Regulations passed after Prohibition were designed to make things difficult for distillers, and distillers agreed to police themselves even more to prevent the circumstances that led to Prohibition to begin with. This is how we ended up with control states and blue laws as well as internal regulations on things like the subject matter and placement of advertisements. Many of the laws vary from state to state, and it has only been since the deregulation climate of the 1980s onward that craft distilleries began to flourish and there were more than eight distilleries in Kentucky and two in Tennessee working to promote the distilling culture in the United States. One of the advancements that came from this particular driver of the bourbon boom is the distillery bar — only legal in the Commonwealth of Kentucky just a few years now, but a staple of the craft distillery movement beyond Kentucky.
Distillery bars give brands an opportunity to build deeper relationships with consumers and fans
“One particular feature of a distillery bar is the bar isn’t so much about making money as it is serving the brand,” says Kings County Distillery founder, Colin Spoelman. “Hopefully it is doing both, but you might be a little more willing to make compromises toward making sure people have a good time and a good association with the visit before turning a profit on a particular sale or customer. Another big point of differentiation is that many distilleries are restricted as to what they can serve — we are only allowed to serve products that are make under New York State Farm Winery, Brewery, or Distillery licenses, which require a high threshold of in-state grown ingredients (ruling out tequila, rum, etc.). So there needs to be some creativity within the bar program. We make margaritas with our white whiskey, for instance, and they are even more popular than our traditional whiskey drinks like Old Fashioned and Manhattans. Most of our whiskeys are designed to be consumed neat, so we do a lot of flights and make sure we have a lot of distillery exclusive products, like wheat whiskey and oat whiskey, to keep the flights interesting for every level of whiskey experience. But just as many guests know nothing about whiskey and just want a nice cocktail in a beautiful setting, and we hope to deliver to that person too. It’s also worth noting that many people who come to a distillery bar or tasting room are doing so to be nice to someone else, who is probably much more enthusiastic about it, so you want to be sure not to alienate that person who may be merely going along with the idea of visiting a distillery, so having beer, wine, and nonalcoholic drinks as well as some snacks are important for the experience.”
The distillery bar is another way to engage patrons in education, not only about your brand, but also about the whiskey category in general.
“The Stillhouse in downtown Traverse City is our opportunity to showcase our products in samples and cocktails and educate our guests,” says Traverse City Whiskey Co. founder Chris Fredrickson. “A lot of people come through that either know a little or a lot about whiskey… so it’s our job, as the whiskey experts, to make sure they leave the bar smarter on the history and process of whiskey distilling than when they arrived. It also allows us to share our companies story and what makes Traverse City Whiskey Co. unique.”
Making a connection with customers is crucial in the whiskey business, and a distillery bar is far more likely to get multiple visits from fans within the community than the distillery.
“Our distillery bar at KO Distilling brings our craft portfolio to life,” says KO Distilling founder Bill Karlson. “It combines the warmth and familiarity of your favorite neighborhood bar, with a little bit of education about KO Distilling and how we make our award winning spirits. Every element of the environment from the barrel staves on the ceiling to the boxing and military memorabilia flanking the fireplace helps create a fun and friendly opportunity to experience our Bare Knuckle whiskeys and Battle Standard 142 gins — all while watching the Distillery operations through the glass wall. We find that guests come in for a taste, then stay for a cocktail and a tour. But what really makes this special is so many of the items weren’t sourced by us, but were given to us by friends and fans.”
“Our J. Carver team is passionate about sharing our craft of grain-to-glass distilling with our guests,” says J. Carver Distillery Founding Partner Gina Holman, who is also a certified Sommelier and mixologist. “We are thrilled when our customers visit our J. Carver Distillery Cocktail Room, production facility, and barrel room to experience our fun and interactive tours to discover the science and art of distilling and the aging process. After the tour, our guests are able to relax in the cocktail room and taste our line of award-winning products and learn from our team how to use J. Carver spirits to make hand-crafted cocktails and enjoy at home with their friends and family.”
Distillery bars are upping the ante
In just a few short years, distillery bars have gone from another part of the distillery tour experience to the training ground for the next generation of Master Mixologists. In Louisville, Kentucky, several distilleries offer training classes to bar professionals taught by others in the industry. Copper & Kings Distillery offers a yearly Ideal Bartender School based on the book by famous Louisville bartender Tom Bullock, an African-American man who wrote what was considered to be the ultimate guide to bartending in 1917.
“Our objective is to celebrate and illuminate the legacy of Tom Bullock by starting a school for bartenders that raises the diversity profile within bartending,” says Copper & Kings founder Joe Heron. “Our aspiration is to provide a fantastic career opportunity for talented, disciplined, creative people regardless of race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. The seed was sown by Mayor Fischer – “Joe, how do we bring more people along for the ride?”
“We tell every student from the moment they interview to the day they complete the course that a bar school will not make anyone a good bartender,” says Eron Plevan, Bar Manager at Copper & Kings ALEX&NDER distillery bar who also oversees the training at the Ideal Bartender School. “My main objective for the course is for the students to grasp that great bartending boils down to four things: be passionate, be an artist, be a scientist, and be disciplined. Passion will fuel what it takes to press through all the unexciting aspects of bartending: long hours, entitled/rude guests, working in a poorly managed bar, burnout. Being an artist keeps a bartender creative and inspired to learn new ideas that impress guests. Guests are wowed by the personal styles and drawn in by the energies of bartenders. An artistic bartender will make a gin and tonic with the same amount of love and detail as an elaborately decorated punch bowl. A bartender who thinks scientifically will understand technique and the fundamentals of a proper shake, infusions, ice formation, texture and flavor balance. Science makes cocktails taste better. A disciplined bartender will own his or her development by reading, asking questions, prioritizing self-care, not abusing alcohol and asking for more responsibility at work. If every student of the Ideal Bartender School leaves understanding and implementing these four principles, he or she will most likely have a long, successful career in the industry.”
“The reason why we wanted to have a great distillery bar was because Michter’s was built by bartenders,” says Michter’s Distillery vice president Matt Magliocco. “If it hadn’t been for these great mixologists around the world who were really rediscovering classic cocktails and wanting to work with high quality ingredients we wouldn’t be where we are today. We wanted to pay homage to the great bartenders we’ve been supported by and to have a place where we could serve drinks befitting of the great cocktails we’ve had around the world.”
The Fort Nelson Fellows Program is a natural extension of that. The Michter’s team recognized that amazing mixology talent from all over the world was constantly in Louisville for a myriad of reasons, but that there wasn’t really a consistent platform for them to impart their wisdom on the local talent.
“What’s really important to us is to be an asset to the bar community in Kentuckiana,” says Magliocco. “We’re not a ‘typical bar’ but we really wanted to be this great platform for education and celebration of spirits culture. We wanted to bring in really accomplished professionals from the mixology world, both local and from around the world, to share their experiences with us and with our team. We welcome members of the bar community to have these professionals give a seminar to talk about their bar programs and how they got to where they are so there’s a dialogue. It has been really beneficial for the professionals and the local bartenders both.”
So far there have been visiting professionals from Sweden, Australia, and Singapore. But what’s even more noteworthy is that Cocktail Historian David Wondrich designed the bar menu for The Bar at Fort Nelson.
“Dave Wondrich is someone who we have always admired,” says Magliocco. “He’s the epitome of cocktail historians – he knows more about the history of cocktails than anyone on the planet. We were thinking to ourselves who would be the perfect person to ground our cocktails in the proper historic context, so we approached Dave and talked to him about our vision. It was an absolute thrill to us that he was willing to work with us to tie our cocktails into our historic context. Working with him has been an absolute dream. The process was really interactive. We told him what we were aspiring to — drinks that taste great that reflect classic American mixology — but Dave essentially said I’ve got it, leave it with me. He came back with quite a remarkable list of classic historic American cocktails complete with context for each. We reviewed all the drinks and whittled down the list, and there may be new cocktails added in the future.”
Why the year of the distillery bar matters
It’s no longer enough to offer a tour or a few different tours. Whiskey fans want multiple ways to interact with their favorite brands, and whiskey bars are a great way for them to bring their non-whiskey-fan friends along for the ride. It can be both a gateway for a brand to attract new fans as well as a hangout for loyal fans who have already done the tour a dozen times. Distillery bars can be a place for brand education as well as industry education, and we are just beginning to see what the humble distillery bar can really do.
“A distillery bar should be friendly and warm, educational but not pretentious, with whiskeys and cocktails that are well-made but not esoteric or too fussy,” says Spoelman. “And you want to keep a staff that is knowledgeable about your whiskeys, which can be one of the biggest challenges. Whiskey is not something people teach in school, so most people are self-educated and as such it can be hard to find people who live whiskey and want to understand everything about it but also believe in your brand and want to support it, all while working in a service environment. So it’s an important consideration that a bar is a place, but it’s also people.”
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl