Tourists drawn to distilleries, breweries

By Jessie Halladay, USA TODAY – March 19, 2012 – Link to Story

One of Crill Brown’s guilty pleasures is to sit down to relax with a glass of bourbon on the rocks. Generally he prefers Maker’s Mark.

So, when Brown and his wife, Judi, were planning a trip to Florida to see their grandchildren, the couple from St. Louis said they decided to take a few days and tour Kentucky’s bourbon country — stopping in seven bourbon distilleries in the heart of the Bluegrass State.

“I’m terribly glad we came,” Crill Brown says as he sips Woodford Reserve from a shot glass after taking his final tour on the Bourbon Trail. “I learned a lot here that I’d never heard before.”

Each year, thousands of tourists are coming to Kentucky distilleries. Last year, the six distilleries that make up Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail recorded more than 450,000 visits. And the Kentucky Distillers’ Association reports visits have increased by about 10% to 12% annually.

Kentucky is one of a growing number of states seeing more and more visitors coming to tour distilleries, vineyards and breweries. While tours to California wine country have long been popular, now businesses from Oregon to Virginia are capitalizing on growing alcohol industries to cash in on tourism dollars.

Online travel company Viator, which provides access to more than 9,000 tours and activities, has seen a 50% increase in wine tour sales in the past year. And Kelly Gillease, vice president of marketing for Viator, says beer tour options, particularly craft beer, are becoming more abundant as well.

“People are looking for more unique cultural experiences,” Gillease says. “Eating the food and drinking what people drink is a great way to do that.”

Suzanne Burr, a travel consult with Food and Wine Trails, says her business has been booming in the past two years as more people look to visit wineries.

“Food and wine is one of the No. 1 interests all over the world, and people want to incorporate that in their vacations,” Burr says.

In June 2010, tourism officials in Bend, Ore., launched the Bend Ale Trail, hoping to connect the breweries of the growing craft beer industry in the area. Seven brewers, all within walking distance of one another, form the trail.

Having the trail in place has been a huge boost to the success of Boneyard Beer, a brewery of only 10 employees that launched at the same time the trail began, says Melodee Story, party planner for Boneyard. In the two years it has been open, the brewery has produced 12 different beers available in draft only.

Because of the Bend Ale Trail, Story says, Boneyard Beer is getting recognition from bar owners and customers well beyond what the brewery could have expected.

“It has been huge exposure,” Story says. “It’s given us this jump start, particularly in Oregon.”

That benefit extends beyond the individual breweries, Story says.

“Our town has been hit pretty hard by the economy,” she says. “This Bend Ale Trail is great because it’s creating jobs.”

That ripple effect is being seen in several places.

In an economic study released in Virginia in February, officials reported that the wine industry in that state contributes about $747 million annually to the economy —an increase of 106% from 2005. “The wine industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the state,” says Todd Haymore, Virginia’s agriculture secretary. As production grows, going from 130 wineries to 193 in five years, tourism grows as well.

Luca Paschina, general manager and winemaker at Barboursville Vineyards, says tourism is an absolutely essential part of the vineyard’s success. Located close to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and popular outdoor locations, Barboursville is situated well to host tours and wine tastings.

Over the years, Paschina says, the vineyard has had to increase staff, add parking and create a visitors center to accommodate increasing numbers of visitors.

Wines coupled with a “quaint” and “tranquil” setting boost the appeal of the vineyard to tourists, who can also eat in the restaurant at the facility or spend the night in a remodeled farm house, Paschina says.

“If we were not to have the tourism, our business model would be at risk,” he says. “We’re offering an experience, not just a glass of wine.”

Dodie Stephens of the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau in North Carolina says tourists have long come to Asheville for a tour of the Biltmore estate or hikes through the Blue Ridge Mountains, but since 1994, craft beer breweries — and now even a moonshine distillery — have developed, creating new destinations for tourists.

“If it’s homegrown or homemade or home brewed, Asheville’s doing it,” Stephens says. “They offer visitors an array of experiences.”

It was the experience that Spencer and Bonnie Tipton of Winthrop Harbor, Ill., wanted when they traveled to Kentucky to visit the Woodford Reserve bourbon distillery. Stopping while traveling home from Tennessee, the couple say they often look for unique tours in places they travel. They have toured a vanilla farm in Hawaii and a cigar factory on a Caribbean island vacation.

“When you go on a tour, you get to experience everything — the sights and the smell,” says Bonnie Tipton, adding that she could have stayed hours in the distillery’s fermentation room because of the pleasant aroma. “You’re using all your senses when you go there.”

Contributing: Halladay also reports for The Courier-Journal in Louisville