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For the first time in its 21-year history, total attendance at Kentucky Bourbon Trail® distilleries fell sharply in 2020 amidst the global pandemic that has pummeled the state tourism and hospitality industries, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association announced.
Visitors took a total of 587,307 tours at Kentucky Bourbon Trail® and Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour® distilleries last year, compared to a record 1,719,821 million stops in 2019 – a staggering 66 percent decrease.
Distillery tours, gift shops, bars and restaurants closed under government orders from March through June, KDA President Eric Gregory said. Several distilleries are still closed for tours, while others have reopened under significantly reduced capacities as travel restrictions and public hesitation slows recovery efforts.
“Last year was devastating for tourism and experts are skeptical on consumer confidence until 2022 at the soonest,” he said. “Also, many of the main Bourbon tourism drivers – sports, concerts, fairs and festivals, conferences and other events – were canceled last year and probably won’t fully return anytime soon.”
Gregory said the KDA and its 42 members are advocating legislation in the General Assembly that would further modernize Bourbon tourism laws and help distillers and hospitality partners pull through. “We’re not asking for a handout,” he said. “We just need the tools to endure and outlast this crisis.”
Gregory said the KDA supports:
• HB 415 – This legislation, sponsored by Rep. Adam Koenig, updates last year’s historic direct-to-consumer bill that is now a national model for Bourbon and spirits shipping. The bill will allow the use of third-party fulfillment centers to process orders and let Kentucky distilleries collect and remit wholesale and excise taxes on souvenir bottles purchased in their visitor centers. Streamlining these tax collections will provide parity with microbreweries who obtained this option in 2018. HB 415 is awaiting a vote on the House floor.
• SB 67 – Sponsored by Sen. John Schickel, this bill will make permanent “take home cocktails” that has proven popular during the pandemic as restaurants struggle to stay afloat. Currently, this legislation would only allow restaurants to offer take home cocktails, yet several hospitality and tourism groups are advocating the inclusion of bars, wineries, breweries and distillers. This bill is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.
• SB 108 – This measure would allow restaurants and hotels with a by-the-drink alcohol license to sell increasingly popular private barrel selection bottles to consumers. The KDA and others have asked sponsor Sen. Paul Hornback to also allow distillery visitor centers to sell these unique brand expressions, providing parity with beer, wine and other retail licensees. SB 108 is awaiting action in the Senate Licensing & Occupations Committee.
“These are important measures that will give our distilleries a much-needed boost, which in turn will benefit local communities and their hotel, restaurant and hospitality industries,” Gregory said. “We need to get back on a path to recovery and our Kentucky Bourbon Trail® distilleries will play a big part in that movement.”
The KDA’s Kentucky Bourbon Trail® and Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour® experiences are an integral part of local and state tourism efforts. The KDA, a non-profit trade group, founded the world-famous attractions in 1999 and 2012, respectively.
KBT® attendance grew a phenomenal 315 percent from 2009 through 2019, with more than 70 percent of visitors coming from outside Kentucky. Combined attendance had topped one million visits each year since 2016 until last year. Total attendance had never dropped in the tour’s 21-year history.
KDA research shows Bourbon tourists trend younger, spend between $400 and $1,200 on their trip, travel in large groups and fstay longer than the average visitor to Kentucky. Nearly half have household incomes over $100,000.
“A dream demographic that has elevated Kentucky tourism almost overnight,” Gregory said.
Along the way, KBT® tourism spurred Bourbon-themed hotels, restaurants, bars, tour companies, fairs and festivals, concerts, relay races, merchandise and more. “Bourbon has become not just a drink, but a culture, a lifestyle and a main economic and tourism driver,” Gregory said. “All that suffered under COVID.”
The KDA had planned months of unique events last year to celebrate the 21st birthday of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® tour, Gregory said. All were canceled, along with the KDA’s Kentucky Bourbon Affair® fantasy camp, the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame® festivities and the Bourbon & Beyond concert week.
Still, Gregory said he was immensely proud how KDA members banded together to produce more than 520,000 gallons of hand sanitizer during the tourism shutdown, much of which was donated to hospitals, first responders, nursing homes and other critical care.
With safety a top priority, the KDA also held numerous meetings with members to share best practices and joined forces to create a prudent re-opening plan with guidance from a top infectious disease expert at the University of Kentucky.
And, distilleries implemented strict protocols to protect their essential workers and keep stills operating.
“Even with the closures and challenges we faced in 2020, our members stepped up and made a difference in their communities by producing hand sanitizer and keeping workers employed to produce Kentucky’s signature spirit,” Gregory said.
“To carefully and responsibly welcome nearly 600,000 visitors at the same time is an achievement in itself. We look forward to working with the Kentucky General Assembly on legislation to safely attract visitors back to our Commonwealth and strengthen our place as the one, true and authentic home for Bourbon.”