A Future Day on the Trail – As Covid-19 Lockdowns Ease What Does a Distillery Tour Look Like

As lockdowns slowly start to ease across the country distilleries are starting to cautiously reopen to the public for bottle sales, tours and tastings.

Early on during this horrific Covid-19 pandemic distilleries were declared to be an “Essential Business” and were allowed to stay open. It certainly was not business as usual but distilling operations and curb-side to go orders were generally allowed. Even New York state which was particularly hard hit by the virus declared distilleries and retail liquor stores essential businesses.

The New York State Liquor Store Association shared the summary below that includes distilleries as essential businesses. This particular Executive Order signed by Gov. Cuomo defined Essential Business for New York but most states used similar language. The only exception was Pennsylvania’s state run liquor stores which Gov. Tom Wolf chose to close but allowed distilleries and restaurants to continue to sell spirits and cocktails direct to consumers.

Liquor Stores Deemed Essential Business; Can Remain Open – Exec. Order 202

Liquor stores have been deemed an essential business and may remain open. You do not need to reduce your workforce. Liquor stores and the 3-tier system are considered essential (see highlights below), we do not have to reduce our workforce, and we can remain open. Here are the key portions that affect distillery owners.

    1. Essential manufacturing including
      • food processing, including all foods and beverages
    2. Essential retail including
      • grocery stores including all food and beverage stores
      • restaurants/bars (but only for take-out/delivery)

Distilleries Start to Reopen to the Public as States Ease Lockdowns

Distilleries across the country have started to reopen their operations to the public as state guidelines allow. The rules and dates vary widely by state but generally speaking distillery tours and guests in retail areas have limited capacity from 25% to 50% in this first phase. Employees are required to wear masks to protect themselves and guests. The rules around gloves for employees varies as does the rules for what guests are required to do. Most will be taking the temperature of their employees before they start their shift. Guests are encouraged to wear masks but are generally not required. All states require social distancing for employees and guests. The only exception to social distancing is for family members that live together.

A Reopening Conversation with Six Distillers

Distillery Trail reached out to distillers from across the country including hotspots like New York City, the newest member of the world famous Kentucky Bourbon Trail and a distiller that has now recovered from the virus.

There were four things that came up consistently including social distancing, masks, gloves and daily temperature checks. The social distancing applies across the board for employees and guest while masks, gloves and infrared scanning of temperatures were only required on the employee side. Unfortunately it appears this will be the new norm for some time to come.

The Best Visualization of ‘Social Distancing’ = 2 Bourbon Barrels

When it comes to social distancing we came across this easy to understand Infographic from the folks at Kentucky Tourism. Their full Infographic of how to stay six feet apart includes six Lincoln top hats, three dulcimers, one thoroughbred or our favorite and the one that is easiest for spirits fans to understand two bourbon barrels. Below is an excerpt but you can see the full Kentucky Tourism Infographic here.

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Widow Jane Distillery, Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York
Head Distiller & GM Lisa Wicker

Lisa Wicker is well known in distilling circles. She splits her time between her hometown in Bardstown, Kentucky and her adopted home town of Brooklyn. As everyone knows New York City has been a hotspot and Wicker can vouch for that as she has personally recovered from the Coronavirus.

Widow Jane Distillery is located in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. Wicker explained that getting to the distillery is a little tricky as there is no public transit that takes you to the distillery. This makes it difficult for employees to get to the distillery on a good day let alone during the pandemic. Unlike many distilleries they decided not to make hand sanitizer and instead chose to suspend operations in mid-March including the bar and all production.

During the shutdown period Wicker came down with Covid symptoms, got tested and discovered she had the disease. She is now fully recovered and ready to return to the city to get back work around June 8.

“When we restart we’ll have a staggered schedule so we only have 2-3 people in the distillery at a time so we’ll have plenty of distance between people,” said Wicker. “We have some family members that work together at the distillery. Since they are together all the time they can work together at anytime. Masks will be required and we will distribute washable masks to all employees. Office staff will work from home. Unfortunately the bar and tours will not restart until we get guidance from the city and state.”

Though sales at their own Botanica bar and overall on-premise sales have dried up, off-premise sales at liquor stores have remained strong and steady. There is no timeline yet for when the Widow Jane bar or distillery tours will restart.

Wilderness Trail Distillery, Danville, Kentucky
Co-Founder & Distiller Shane Baker

The folks at Wilderness Trail Distillery are interesting. As Co-Founder and Distiller Shane Baker puts it, “We’re a complicated beast. We’ve got a little bit more, have a different structure than most distilleries. We are usually an outlier.”

Before Baker and his business partner Dr. Pat Heist started their own distillery they founded Ferm Solutions a company that provides support not only to distilleries but to the fuel ethanol industry. They are first and foremost scientists and have a deep understanding of yeast and bacteria. And unlike most distillers these days that use a sour mash process Wilderness Trail uses a sweet mash process that requires a complete steam cleaning of the distillation equipment before the next batch gets started. This is basically to point out that the folks at Wilderness Trail Distillery were neat freaks before this pandemic began and they have continued that emphasis on cleanliness throughout the pandemic.

Overall, operations have not slowed down since this pandemic began. They’ve continued to run production seven days a week with the addition of making 2,000 to 2,500 gallons of hand sanitizer per week for local first responders.

The biggest difference they’ve seen just like most distilleries is their tourism has ceased. They had high hopes for tourism in 2020 as they have officially joined the world famous Kentucky Bourbon Trail. When they moved up from the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour to the full Kentucky Bourbon Trail they budgeted for a lot more guests as they would be included in a lot more promotions. For now, that additional traffic isn’t happening but Baker expects it to be there as the nation opens up.

When I initially spoke with Baker he talked about a multi-step opening process that would allow guests to do certain things based on certain dates. To help keep things simple for guests and employees they made the decision to delay their opening until they had all the rules for all guests consistent across the board. This means no conversations with guests that are like, “Well we can’t do that today but we can do it starting next Monday.”

Wilderness Trail has been working as an essential business all along. Baker said, “We’ve kept all our employees. They may be doing different jobs but they are still working. Our tour staff has moved into other operations like the bottling line, taking inventory, installing sneeze guards, whatever we can do to keep everyone working.” He added, “Employees have generally been going from home to work and back and that’s about it.”

They are taking the temperature of all employees before they clock in. They use a green, yellow or red scale. Green means they go to work, yellow means a second round of temperature testing perhaps they just had a cup of coffee or their temperature was temporarily elevated and red means go home. Masks are required for all employees that are within six feet of each other but are optional if they are apart perhaps checking barrels in a warehouse.

As tours restart they’ll follow all state guidelines. If an employee is part of a tour or any customer facing operation they will be required to wear a mask. Visitors won’t be required to wear a mask but they are recommended. If a guest does not have a mask they will be offered a mask for free.

Visitor Center Layout Changes to Concert Style Touchless Experience

To prepare for the return of guests they’ve reorganized their retail operation to minimize touching. Baker explained, “We’ve rearranged the visitor center to do more of a contactless experience in the gift shop switching to kind of a concert style model with shirts and things on the wall and then a customer gives us the shirt size we’ll pull it, put it in a bag and nobody touches anything.”

“We just want to be very careful because we’ve been operating all along as an essential business so we just want to be really careful. All of our employees have been following the rules and are super healthy. They understand how that can impact their job and they’ve been fully employed making hand sanitizer.

“I feel really good about where we are going and the opening. We’ve retained all of our employees. We integrated all of our staff from sales, visitor center staff, tourism into our operation. They’ve been doing a lot of the preparation like installing the sneeze guards, working on the bottling line, doing inventory in the warehouse and more importantly we’ve kept them employed.

“We are planning on a June 8 opening for our retail to make sure all the guidelines are worked out and we are in full compliance. We are very optimistic about this next year and right now we are blessed to be in better shape than a lot out there.”

And for Wilderness Trail bourbon fans you can expect the release of their first six year old bourbon on the day that the distillery reopens to the public. If you start forming a line now, please remain two barrels apart.

Hard Truth Distilling, Nashville, Indiana
Co-Founder & Executive Chairman Jeff McCabe

In the entertainment world Hard Truth Distilling and its parent company BWQOHT would be considered a triple threat. They operate Big Woods restaurants, Quaff ON! Brewing Co. and most recently Hard Truth Distilling Co. The business started out as a brewpub just over 10 years ago and has since built restaurants in multiple locations around Indiana and became the state’s largest craft spirits distillery in 2018. They now operate eight restaurants, a brewery and a distillery and employ more than 300 people.

Co-Founder Jeff McCabe was recently selected to serve on the “Indiana Destination Recovery Council IDRC” by Lt. Governor Suzanne Crouch. The advisory group consists of leaders from around Indiana that will consider traditional as well as creative ways to assist the leisure and travel related industry with COVID-19 recovery efforts.

McCabe and his team created this simple to understand one-pager to outline the rules for employees and guests. This simple to read and understand guide should make for a much better experience for both employees and guests.

Big Woods Craft Food, Beer and Spirits

To ensure the health and safety of everyone in our Buildings, we are taking the following steps to provide a safe & inviting environment.

  1. Temperature checks of all employees as they report to work. Employees with a fever will not be allowed to work.
  2. Hand sanitizer is provided to all employees and throughout the dining room for all guests.
  3. Masks are provided to all employees and their use is required during their shift. Masks are provided upon request for our guests.
  4. Sanitizing touch points and restrooms every 30 minutes.
  5. Saniziting pens, condiments, and other high-touch items after each use.
  6. Required glove usage for key employees. Gloves are provided upon request for our guests.
  7. All employees are required to retrain in safety, sanitation, and disease prevention each quarter.
  8. Party size is limited to 6 guests per table. Tables are spaced to meet social distancing requirements. (Current capacity is limited to 50% in Indiana. This includes indoor and outdoor seating.)
  9. Internal waiting areas have been reduced to comply with social distancing.
  10. Seating or congregating around the bar top is not permitted by the State of Indiana. Walk up carry-out service is available at the bar.
  11. We ask that all guests follow CDC guidelines and refrain from dining-in if you are experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19

Hard Truth Distilling - Big Woods Craft Food, Beer & Spirits - Guest & Employee Health Safety Guide
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As of May 22 all Big Woods locations have opened with 50% capacity inside and out with the exception of the downtown Indianapolis (Marion County) location. As one of the states hotspots Indy restaurants are restricted to outdoor seating only with a maximum capacity of 50%. Indy is expected to expand to indoor seating as of June 1. The bars are open to make cocktails but only bar staff is allowed at the bar.

Let’s Make ‘Doing the Right Thing, the Easy Thing’

“We are trying to create awareness for guests via social media before they go out and to be responsible for themselves,” said McCabe. “On the property we are trying to make ‘doing the right thing’ the easy thing. As guests go into a building they don’t intersect with people going out of the building. We’re doing anything we can do to eliminate people’s exposure and risk. Guests will come in through the main door and then exist through a door onto the deck so they don’t cross.”

When things first started to close down they did have to lay some people off but as things have reopened McCabe said, “We’ve hired everybody back that will come back and we are doing interviews for new hires.”

“Most of the customers I talk to understand that this is the right thing to do. Some of them actually thank us for putting in the extra effort. We are really trying to make the most of this in terms of doing the right thing and have fun with it. And the big thing is we want to make sure our customers and employees are safe when they visit places like ours.

“For space outside, we lowered the heaters by 2′ so customers could sit out on the deck even if the weather is a bit cold. We try to look at what really makes sense from a social distancing point of view and not simply follow the 50% rule.”

Hard Truth Distilling is Now Open for Tour & Tastings

Distillery tours have now resumed as of May 22. “We’ve limited the size of tours and are encouraging guests to wear masks,” said McCabe. “Many of our tours are outside. We also brought in food trucks for our guests. They can pick up a picnic basket and sit outside at one of the picnic tables. We have 325 acres here so we can spread people out. We moved the picnic tables around to some beautiful spots in the woods to keep people apart.”

“It’s a great time to be rethinking the way you do things!”

Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, Shelbyville, Tennessee
Co-Founder Fawn Weaver

Nearest Green Distillery broke ground on their new distillery in Shelbyville, Tennessee on September 5, 2019. While construction continues on the distillery, the grounds already include space that has been converted into a beautiful visitor center. Currently production and bottling of their Tennessee Whiskey takes place at another location. We caught up with the brands Co-Founder and CEO Fawn Weaver to hear how their whiskey making and tourism has been impacted by this pandemic.

“We’ve continued bottling and shipping the entire time with a scaled down crew with six foot distancing but have never stopped,” said Weaver. “We’ve continued to make our whiskey with our partner who is a stickler for this kind of stuff for safety and prevention. The manner in which they are doing it is one of the best. Unless you are an essential worker for the production process you are not allowed to even visit. Our operations have not been impacted at all from that standpoint.”

Operation Brother’s Keeper – Donating PPE

“In Shelbyville where we have the retail store, where we do tours that were sold out every weekend before this began, has been completely shut down and transformed into Coronavirus protective gear headquarters. That is where we operate what we call ‘Operation Brother’s Keeper’. It’s our internal name for it. We are shipping out to those on the front line N95 masks, we are shipping into communities of African-Americans and Latinos where the rate is dis-proportionally high from Covid-19 deaths so they have a different kind of mask. And then we are shipping another kind of mask to essential workers in our industry. Those are the on-premise that have dine-in or takeout and that kind of thing and the off-premise workers. We are literally sending out three different kinds of masks every day.”

What began as a $40,000 investment to combat price gouging for PPE, has turned into a $500,000 investment with the company donating 100% of the net proceeds from their Q1 2020 sales to the cause. The company is delivering protective gear (N95s, surgical masks, hand sanitizer, cloth masks, etc.) to more than 250,000 people on the front lines, essential workers in the industry and to communities where the COVID-19 death rate of African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately high.

When Will the Nearest Green Distillery Visitor Center Reopen? I am in Zero Rush!

“I have zero intention of opening (Shelbyville) until the cases across the country begin going down. For us, it’s not the majority of people that come in are locals. Nashville is a big tourism town so people that come in, even if they are driving in, they are driving in from other places. Although Tennessee has done a great job of keeping the outbreak from outbreaking too much we are still a magnet of bringing people in from other areas.

“When people call and ask when we are reopening I tell everyone the same thing. I’ve officially told my team this and I’ve told Jack Daniels this because they’ve reached out to me and asked what date we are reopening. I said, ‘Well I plan on waiting until you guys (Jack Daniel Distillery) reopen and then two weeks later I’m going to call you and ask you to tell me how you thought that went and then I’m going to decide based on that answer.’ They are right down the road and they are huge and they have far more team members than we do. I am in zero rush.

“As far as I am concerned if we don’t have cases going down to a place that I am confident that our team members are going to be safe we won’t open. You can’t do a tasting while people are wearing masks so just by that nature you are having people take off masks. And you can’t really do tours unless you’re bringing together groups of people who don’t live in the same home so it’s impossible to social distance in a setting like that. So that means no tours, no tastings so what’s the point.

“That’s where we are at, I’m in zero rush. Our team is really fantastic I told them that we will all make the decision together. It’s going to be whenever they are comfortable in not wearing masks. And that’s not going to be when we have cases in TN. So of all the folks you are talking to whatever is the last date that someone said, we are after that!”

Kings County Distillery, Brooklyn, New York
Co-Founder Colin Spoelman

You can take the boy out of Kentucky but you can’t take the innate desire to create whiskey out of a Kentucky boy. Such is the case with Kings County Distillery Co-Founder Colin Spoelman. Spoelman was raised in Kentucky but now lives in Brooklyn, New York. His Kings County Distillery is New York City’s first and now oldest distillery in the city since Prohibition.

Kings County Distillery is a small craft spirit distillery in the big city. When things started shutting down in NYC the distillery operations shifted to making hand sanitizer to help first responders in their neighborhood.

“It’s a strange time in a lot of different ways but we’re still here. (As an essential business) we’ve stayed open the whole time. We had to close our tasting room. We closed our public facing activity for just a couple of days. Switching to hand sanitizer helped us to keep the production going. We never totally closed down production. We divided people up into specific teams to keep them apart and safe.

“We furloughed our bartenders and tour guides. That was not easy to do. Most of our tour guides have other jobs. The bartenders is a really touchy one. It’s hard to bring people back to make cocktails when they can’t make tips and they can make more money on unemployment. The unemployment rates are pretty friendly.

“We’ve been distilling not quite as frequently as we normally would be. We broke people down into different teams of two people so they could work in zones so there’s not a lot of crossover of staff. We haven’t let any press into the facility. We have at any given moment about 12 people in the distillery in different zones.

“Sanitizer sales have kept us afloat. We’ve been using a ‘pay what you wish’ strategy.”

  • $1 covers the bottle, cap, and corn
  • $5 covers packaging, and all ingredients
  • $10 covers the ingredients, packaging, labor and some overhead
  • $20 covers the product, overhead and the lost revenue from not selling the alcohol as whiskey

“The average sale ends up around $8. The challenge is what happens in four years when we don’t have the whiskey we would have had. But we have four years to try to make up for that.

“Since we are pot still based we ended up doing triple distillation to reach the WHO guidance for hand sanitizer but at the time with NYC being a hotspot and hand sanitizer was in short supply and there was such demand particularly in NYC where our customers are that we decided to step up and cover our costs so it really made sense to do. Every time I open up a bottle of hand sanitizer I smell the whiskey that could have been but it did allow us to help people out.

“Being in NYC city we are probably months away from hosting tours and tastings. If you keep six feet from others and you are a family group then we could do private tours of the distillery. I think there might be a way that we could organize that way. We’re fortunate that we have a bit of outdoor space that we can host guests. And we could serve cocktails outside on the picnic tables. As far as reopening to the public goes there is no date set yet.”

New York State has been very accommodating in terms of being able to deliver spirits and hand sanitizer directly from our distillery as a result of an executive order because of the pandemic. This gives us parity with wineries and breweries. Hopefully this will carry on beyond the pandemic.

As if times weren’t challenging enough when I spoke Spoelman he was working from his NYC home office not just to keep himself safe but to take care of his three month old son. Congrats on the birth of the future Kings County master distiller Colin!

St. Augustine Distillery, St. Augustine, Florida
Co-Founder Philip McDaniel

The state of Kentucky may make a lot of headlines for the number of visitors to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail but there are some outlier distilleries around the country that give the Kentucky Bourbon Trail members a run for their spirits. St. Augustine Distillery is one of those outliers. The distillery is just a few blocks from the white sandy beaches of the Atlantic Ocean.

We reached out to St. Augustine Distillery Co-Founder Philip McDaniel to see how the pandemic has affected Florida distillers.

 We Were on Track to Welcome Our 1 Millionth Visitor

“It’s been a wild ride,” said McDaniel. “Our business is different from a lot of the craft distillers around the country. We are a heavily tour dependent distillery. We’ve been in business for 10 years since we started the company and we opened to the public six years ago in March of this year. The majority of our revenues, 75% comes through our tasting room. We are one of the most visited distilleries in the country. We were on track at the end of this year to serve our millionth customer. We get on average 150,000 to 175,000 guests a year through our facility. In fact we have more TripAdvisor reviews than any of the bourbon distilleries in Kentucky. Except for Old Smoky in Tennessee they may have more. We get more reviews than Makers or Woodford or Jack Daniels. We really are a tourist destination. That’s what built our customer foundation.

“When Covid hit it really put the brakes on all that for us. We had a double hit of more than 50% of our wholesale dried up because all of our restaurants closed. Our retail business went up a little bit but not enough to make up for the hit on premise. And then our retail went to almost zero. It’s been really painful. We had to lay off quite a few people. Needless to say it’s been hard.”

Temporary Changes to Florida Spirits Laws

“The laws in FL say distillers can only sell in face to face (direct to consumers) transactions in our distillery. We cannot sell drinks by the glass. We are limited to selling only six bottle per consumer per year per brand. You can’t ship, you can’t deliver so there are a lot of things that prevent you from generating revenue.

“Three weeks ago the Gov. issued executive order 20-91 that said if you are an essential service or essential business which distilleries are because they make spirits which was identified and as an essential service as was making hand sanitizer because of the safety and PPE world. It said if you guys fall into that category then you should do everything possible to accept orders by phone, accept orders online, and deliver or arrange to deliver your products.”

Anything the state can do to help make these things permanent will help distillers now and for a long time as they try to recover from the pandemic. McDaniel said he’s been working extensively with the folks at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States – DISCUS to help get this temporary law extended and ideally made permanent.

St. Augustine Distillery is Now Open for Tours & Tastings

St. Augustines is now open for tours. McDaniel said it still early but visits are down nearly 90% compared to the same period last year.

“Retail stores in FL are open. We restarted on Monday, May 11. To give you a sense of the difference a year ago on Monday we had 325 visitors in the building and when we opened on the 11th we had 31 people come in so we had 10% of the regular traffic. We are able to handle up to 25% of our normal visitor traffic.”

Please Enjoy a Complimentary Face Mask

The entire staff is wearing face masks and using hand sanitizer constantly throughout the day. You wear it for yourself and you wear it for others out of courtesy to others.”

“Our city was really great. They went out and bought 100,000 masks and sold them at cost to local businesses to help protect employees and visitors at $.40 each. We took advantage of that and bought 10,000 masks. I don’t know if it’s going to take a month or a year or maybe 10 years to go through them, I don’t know. What’s interesting is some of the first people that are out there in the market are not wearing masks, they’re just out there. They are being respectful of spaces. In our distillery we have floor signs all over the place encouraging people to stay six feet apart.

“We really just hope and pray very soon they come up with a vaccine or a way to protect us because until that happens everyone will be very, very cautious about how and where they go.”

We could not have said it better ourselves Philip.

We’ll check back with these distillers in a few months and see how things have changed. Will things go back to the way that they were say a year ago or will we discover a new normal in distillery tourism? My guess is it will land somewhere in between.

Stay safe out there on the Trail. Masks up!

Learn more about Hard Truth Distilling.
Learn more about Kings County Distillery.
Learn more about Nearest Green Distillery.
Learn more about St. Augustine Distillery.
Learn more about Widow Jane Distillery.
Learn more about Wilderness Trail Distillery.

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