The nation’s premier bourbon trail, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® was officially born in 1999. The start of the roaring 2020s were supposed to be an epic year as the Trail was to celebrate its 21st birthday. The Kentucky Distillers’ Association and its Kentucky Bourbon Trail and Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour members were prepped to throw a year’s worth of Bourbon fetes. Participating distilleries across the Bluegrass were to host a variety of pop-ups, parties, and events to mark the milestone and then that all changed ‘Because of Covid’. The entire hospitality industry was decimated in 2020 and visitor numbers on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail were no exception.
For the first time in its 21-year history, total attendance at Kentucky Bourbon Trail distilleries fell sharply in 2020 amidst the global pandemic that has pummeled the tourism and hospitality industries. If 2019 was any indication the record 1,719,821 million stops could have been topped by breaking the 2 million mark in 2020. Unfortunately, because of Covid-19 visitors on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail nose-dived 66% to a mere 587,307 tours.
Distillery tours, gift shops, bars and restaurants, the lifeblood for many of the craft distilleries, closed under government orders from March through June. Several distilleries are still closed for tours, while others have reopened, closed, then reopened under significantly reduced capacities as travel restrictions and public hesitation slows recovery efforts.
“Last year was devastating for tourism and experts are skeptical on consumer confidence until 2022 at the soonest,” said Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA) President Eric Gregory. “Also, many of the main Bourbon tourism drivers – sports, concerts, fairs and festivals, conferences and other events – were canceled last year and probably won’t fully return anytime soon.” And many of these in-person events like Bourbon and Beyond are once again cancelled for 2021 as the nation continues to struggle with the pandemic.
Kentucky Distillers Looking to Legislators for Help in Recovery
Kentucky and the entire nation’s alcohol beverage laws are complicated. There are many standards set at the federal level while there are many standards set at the state and local level. Trying to get your arms wrapped around all the laws and how they vary between beer, wine and spirits is like trying to sip soup with a butter knife. Take a look at our recent 50 state survey results on distilling laws by state and you’ll see there are wide discrepancies on a number of topics.
Gregory said the KDA and its 42 members are advocating legislation in the General Assembly that would further modernize Bourbon tourism laws and help distillers and hospitality partners pull through. “We’re not asking for a handout,” Gregory said. “We just need the tools to endure and outlast this crisis.”
Here are three key pieces of legislation on the Associations priority list for 2021.
Direct to Consumer – DTC Shipping
HB 415 – This legislation, sponsored by Rep. Adam Koenig, updates last year’s historic direct-to-consumer bill that is now a national model for Bourbon and spirits shipping. The bill will allow the use of third-party fulfillment centers to process orders and let Kentucky distilleries collect and remit wholesale and excise taxes on souvenir bottles purchased in their visitor centers. Streamlining these tax collections will provide parity with microbreweries who obtained this option in 2018. HB 415 is awaiting a vote on the House floor.
I can tell you from surveying distillers across the country this is by far the number one issue on distillers minds. If visits to the distiller stay in a slump for 2021, which all indications are they will, the ability to ship spirits directly to a consumer is on top of the priority list. This is especially important for the craft distilleries that often have distribution limited to a handful of surrounding states. Opening up their product to additional states could have a huge impact on making up for lost tourism dollars.
Cocktails to Go – CTG
SB 67 – Sponsored by Sen. John Schickel, this bill will make permanent “take home cocktails” that has proven popular during the pandemic as restaurants struggle to stay afloat. Currently, this legislation would only allow restaurants to offer take home cocktails, yet several hospitality and tourism groups are advocating the inclusion of bars, wineries, breweries and distillers. This bill is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.
If there is anything we’ve learned in 2020 it’s that consumers still have a thirst for spirits. People want to experiment further with premium spirits and premium experiences like tasting carry-out cocktails in their home environment.
Private Barrel Select Sales from Restaurants & Hotels
SB 108 – This measure would allow restaurants and hotels with a by-the-drink alcohol license to sell increasingly popular private barrel selection bottles to consumers. The KDA and others have asked sponsor Sen. Paul Hornback to also allow distillery visitor centers to sell these unique brand expressions, providing parity with beer, wine and other retail licensees. SB 108 is awaiting action in the Senate Licensing & Occupations Committee.
This gets back to the hurt on the hospitality industry. As travel has been abruptly curtailed and at many times halted the ability to offer customers a premium bottle of bourbon will help to offset other lost revenue.
“These are important measures that will give our distilleries a much-needed boost, which in turn will benefit local communities and their hotel, restaurant and hospitality industries,” Gregory said. “We need to get back on a path to recovery and our Kentucky Bourbon Trail distilleries will play a big part in that movement.”
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Kentucky Bourbon Tourism Leads State and Local Tourism Efforts – The Bourbon Lifestyle
The KDA’s Kentucky Bourbon Trail® and Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour® experiences are an integral part of local and state tourism efforts. The Trails attendance grew a phenomenal 315 percent from 2009 through 2019, with more than 70 percent of visitors coming from outside Kentucky. Combined attendance had topped one million visits each year since 2016 until last year. Total attendance had never dropped in the tour’s 21-year history.
KDA research shows Bourbon tourists trend younger, spend between $400 and $1,200 on their trip, travel in large groups and stay longer than the average visitor to Kentucky. Nearly half have household incomes over $100,000.
Along the way, KBT® tourism spurred Bourbon-themed hotels, restaurants, bars, tour companies, fairs and festivals, concerts, relay races, merchandise and more. “Bourbon has become not just a drink, but a culture, a lifestyle and a main economic and tourism driver,” Gregory said. “All that suffered under COVID.”
When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Hand Sanitizer
Still, Gregory said he was immensely proud how KDA members banded together to produce more than 520,000 gallons of hand sanitizer during the tourism shutdown, much of which was donated to hospitals, first responders, nursing homes and other critical care. Looking for hand sanitizer? Check out our complete list of distillers making hand-sanitizer across the country. Some distillers have since cut back on hand-sanitizer production but they were there on the spot when the nation so desperately needed it.
“Even with the closures and challenges we faced in 2020, our members stepped up and made a difference in their communities by producing hand sanitizer and keeping workers employed to produce Kentucky’s signature spirit,” Gregory said.
“To carefully and responsibly welcome nearly 600,000 visitors at the same time is an achievement in itself. We look forward to working with the Kentucky General Assembly on legislation to safely attract visitors back to our Commonwealth and strengthen our place as the one, true and authentic home for Bourbon.”
Mask up, drink up. Repeat. Cheers.