It’s hard to believe that as recently as a decade ago most distillery tours were tedious affairs during which thirsty pilgrims marched through mazes of stainless steel with the hopes of sampling a few drops of product at the end. Times have changed. Today’s distilleries offer more hands-on experiences, and more tasting opportunities, than ever before. These are seven spirits slingers that know how to show you a good time.
At the new Portobello Road distillery in the heart of London, you can attend the brand’s three-hour Ginstitute during which you make your own gin. Following an extensive history (and tasting) of gin and gin cocktails, you’re then led to a small room with a number of glass decanters. Each contains a distinct botanical distillate. Some are classic gin ingredients, like coriander or orris root. Others are more left-field. Think lapsang souchong tea, celery root and asparagus. Experts guide you through the process, ensuring that what you make is pretty damn good. The best part? You take home a bottle of its gin and a bottle of your custom concoction.
Getting hands-on in the States is harder, thanks to strict laws. But there are some notable opportunities. At Maker’s Mark in Loretto, Ky., you can visit the gift shop and hand-dip a bottle of the popular bourbon in hot red wax (yours to take home for $22), creating the brand’s signature topper. Regular tours are $12, and a $30 “Behind the Bar” tour includes a demonstration and tasting of classic bourbon cocktails.
If you can’t get to the Bluegrass State, don’t fret. Odds are there’s a small whiskey distillery near you in need of volunteers. At Stranahan’s in Denver, the company has a loyal following that’s willing to stand in line each December in freezing temperatures for a shot at its limited-edition Snowflake whiskey release. That same group heeds the call to arms when it’s time to bottle. Chosen by lottery, volunteers meet once a month.
“When Stranahan’s first started, we didn’t have a large budget for bottling equipment, so we hosted volunteer sessions,” says head distiller Rob Dietrich. “As we have grown in staff and have more automated equipment, we don’t solely rely on the volunteer brigade. But we still host the monthly event, as the demand for the bottling experience is still high.”
If selected, you’ll work about four hours in exchange for a tour, pizza and a bottle of whiskey signed by the distilling staff. But be patient: 30,000 people enter the lottery each month!
Gin is particularly well-suited for the “blend-your-own” experience, thanks to its multi-ingredient flexibility and lack of aging. Myriam Hendrickx, the master distiller for Dutch brand Rutte, says she pioneered the visitor blending concept in 2003 when she came on board at the 145-year-old distillery. A ferry ride takes you to the tiny island of Dordrecht near Rotterdam, where you’ll encounter an even tinier distillery (250 square feet). After you tour, your €32 ($37) ticket puts you in the blending room where a wall of alchemist-looking beakers filled with botanical distillates are yours to play with. (Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations.)
Privateer takes a different approach when it’s time to round up the troops. “We don’t use any free labor,” says Maggie Campbell, the head rum distiller and VP of Privateer in Ipswich, Mass. Instead, they recruit day labor via local PTAs, turning the need for warm bodies into community outreach. If a participant donates their $15-per-hour wage to their school, Privateer doubles the donation. Schools work different shifts and friendly rivalries develop. “Because these people are invested and it’s personal, there’s a lot of pride in it, and it works out well.”
For civilians who actually want to run alcohol through a still, Plymouth, on the southwestern coast of England, might be your best bet. For £40 ($56), you get an immersive lesson in nosing gins and botanicals, followed by the opportunity to create your own recipe. And you’re not just blending existing distillates but macerating roots, berries and seeds, then running them through individual chem lab stills.
“Our Make Your Own Gin concept started in 2009,” says Plymouth master distiller Sean Harrison. “The stills are glass, so you get to see the whole process. Not many people come up with a good recipe the first time, so it also demonstrates how complicated gin actually is.” But who knows? The small sample you take home might be the Next Great Gin.
If it’s single-malt whiskey you seek, you’re going to want to head all the way to Taiwan. Kavalan, an award-winning label specializing in wine- and sherry-finished expressions, is the most-visited distillery in the world. For about $50, you enter a quiet glass-paneled “DIY” room where you’ll have the opportunity to combine three different whisky styles into one tasty blend. You’ll score a personalized 300-milliliter sample in a display box to take home with you.