Distillery trails were having a moment before the pandemic. The most famous route, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, received 1.3 million visitors in 2019. Dozens of other trails scattered around the country, from regionally clustered statewide swaths to citywide paths intertwined with local craft breweries and cideries, also welcomed scores of enthusiastic imbibers. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States recognized vacation-based distillery visits as a key trend during its 2019 economic briefing in February 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, essentially put a halt to this momentum, along with nearly every other aspect of the craft spirits industry. But there’s hope that the moment can be recaptured once the pandemic recedes, thanks in large part to the efforts of the state guilds and guild-sponsored organizations that oversee the distillery trails. And as vaccines bring the promise of a post-COVID world within reach, these trails and their members are ready to embrace spirits enthusiasts once again.
Providing Support Now
As the pandemic rolls on, distillery trail organizers and state guilds continue to provide their members with resources and information, knowing that their trails are fortified by keeping their member distilleries strong. As one example, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association built a special task force and brought in an infectious disease expert from the University of Kentucky to help create evolving best practices for its distillery trail members to follow. They’ve also built a strong culture of interaction that has amplified distillers’ voices. “The KDA has hosted weekly calls to help us navigate recommendations and to gather collective feedback from us,” says Dee Ford, the brand home manager for Angel’s Envy in Louisville. “They’ve essentially provided us with a direct line of communication to the Kentucky governor’s office.”
In many cases, guild support runs more personal than that. Everyone is well aware that the industry’s survival is at stake. “I don’t want to see any of the distilleries close,” says Meagan Miller, the president of the Colorado Distillers Guild and co-founder of Denver’s Talnua whiskey. “They aren’t just trail members. They’re my friends, and some of them are scared. But we know we’re all in it together, and this makes us hopeful that we’ll all get through this.”
The bulk of Miller’s efforts involve acting as a liaison between the members and state officials, which has provided her friends on the trail a sense of relief. “The guild has been great at sending us lots of emails, thank goodness,” says Kate Douglas, the head distiller at Old Elk in Colorado Springs. “Things change almost every day, and their communication has made it easier to understand these changes.”
A Peek at the Future
Distillery trail organizers and members confidently anticipate that trails will return to their former popularity after the pandemic has passed. “People are naturally social creatures,” says Jason Barrett, the president of upstate New York’s Rochester/Finger Lakes Craft Beverage Trail and Black Button Distilling in Rochester, New York. “There will be plenty of pent-up demand to see others. There will also be a lot of people wanting to scratch their travel itch. Our trail will have to be ready.”
“We know that tourists will return to the trail with excitement,” says Ford. “We’re looking forward to welcoming them back.”
What trail activity may be like in the weeks and months after the pandemic is a matter of speculation. The data suggests a potential slow return. A report published by the market-research group Destination Analysts in summer 2020 indicated that 64.1% of people interested in culinary-based travel weren’t ready to hit the road, so it can be presumed that many potential trail customers may take their time to return.
Those who do come back are likely to face a more widespread landscape, as some distillers may turn the outdoor tasting rooms they created as pandemic necessities into permanent fixtures—attractive draws for prospective visitors. “If you have a smaller number of guests gathered in a small space like a tasting room, you’ll be able to provide them with a more intimate experience,” says Brown. “Creating that more personalized sense of connecting and interacting can really become something special.”
Regardless of how many visitors hit the distillery trails in a post-COVID world, these special paths will be poised to provide a feeling that’s sorely been needed since the pandemic’s started. “Once people start exploring the trails again, they’ll start meeting people, sharing stories and experiencing the sense of camaraderie that can only come from gathering in a distillery,” says Miller. “When that happens, it will at least start to feel normal.”