Coronavirus slows bourbon tourism in Kentucky

·3 min read

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Bourbon tourism in Kentucky slowed to a trickle last year as the coronavirus pandemic led to the first drop-off in visitors in more than two decades.

Total attendance at Kentucky Bourbon Trail distilleries plummeted in 2020 amid pandemic-related restrictions, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association said Tuesday.

Visitors took a total of 587,307 tours last year at distilleries located along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and included in the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, down 66% from 2019 when stops topped 1.7 million, KDA said.

Kentucky Bourbon Trail attendance surged by 315% from 2009 through 2019, with more than 70% of visitors coming from outside the state, the trade group said. Until the pandemic hit, total attendance had never dropped in the tour’s 21-year history.

“Bourbon has become not just a drink, but a culture, a lifestyle and a main economic and tourism driver,” said Kentucky Distillers’ Association President Eric Gregory. “All that suffered under COVID.”

Bourbon is an $8.6 billion industry in Kentucky, where 95% of the world's bourbon supply is crafted, according to the association. Luring tourists to the places where bourbon is made has also become big business in the Bluegrass State.

Distillery tours in Kentucky closed under government orders from March through June, Gregory said. Several distilleries are still closed for tours, while others reopened with sharply reduced capacity, he said. Being able to “carefully and responsibly” welcome nearly 600,000 visitors last year was in itself an achievement, he said.

“Last year was devastating for tourism and experts are skeptical on consumer confidence until 2022 at the soonest,” Gregory said. “Also, many of the main bourbon tourism drivers – sports, concerts, fairs and festivals, conferences and other events – were cancelled last year and probably won’t fully return anytime soon.”

In 2019, tourists made 1.3 million visits along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which includes Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve and other venerable distilleries, while the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour hosted more than 440,000 visits, the association said. The craft tour showcases up-and-coming micro-distilleries.

Bourbon tourists tend to be younger, spend between $400 and $1,200 on their trip and stay longer than the average visitor to Kentucky, the trade group said.

During the tourism shutdown, the association said, its member distilleries banded together to produce more than 520,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, much of which was donated to hospitals, first responders and nursing homes, Gregory said.

Meanwhile, the Kentucky Distillers' Association and its 42 members are pushing for legislation to further modernize the state's bourbon tourism laws to help distillers and its hospitality partners pull through the COVID-19 crisis.

“We just need the tools to endure and outlast this crisis,” Gregory said.

One bill pending in Kentucky's legislature would allow distilleries to use third-party fulfilment centres to process direct-shipment orders to consumers.

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Find AP’s full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.

Bruce Schreiner, The Associated Press