When distilleries reopen to the public, will ‘Bourbonism’ return?

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - For companies and communities depending on “bourbonism,” the tourism generated by bourbon, this spring has been the driest of times.

Bourbon tourism set new records for visits to state distilleries in 2019, nearing the two million mark. According to industry estimates, these visitors each spent $400 to $1200 while they were here.

“That's not all money spent at the distillery,” said Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association, “that's also money spent on accommodations and food and things like that.”

But with tour and event sizes mandated to groups of 10 or less, bourbonism during a pandemic will be significantly different when it returns on June 8 after more than a two month shutdown. Distillers like Brown-Forman are advising visitors to check each location in advance as not all locations will reopen in the same way or at the same rate.

Also, no one is sure what the crowds will look like when the doors finally open. Social distancing of six feet will be required and buildings will be limited to a third of capacity. Before COVID-19, some distilleries ran tours of 30 to 40 people every 15 minutes.

“It's not bad, just different,” said Chasta McIntyre, Mint Julep Tours director of business development.

Before COVID-19, 70 percent of the company’s tours were custom designed for private groups seeking a bourbon experience.

“We’re really looking forward to being able to facilitate those experiences once again coming out of COVID-19,” McIntyre said, “because I know the distilleries are going to have smaller group sizes with different parameters opening back up.”

There is reason for hope. As tourists might shy away from flying to far away destinations, tourism officials believe a road trip to Bourbon Country might be just the escape they will be looking for.