Questions to Ask on Your Next Distillery TourBy Matt Strickland
As the world attempts to claw itself back into some semblance of normalcy, many people’s thoughts are naturally drifting towards getting back to travel and tourism. In fact many of you are likely looking forward to touring a few distilleries over the coming months. Taking a distillery tour is great fun and a fantastic way to get to know the liquid in the bottle along with the people who stand behind it. Whether it’s a megalithic big brand or the local craft distillery, here are a few questions worth asking on any distillery tour.
How many bottles/cases do you produce per year?
This is a really interesting question to ask on any distillery tour in that it gives perspective on the size of operation. Large companies like Jack Daniel’s produce over 10 million cases per year. On the other hand, the small craft distillery down the road may only ship a few thousand. Size does not equate to quality, but it sometimes does run parallel to philosophy.
Jack Daniel’s bottles /Photo Credit: Jack Daniel’s
Besides that, if a small distillery is managing to ship hundreds of thousands of cases per year, but their operation could fit inside your garage, then that may suggest that they aren’t producing everything from scratch.
Do you ferment all of the alcohol that you distill?
Spirits writer Wayne Curtis has brought this question up in articles and talks over the past few years. This can easily come across as one of those “gotcha” questions. But it’s a good one to ask on your distillery tour because of one word: ferment. Many distilleries will wax poetic for eternity on handmade “this” and artisanal “that” but are purchasing bulk alcohol from other distilleries and simply reprocessing it. There’s nothing wrong with this practice, of course. And it is in fact the norm for most gin and vodka distilleries, but you should be wary of distillers trying to obscure the practice from you the consumer.
Fermentation vat /Photo Credit: Woodford Reserve
This question also leads into whether or not the distillery is purchasing bulk-aged spirits and blending them. It wasn’t that long ago when many distilleries (not naming names here) were all too happy to purchase bulk whiskey from a supplier such as MGP Ingredients. They’d simply dump and dilute the barrels into their own bottles and slap some fabricated marketing copy onto the label along with their name. At best it was often misleading and in some instances the distillers were being outright dishonest. Thankfully, such situations have become increasingly rare. Today there are more distilleries purchasing sourced whiskeys and then re-casking or otherwise blending them to make the liquid that’s uniquely theirs.
In both cases, ask the distillery tour guide about what they do and why. Just because the distillery may be sourcing some of their alcohol doesn’t mean they are a bad company. Like anything else, it’s the intent and philosophies behind those decisions that are important. Ask away. You may be surprised at the answers and perspectives on offer.
What spirit do you enjoy making the most?
If you’re on a distillery tour at a facility that makes a lot of products spread across several categories (think about small distillers who produce gin, whiskey, and several liqueurs) then asking them which spirit they enjoy producing the most can sometimes yield a surprising answer. Just because Product X is a company’s biggest seller, doesn’t mean that it’s the most fun to produce. Or it may not be the product they are the most passionate about.
Copper & Kings stills /Photo Credit: Copper & Kings
Many small distillers produce products that are “easy” sellers but have passion projects that they may sell less of but enjoy making more. And it is those products that the distiller will usually be happy to talk your ear off about. You’ll walk away with added appreciation for something that you may have otherwise dismissed, and the distiller gets to clue you in on something he or she has added just a little extra love to.
Do you have any new/upcoming releases?
You’d be surprised how often this question doesn’t get asked. And that’s a shame because it’s such an easy and obvious query. Now, sometimes due to wanting to maintain strict control over their PR narrative, many distillers may not want to tell you what they have coming down the pipeline. Instead, they may just offer a polite smile and a quick wink.
Unlabeled whiskey bottle /Photo Credit: Jack Daniel’s
However, quite a few distillers will be all too happy to give you a heads up on soon-to-be-released products. You can more easily get the jump on these bottles. And if you’re REALLY lucky, the distiller may even let you have a preview in the form of a small sample.
How did you (or the distiller) get into distilling?
A lot of times this question will get answered through the normal tour spiels. But there’s almost always room for a deeper dive if the tour guide or distiller is willing. Unless their last name is Beam or Russell, the route to becoming a distiller is rarely ever a straight line. More often it’s akin to taking directions from New York to LA by way of driving through the Australian outback. In other words, the stories behind these careers are often surreal and nearly always fascinating.
The pandemic has hit the U.S. distilling industry hard, particularly in the craft sector. In fact some industry polls suggest that craft distillers saw an average revenue drop of around 50% during 2020. So, as things slowly begin to open back up again and we begin to pull ourselves out of the gaping maw of isolation and Netflix binges, you can bet that these distillers will welcome a visit or two from curious patrons. When restrictions begin to ebb in your area, get out to take a local distillery tour. Ask questions. Show them you’re interested in not just the spirits they make but the philosophies and people underpinning those products. If you show ‘em some love you’ll likely be rewarded in kind.
Before you head out on that distillery tour, check out what others have to say about their spirits.
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