The pandemic didn’t slow the momentum of distillery tourism. It just placed it on pause. As restrictions on visiting distilleries loosened in 2021 — particularly for vaccinated folks — early returns suggested the public fervor to visit the hallowed grounds where their favorite spirits are made remains as strong as it did in pre-pandemic times.
This has increasingly left distilleries with the challenge of making sure the distillery experiences match whatever expectations their guests may harbor upon their return. Fortunately for the distilleries — and for those who enjoy their handiwork — they have some solid ideas.
Broad Engagement Options
Customers have had quite a bit of time to ponder what it would be like to once again set foot in a distillery and marvel at a column still. This puts a bit of pressure on distilleries to get their post-pandemic experience right, particularly since visitations are such a prime mover in terms of market penetration. “People that visit distilleries are more inclined to buy our spirits than those that don’t, and we have the data to prove it through consumer research,” says Robert Hall, CEO of Ole Smoky Moonshine. “It’s crucial for us to give everyone that visits us an experience that’s fun, appealing, and approachable.”
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Building these experiences tends to be an expression of gratitude, particularly when it comes to the locals. Distilleries are quick to credit communal loyalty for getting them through Covid-19; as things open, they know it’s time for them to return the favor. This volley comes with an increased push toward hatching customer engagement strategies that go well beyond the traditional distillery tour. In Baltimore, for instance, Sagamore Spirit’s sprawling waterfront campus offers a host of activities that foster continuous local interest, from cocktail-making classes to sessions where guests can etch their own rocks glasses. These offerings are crucial in preventing distillery visits from becoming a one-trick pony among fans. “If a distillery only offers tours, people may only visit once, including locals,” says Sagamore’s co-founder and president, Brian Treacy. “Offering more activities lets you connect with your community multiple times in multiple ways.”
Engagement and Education
Some noteworthy customer patterns have emerged as distilleries welcome more people through their doors. The distillery tour know-it-all has returned to the fold, and they’re fully prepared to dispense unsolicited information that teeters between passion and showing off. Their comeback hasn’t phased distillers one bit. “They’ve been around since we’ve been doing this,” says Jon Kreidler, co-founder of Tattersall Distilling. “We don’t mind them. If they want to show up and share a few pieces of knowledge, and if that makes them happy doing so, then good on ‘em.”
At the same time, fledgling fans who developed a newfound appreciation for distilled spirits during the pandemic are dropping by for tours and tastings, eager to learn more. Like anybody engaged in a burgeoning hobby or interest, there is a learning curve involved. Treacy says distilleries must be particularly mindful when engaging with this unique stripe of consumer — especially during a post-tour tipple. “If a person tells me they taste cotton candy after I pour them a rye, and I tell them ‘you’re wrong,’ all I’ll get out of that is a bad Yelp review,” he says. “Even worse, that customer may be so put off by the experience, they may decide whiskey really isn’t for them after all.” Acknowledging what these inexperienced patrons taste in a positive manner may make them feel comfortable enough to order a cocktail or check out other spirits.
Maintaining the Distillery Vibe
Spirits are supposed to be fun. This mantra sets the tone for any distillery seeking to build a memorable experience in its facility and tasting room, especially after the pandemic forced it to trudge through dour times. When done properly, this can allow a venue to function as an extension of the good times that its gin or bourbon can build. “The experience sets the tone for the brand overall,” Kriedler says. “It has to tell the story of who you are. It needs to portray what customers can expect of our spirits, and we never want to be looked at as a snooty place.”
In some cases, delivering this experience can involve multiple pieces of real estate. In December, Tattersall unveiled a 75,000-plus-square-foot distillery in River Falls, Wis., some 30 miles east of its original Minneapolis venue, complete with a restaurant, barrel room, amphitheater, and several event spaces. (The new locale also allows it to escape Minnesota’s stingy spirits production laws and scale its liquid output while remaining close enough to the Twin Cities for its local fan base to easily visit). Ole Smoky Moonshine’s quartet of Tennessee properties — two in Gatlinburg, one in Pigeon Forge, and one in Nashville — allow the brand to deliver different engagement points for its guests, from cozy tasting room confines augmented with rustic general stores to wide open spaces built around live music and Ping-Pong tables. These eclectic offerings can frame a distillery as a destination for locals and out-of-towners alike, turning what may otherwise be a quick and simple visit into an extended affair. It can also produce a certain type of energy for spirits geeks that can somewhat resemble the enthusiasm a child may have when they set foot inside an amusement park. That’s the point. At the same time, creating these types of experiences isn’t necessarily a loose affair. “We want to make our distillery visits friendly and fun,” explains Hall. “However, we take the topic of experience as seriously as we take our spirits.”
A Key Part of City Strategy
Tourism took a beating during the pandemic, but the urge to explore up-and-coming cities throughout the country will likely return in full force once the pandemic fully subsides. As cities cautiously begin building toward this future — whenever that may be — more are recognizing the value of integrating local spirits and distillery experiences within their overall tourism strategies. For instance, Baltimore’s official travel website, Visit Baltimore, uses Sagamore and other city distilleries to promote the city’s rich history and drive interest in hip and emerging neighborhoods. “We’re proud to be able to help bring attention to Baltimore,” Treacy says. “One of our main goals is to help people realize there is so much to see and do in the city, they’ll want to spend a long weekend here.”
Regardless of whether a distillery is part of a city’s tourism strategy or a local’s plan to have fun for an hour or two, the onus on a distillery to deliver a great experience is a responsibility it will continue to embrace as things begrudgingly move toward a sense of normalcy, simply because of the joy that’s inherent in the distilling craft. “We make spirits that are served in a Mason jar,” Hall says. “How can you not have a bit of fun if you’re doing that?”