Bourbon tourism shakes pandemic slump in Kentucky
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – With tourists flocking to the distilleries, concerns about a pandemic hangover for Kentucky’s world-famous bourbon industry are quickly evaporating.
A $ 19 million tourist hub that the Heaven Hill Distillery opened a few days ago in the heart of the state’s bourbon country is already overflowing – with bookings filling up quickly to learn more about how whiskey is made and sample its wines. spirits, including its flagship whiskey Evan Williams.
It’s a similar story for the many other distilleries in the region which last spring were temporarily closed to visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Over a year later, businesses are faced with such demand for tours that an industry official has started encouraging people to call ahead or check availability for tours online before leaving. Highway.
Starting last summer, some distilleries began allowing a limited number of visitors in accordance with virus restrictions. With capacity limits now lifted, attractions are bracing for a complete resurgence of guests, many from outside of Kentucky.
“We saw it coming, but I don’t think we saw it coming so quickly,” said Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association.
“We were a hot destination before COVID cooled us off considerably,” he added. “But now we’re back to the point where people want to go out, they want to have fun.”
Gregory predicted that bourbon tourism would quickly rebound to pre-pandemic levels.
“I think next year will be more of a normal year and if this trend continues I think it will be another banner year,” he said.
Bourbon is an $ 8.6 billion industry in Kentucky, where 95% of the world’s supply is manufactured, according to the association. About 9.3 million barrels of bourbon aged in the state last year, or more than two barrels for every person living in Kentucky. And bourbon tourism has become big business, in part thanks to renewed enthusiasm abroad.
Spirits companies have invested huge sums in new or expanded visitor centers to showcase the industry’s legacy and allow customers to soak up the sights and smells of bourbon making. Visitors to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail spend an average of $ 400 to $ 1,200 per trip, Gregory said. Over 70% of visitors come from outside Kentucky.
To help visitors plan their trips, the organization is promoting a new Bourbon Trail Passport and Field Guide, a 150-page guide to participating distilleries, with cocktail recipes and route suggestions.
In Bardstown, where Heaven Hill has opened its tourist hub, returning travelers will result in significantly more spending at restaurants, shops and motels, said Dixie Hibbs, a former mayor.
The quaint town, about 40 miles southeast of Louisville, is so tied to industry that the smell of locally made bourbon wafts through the downtown area.
“Most people will tell you it’s the smell of money,” Hibbs said.
After years of steady growth, bourbon tourism plunged during the pandemic. Visitors made about 587,000 visits to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour distilleries last year, down 66% from 2019, when stops topped 1.7 million, according to KDA. The Craft Tour features smaller distilleries popping up across Bluegrass State, while the Kentucky Bourbon Trail features the industry’s top producers.
While most distilleries have reopened for tours, some still do not allow visitors to the “frontline” areas where bourbon is produced, Gregory said. For guests allowed into production areas, it is likely that they will be asked to wear a mask for this phase of the tour, he said.
Some distilleries remain closed to visits. That includes industry giant Jim Beam, which is revamping its visitor experience with plans to reopen its flagship Clermont distillation operation in the fall, company spokeswoman Emily Bryson York said.
At Maker’s Mark, the size and number of tours will increase from mid-July at its Loretto distillery, said Rob Samuels, brand general manager.
For visitors who can’t take a tour, Maker’s Mark and other distilleries offer tastings of their products. They can order cocktails or maybe a meal if the distillery has a restaurant. And they can walk around the distillery gardens and shop at the gift shop.
If a larger distillery is booked, visitors can often visit a smaller distillery nearby, Gregory said. Kentucky now has distilleries in 32 of its 120 counties, with more than a dozen more recently announced or under construction, he said.
Like his predecessors, Governor Andy Beshear has become a fixture at events celebrating the growth of the bourbon industry. At the Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience opening Monday, Beshear said the visitor center gives people “another great reason to visit Kentucky and experience the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.”
The new tourist center is three times the size of the old Heaven Hill Visitor Center in Bardstown and is part of a $ 125 million Heaven Hill investment that includes a new barrel warehouse, a line of bottling and equipment upgrades.
Heaven Hill Brands President Max L. Shapira summed up the industry’s relief at seeing tourists return.
“We are extremely happy to welcome fans and visitors to Bourbon Country to see, taste and experience the Native American spirit in a new way,” he said.
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