Close to 300 million Americans — roughly 90 percent of the country’s population — are currently being urged to stay at home, in as many as 38 states, 48 counties, 14 cities, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, according to the latest data from The New York Times.
The unprecedented measures have left many of us seeking new and novel forms of entertainment. Some now enjoy virtual happy hours with friends, while others have elevated those experiences by introducing virtual drinking games to the fray. Pretty much all of us are drinking more, with many taking advantage of alcohol delivery services for the first time.
And yet, no amount of virtual picklebacks or beer pong can douse the flames of wanderlust. But while physical travel is an impossibility right now, many are managing to escape their four walls via virtual tourism.
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Google Trends data shows just how hot “virtual tours” are right now. For the past five years, interest in the search term showed a lifeless flatline on the search engine before a sudden recent spike, peaking in the week beginning March 22 — the very same week stay-at-home orders spread across most of the nation.
For those who usually plan their travel and vacations around their favorite alcoholic beverages, a number of breweries, distilleries, and wineries are thankfully well-equipped to welcome swaths of virtual-passport-carrying armchair tourists. Online experiences range from full-blown virtual renderings of iconic distilleries to intimate guided tours of local breweries. Best of all: Each of the tours can be enjoyed with a glass in hand.
Of all of the booze-spiked virtual excursions, none is more expansive, surreal, or singular than the Buffalo Trace Virtual Tour.
“Within the last 12 months, we’ve had over 300,000 visitors to Buffalo Trace, but most people around the world are never going to make it to Kentucky,” says Kris Comstock, senior bourbon marketing director at Buffalo Trace Distillery. “So [we asked ourselves], ‘How do we take that experience and somehow recreate it for our fans in Europe and all around the world?’”
More than one year in the making, and created from over 10,000 photos of the distillery, Buffalo Trace launched its virtual tour in January 2019. The free-to-download app, which runs on desktop computers, iPhone, and iPad, lets users explore a computer-generated recreation of its historic Frankfort, Ky., facility. The overall experience is part whiskey tourism, part computer game.
“Visitors” can investigate more than a dozen of the distillery’s buildings and production facilities, and roam up to 400 acres of distillery landscape. Buffalo Trace’s legendary guide, Freddie Johnson, is also on hand to lead four virtual tours and teach every aspect of production and a touch of history.
“The reason we created it virtually is so we can update it over time,” Comstock says. “As we expand the distillery, we can update the program.” The game-like platform also allows Buffalo Trace to add unique experiences within the app.
Users become virtual collectors, with bottles of all the distillery’s brands hidden throughout the grounds for visitors to gather while exploring. There’s also a quiz to test their bourbon knowledge, and the opportunity to travel back in time and explore the distillery at different points throughout history.
“The tour is not meant to be just educational, it’s meant to be fun,” Comstock says. And during these times of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, it’s proving to be popular. “In March we had more downloads than any other month since it launched,” he says.
The Glenturret’s experience is by far the most interactive of the bunch. Its tour lets users snoop around every inch of its distillery, with the 3D space stitched together from high-resolution 360-degree photos. There are educational videos embedded in different parts of the platform, making the “tour” every bit as informative as it is intriguing.
The Balvenie, Glenfiddich, and Laphroaig, meanwhile, let armchair voyagers discover their facilities via 360-degree YouTube videos. It’s a popular tool that’s also been utilized by many other distilleries, wineries, and breweries, and the concept is simple: A host from the property explains various aspects of their brand’s history and production processes, while viewers can rotate the camera angle to view everything that’s happening around them.
For those who don’t like whisk(e)y, London-based gin distillery Sipsmith offers a similar YouTube experience, hosted by founder Sam Galsworthy and Master Distiller Jared Brown. The three-minute video also features special guest appearances from Sipsmith’s copper stills: Prudence, Patience, Constance, and Cygnet.
Patrón Tequila gives guests a look inside its scenic hacienda and production facilities via a 360-degree YouTube video, which can also be viewed on virtual reality platforms, including Google Cardboard.
This tour is as much a behind-the-scenes look at one of Mexico’s most iconic tequila producers as it is an insight into the process of making tequila itself. The video melds cutting-edge 360 filming technology and computer-generated images (CGI), and is given through the perspective of a bee, the symbol of the Patrón brand.
For those seeking spirits with a side of vineyards and an iconic chateau, Cognac producer Martell should be the first port of call. Available to explore on desktop computers and on Google Cardboard, Martell’s interactive photo/video tour gives an all-access pass to its grounds, cellars, and chateau.
There are embedded educational videos and secret keys and recipes to collect. For virtual company, visitors can chat with Martell’s virtual bartender as he fixes a range of different cocktails, or enjoy the peaceful presence of a few friendly deer in the garden. Don’t have time to explore everything? Users can create a profile, save their progress, and revisit at a later date.
For enotourism, virtual travelers have a host of wineries to explore, many of which offer a similar, though not quite as extensive, experience to Martell.
Multiple well-known brands, including Louis M. Martini, Kendall-Jackson, Chateau Montelena, and Matanzas Creek, host platforms built from 360-degree photographs of their vineyards, cellars, and production facilities. While not quite as interactive as Martell’s experience, some have videos built into them, and many offer a direct link to the winery’s online store from within virtual tasting rooms.
“During times like these with the current Covid restrictions, we love being able to provide our customers with the opportunity to transport here virtually and inspire wanderlust for when this is all behind us,” a representative for Kendall-Jackson told VinePair.
Oregon-based Visiting Media is one technology firm creating such experiences. To date, it’s built over 100 platforms for a range of winery, distillery, and brewery clients.
Senior account executive Mason Feudner says the experiences are typically used by wineries to showcase their suitability as event venues. But with so many of us stuck at home, one of the platform’s best assets right now is helping virtual tourists “feel like they’re escaping their living rooms,” he says.
Other wineries offer 360-degree YouTube videos similar to those provided by distilleries. Archery Summit Vineyard, in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, gives viewers a two-minute look behind the scenes at its Dundee property, including a sneak peek inside its wine cave and “A-List Lounge.” In Prosser, Wash., 14 Hands offers a similar two-minute experience, complete with stunning drone shots taken from above its vineyards.
And if it’s rolling vineyards you seek, no tour compares to the 360-degree Virtual Reality Champagne Experience. Created and hosted by a local regional board, the seven-minute video spans vineyards, wineries, caves, and the city of Reims. With a French-speaking tour guide, for those who don’t speak the local lingo, it’s surprisingly close to a real-life vacation.
Quintessa Winery, in St. Helena, Calif., is also well-versed in 360-degree vineyard drone shots. But amidst stay-at-home orders, the Napa Valley winery is also launching a new Instagram Live series that will transport followers to its property. Hosted by general manager Rodrigo Soto and winemaker Rebekah Wineburg, the series airs every Wednesday at 4 p.m. PT and features interactive vineyard and winery experiences as well as updates on life in the vineyard.
Lagging behind, somewhat, on the virtual tourism front, are breweries. But some offer worthwhile YouTube experiences similar to those previously mentioned.
Budweiser Budvar’s video drops viewers into the southern Czech Republic, and is one of the more in-depth tours at around five-and-a-half minutes long. In the video, the tour guide delves deep into the production process, and highlights the importance of local water and hops in its brews.
3 Daughters Brewing also does a great job of simultaneously giving a tour and explaining how to make beer, all in the time it takes to brew a cup of tea. Brooklyn Brewery, Goose Island, and Allagash Brewery also provide short but sweet domestic experiences.
“We’re in Maine — it’s not necessarily a super-central place to get to,” says Brett Willis, marketing specialist at Allagash. Whether in the midst of a global pandemic or otherwise, the YouTube video tour offers drinkers the chance to “interact with Allagash,” past just drinking its beer, he says.
Another beer professional looking to help drinkers and brewers interact while social distancing is Don Littlefield, general manager of Brew Bus Tours.
Under normal circumstances, Brew Bus offers winery, distillery, and brewery tours across Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. “As a tour operator, we can’t pivot to curbside pickup, home delivery, or takeout,” Littlefield says. Instead, his company has transformed into hosting virtual tours on Instagram Live via the Maine Brew Bus account (the company is split into three operations).
Every day at 3, 4, and 5 p.m. ET, Littlefield connects with a different Maine brewer for 30 minutes, giving them a platform to talk about their company and highlight how they’re adapting to life during Covid-19. They also talk about what they’re currently brewing and give a glance inside their brewing facilities. Littlefield was inspired to start offering the tours after seeing a Canada tour company, Brew Donkey, offer a similar experience.
“We’ve turned into a media production house, which is kind of ridiculous,” he says. While hosting the “tours,” Littlefield records the conversations and then posts them online as YouTube videos. Another member of his team then takes the audio and creates podcasts, complete with title credits and intros and outros.
While the tours themselves are free, in every broadcast Littlefield mentions a virtual tip bucket where guests can leave a donation. For deep-pocketed, generous individuals who are able to give $100, Maine Brew Bus will match the tip with an equal-value gift card for use when social distancing restrictions are loosened.
“It’s not financially lucrative, but my hope is that as these [episodes] re-air and people find them on YouTube, we’ll continue to have some sustainability from that,” Littlefield says. “All things considered, we’re trying to stay positive without really knowing when we can get back to what we do best.”