Whiskey tourism is no longer a niche idea reserved for a zany few. According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, more than 2.1 million people visited one of its members on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail or its craft counterpart in 2022, while the Scotch Whisky Association reports that 2.2 million people visited a Scotch whisky distillery in 2019, the last year that numbers were made available.
Travelers are thirstier than ever, at least when it comes to whiskey experiences — tastings, tours, learning about production and history, nabbing rare bottles — and whiskey companies have realized you don’t need to force them to trek out to a countryside setting, however charming and bucolic their marketing materials will tell you it’s likely to be. Instead, they’re bringing themselves to the masses, setting up shop in downtown locations that people can walk to from their hotel amid a day of sightseeing, no different from strolling to a major city’s contemporary art or history museum.
Buffalo Trace hauls in about 400,000 annual visitors to its home in Frankfort, Ky. Now it’s bringing its coveted releases across the pond to Covent Garden in London to help its throng of enthusiasts the world over capitalize on the bourbon craze somewhere closer to where they are. For those based in the U.K. or continental Europe, it’s easier to take a day trip to London than it is to fly to Kentucky, after all. The distillery announced the new endeavor in September, indicating its storefront would open before the end of the year.
“London is an ideal location for our first brand home outside of the U.S. due to its prominence in the U.K. and accessibility for fans and guests throughout Europe,” says Ed Bell, homeplace director for parent company Sazerac. “It’s also [one of the the top] American whiskey markets outside of the U.S.”
Sazerac isn’t a stranger to the concept of opening up a tourist-friendly experience within a major city. The company launched the Sazerac House in New Orleans in 2019, detailing the city’s drinking history and its own place within it, with interactive exhibits, exclusive on-site bottlings, and a variety of tasting opportunities.
The forthcoming London outpost for Buffalo Trace is different, as it doesn’t have the conceit of serving as a museum enmeshed with local culture. And rather than being in its original home, it’s an offshoot location about 4,000 miles away. In London, the pull of the brand itself will have to suffice to bring people in the door. “Buffalo Trace Distillery London aims to offer a space to learn more about — and hopefully, fall in love with — our bourbons and American whiskeys, whether our guests are already whiskey fans, whiskey curious, or new to American whiskey altogether,” Bell says.
While bourbon is taking root overseas, it’s still right at home in Louisville’s historic Whiskey Row, where scores of bourbon companies were once located amid the industry’s original boom. While there are numerous distilleries operating their full production centers in town — Rabbit Hole, Angel’s Envy, Kentucky Peerless, and Copper & Kings, among them — the projects that best match the idea of whiskey as tourist attraction are those that have standalone facilities removed from their core production sites. These aren’t required locations that would be operating in the presence of tourists or not, but rather add-ons built with the masses in mind, designed to boost the brand, generate revenue, and move bottles and merch.
When Michter’s went to contract on Louisville’s Fort Nelson Building in 2011, it was at first intended to be its main distillery. The extensive renovations required stymied that plan, leading Michter’s to move its full operation to Shively, Ky., while eventually opening the Fort Nelson Distillery as an experiential visitor’s center. “We joke that we were the first to announce and the last to open,” Michter’s Distillery president Joseph Magliocco says of the seven year ordeal.
“Whiskey tourism in Kentucky is definitely on the rise. This creates a critical mass that makes Louisville such a great whiskey destination.”
Michter’s produces a limited amount of whiskey at Fort Nelson. The idea isn’t to meet the distillation needs of a thriving brand, but rather, to serve as its public face. “People can go there for educational tours and learn about the special steps we take to produce Michter’s, and see the legendary still system originally from Michter’s Pennsylvania,” Magliocco says. Coming out of the pandemic, the locale has now increased its opening hours and days to handle the increasing visitor load it’s receiving.
Brown-Forman debuted the Old Forester Distillery in 2018 to tap into the area’s historical connection. “Whiskey Row was the heart of bourbon making,” Campbell Brown, former Old Forester president and current Brown-Forman chairman, told me at the time. “We feel that we can tell a true origin story — the company and the family story.” Even with a 44-foot column still capable of producing 100,000 gallons per year, the distillery is far from sufficient for a brand of its size. Instead, it’s a snazzy showpiece where visitors can watch a barrel be made and walk through a small rickhouse, and — shucks, why not? — bring a bottle or two home with them.
“Whiskey tourism in Kentucky is definitely on the rise,” Magliocco says, noting how Michter’s Fort Nelson has numerous downtown companions. Louisville’s Whiskey Row is no longer a historic namesake but a viable and active hub. “This creates a critical mass that makes Louisville such a great whiskey destination,” Magliocco says.
A great whiskey destination removed from the famed rolling green hillsides and horse pastures with which Kentucky bourbon country is typically associated. Build the downtown whiskey brand home, and the visitors will come.
Scotch has heeded the siren call to the big city, too. Diageo recently poured about $225 million into whisky tourism activities in Scotland, the centerpiece of which was the Johnnie Walker Princes Street visitor center in Edinburgh. The experience includes an array of tours, tastings, and hands-on experiences, along with multiple bars, luring in both Scotch superfans as well as casual passersby heading to or from Edinburgh Castle.
In two years since opening in September 2021, Johnnie Walker Princes Street reports that it has attracted more than 650,000 visitors, said to hail from 130 countries. There isn’t a single “Johnnie Walker Distillery,” although as one of the key whiskies in its blend, and the first to partner with John Walker & Sons, Cardhu is tabbed as “the Speyside home of Johnnie Walker.” Princes Street is therefore a logical, gap-filling extension for such a recognizable brand.
Edinburgh was already home to The Scotch Whisky Experience, a well-regarded tourist attraction that was the cumulative effort of 19 whisky companies representing 90 percent of the Scotch whisky industry. It was far ahead of its time, too, opening its doors in 1988 and now hauling in about 300,000 visitors per year.
“We get a lot of whiskey diehards, along with a mix of people just interested in the history.”
Travelers in Dublin, meanwhile, can head over to the Irish Whiskey Museum. Before the Teeling Whiskey Distillery opened in Dublin in 2015, bringing distillation back to a city that had once been the whiskey capital of the world, the museum got the jump as a tourist magnet. The experience reports it’s on pace to attract nearly 100,000 visitors this year, and has been growing ever since debuting in 2014, excluding the down years of the pandemic. “Because whiskey is so big in Ireland, visitors feel it’s a must-do when visiting the country,” says Niamh McDonnell, the marketing manager for EI Travel Group, which operates the museum.
Of course, while the world at large is catching up to downtown drinks tourism, it’s long been front and center in Dublin. Jameson Distillery Bow Street opened in 1997 in its former distillery, perhaps launching the concept of a branded whiskey experience removed from a functioning place of production. Meanwhile, the Guinness Storehouse opened in 2000 and has pulled in more than 23 million visitors since.
In such a spirituous town, a whiskey museum was always going to fit right in. “We get a lot of whiskey diehards, along with a mix of people just interested in the history,” McDonnell says. “We also have a lot of visitors who come to the museum who aren’t fans of whiskey, but by the end of the tour, they are converted.”
Go where your customers are, rather than making them come to you. It’s a business truism at least as old as the water of life, uisce beatha, itself.
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