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TRENDSPOTTING

More travelers getting in the spirit with distillery tours

The number of distilleries in the United States has grown in the last 15 years from about 50 to more than 2,300. And while they hit a bump in the pandemic, they’ve come roaring back.

St. Augustine Distillery in Florida.Brady Bigalke

NASHVILLE — The smell of apple pie wafted from the door of one of the newest businesses in this city’s trendy Germantown neighborhood.

It’s not a bakery. It’s a craft distillery. And it was cooking up a batch of apple pie moonshine whiskey.

The Far Better Distillery, which opened in April, joins a fast-growing number of small distilleries nationwide catering to locals and visitors increasingly drawn to whiskeys and other hard liquors — bourbon, especially — in the way they previously sought out wineries and microbreweries.

“Micro distilleries are kind of a thing now,” said TJ Fritz, chief distiller at Far Better, which he founded with his daughter Rebecca. He was standing in a small room where bottles were being filled and labels attached; on the wall hung containers of elderberries, rose hips, and other ingredients used to infuse them with distinctive flavors. “People really like seeing what the process is.”

The number of distilleries in the United States has grown in the last 15 years from about 50 to more than 2,300, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. And while they hit a bump in the pandemic, which largely shut down the tasting rooms where small distilleries sell as much as half of their output, they’ve come roaring back.

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“Craft spirits are the third and final leg in what we often talk about as the craft alcohol revolution: first, boutique wineries in the 1970s and1980s, then craft beer in the 1990s to 2000s, and now craft spirits,” said Philip McDaniel, CEO of the St. Augustine Distillery in Florida and chair of the Distilled Spirits Council’s Craft Advisory Council.

“People in many cases have been in wineries and met the wine makers. The same thing with craft beer. And now spirits are having their turn,” said McDaniel, a transplanted New Englander from Worcester whose distillery in a repurposed 1917 ice house attracts 175,000 visitors annually.

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Distilleries also provide a way to sample regional flavors in the same way travelers seek out local food, distillers say.

“It’s getting back to this notion that you can find something new that’s special to a particular place,” said Sonat Birnecker Hart, co-owner and president of the KOVAL Distillery in Chicago.

KOVAL Distillery in Chicago.Handout

“People are really looking for experiences like this,” said Hart. “When they’re traveling, they want to go places and try things, whether it’s farm-to-table food or locally distilled craft spirits.” And the tastes they’ll find are different because of variations in temperature, humidity, and soil, which affect the grains distillers use, McDaniel said.

This has now inspired more than 30 “distillery trails” across the country, often collaborations among distilleries and tourism agencies. The Distilled Spirits Council this month announced a website, destinationdistillery.com, to help tourists find distilleries and distillery trails.

“It’s just another way to explore the flavors of a region and get to know the makers,” said Cara Webster, president of the Whiskey Rebellion Trail, which connects craft distilleries in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, and Baltimore, and places in between.

At least one working craft distillery in a picturesque town even has its own five-room inn for guests to stay: Marble Distilling Co. in Carbondale, Colo.

Immersing themselves in the process “gives people a connection to their spirits,” said Connie Baker, Marble’s CEO and head distiller. “It’s kind of like the know-your-farmer, know-your-food movement.”

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She uses Colorado-grown, high-elevation grains, “and they taste different,” Baker said. Her products “are completely different than Kentucky whiskeys and bourbons.”

People do seem to want to sample these things. High-end bourbon is particularly booming, especially among millennials, according to the market research division of the online alcohol retailer Drizly.

Webster credits, in part, isolation at the peak of COVID. “People had time on their hands and they got creative and realized that they could make beautiful craft cocktails at home,” she said. Now they want to taste them at the source, where they can be more social.

Far Better in Nashville.Handout

In Far Better’s tasting room, some women having a bachelorette party — perhaps inevitably, given how Nashville has become a leading destination for them — were sipping cocktails while they took a painting lesson. KOVAL, which is near Wrigley Field, just completed a $1.5 million renovation that includes a classroom for yoga and other activities and recently hosted a chess tournament. Some craft distilleries invite their customers to help distill, blend, and bottle the merchandise, or barrel it to age at home.

Many of these new distilleries, Hart said, “are about community and coming together.”

But the principal activities are tours, which are usually free, and tastings.

“When people visit us, I’m there to interact with customers and to talk as detailed as they want about our process,” said Ron Gomes Jr., co-owner of Painted Stave Distilling, which occupies a onetime movie theater in Smyrna, Del.

He called it a destination distillery. “We have people coming down from Massachusetts, people coming out from California,” said Gomes, who is himself a Plymouth native.

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How dependent small craft distilleries are on visitor business is evident from one of Far Better’s best ideas: packaging its wares (including that apple pie moonshine) in 100-milliliter bottles that are exactly the size allowed in carry-on bags on airplanes.

Several craft distilleries, including KOVAL, Marble, and Painted Stave are women- and Black-owned at a time when some travelers are endeavoring to seek out and support such businesses. Other women-owned examples include Freeland Spirits in Portland, Ore., and Montanya Distillers in Crested Butte, Colo. Brough Brothers, in Louisville, is the first Black-owned bourbon distiller in Kentucky.

“When you look at cultural influences, overwhelmingly you have the Caucasian population generating the vast amount of spirits,” said Gomes, who is Cape Verdean. “But the consumer base is quite diverse. There’s a lot of room for even more defined cultural influences in the marketplace.”

Even celebrities are getting into the act. “Vampire Diaries” stars Ian Somerhalder and Paul Wesley cofounded Brother’s Bond Bourbon, the country music duo Florida Georgia Line released Old Camp peach pecan whiskey and Kate Hudson started King St. Vodka.

McDaniel said he expects only more growth, including from microbreweries now adding distilling to their businesses.

“You have people who used to make beer now saying, ‘I’ve done that. Let me see what I can do in the spirits category,’ " he said.


Jon Marcus can be reached at jonmarcusboston@gmail.com.