can taste or what you experience at a distillery varies. In Virginia, for example, distilleries are strictly limited to four quarter-ounce pours, even if the distillery makes eight or 10 different things. In other states, including Kentucky, Tennessee and Pennsylvania, distillery tasting rooms can now sell cocktails along with offering tours and tastings.

The Copper & Kings Distillery in Louisville.

Distilleries such as Copper & Kings and Rabbit Hole (also in Louisville) house dedicated cocktail bars, while others, such as Maker’s Mark and St. Augustine Distilling in Florida, include restaurants. After touring St. Augustine’s distillery in the town’s original 1907 electrical and ice station, visitors can go next door to The Ice Plant, a restaurant that serves the distillery’s spirits in cocktails that underscore the facility’s history as the town’s main producer of ice. And in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, the Widow Jane Distillery shares space (and its owner) with Cacao Prieto, an organic chocolate maker. Visitors can tour both bourbon and chocolate in the same stop, and do a tasting of them together.

When visitors stop for a tour, they don’t just learn about what the distillery is making. The other tourists can be an eclectic bunch: Father’s Day young adults out with their parents (finally, there’s something better to get your Baby Boomer father than a tie), and bridal parties and bachelor parties are frequent distillery visitors as well.

Hletko finds the stories he hears from visitors to be some of his favorite parts of his business. One couple scheduled their honeymoon in the Chicago area just so they could visit FEW. They’d had drinks made with FEW on their first date and decided to bring it full circle. “That’s one of those stories that gets to you,” Hletko says. “To me, it shows what [craft spirits] can be. It brings people together. Whatever little part we had to play in that love, what magic is that?”

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