“All of the infrastructure from equipment and stills to actual building structures is a huge capital expense and we’re seeing all these classes and workshops add additional revenue,” said Peggy Noe Stevens, a Kentucky-based master bourbon taster and marketing consultant who has worked with whiskey brands including Woodford Reserve and Jim Beam. “Any activity that adds entertainment or education is directly correlated to brand loyalty.”
Though popular now, distilleries have lagged behind wineries and breweries in attracting travelers, in part because of regulations that, in many places, prevented distillers from offering samples of their liquor. Rules vary by state but have been loosening steadily since about 2004, and tourism has followed. The Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn., for example, attracts about 300,000 people a year, up from 200,000 10 years ago.
“Distilling is the essence of value-added agriculture since George Washington’s day,” said Frank Coleman, the senior vice president of public affairs at the Distilled Spirits Council, a national trade group, noting that the first president of the United States became a whiskey maker once he left office. “Slowly but surely the states have liberalized laws,” he added.
For travelers, distillery tours bring the eat-local trend to the bar.
“I see it as an extension of culinary travel,” said Kim Jamieson, the public relations director for South Carolina’s tourism office, which launched Satisfy Your Thirst, a campaign identifying 134 locales from moonshine distilleries to a tea growing farm, in 2016. “Beyond having a cocktail, people want to know the history behind it.”
New distilleries dispense samples and stories, including Waterman’s Distillery in the Finger Lakes region of New York, housed in a 19th-century barn once used by bootleggers during Prohibition. The atmospheric tour of Lost Spirits in Los Angeles includes a boat ride on an indoor river to the book-filled tasting room inspired by “The Island of Doctor Moreau” by H.G. Wells. J.J. Pfister Distilling in Sacramento contains a museum devoted to the founding family’s earlier business making knitted swimsuits in the early 20th century.