Whether visitors are meandering along the backroads of Kentucky between bourbon distilleries or checking directions to an out-of-the-way brewery in Maine, it’s no secret that the rise of tourist-driven trails has influenced how people travel—and drink.
For the public, it’s as simple as following a boozy treasure map linking up local producers, but establishing a beer, wine, or liquor trail requires a keen understanding of both the industries they serve—tourism and beverage—and the communities around them. This makes the process of creating these lucrative tourist pathways both deeply region-specific and collaboratively driven.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is one of the original spirit-focused tourism paths in the United States. But when it was established in 1999, it was a novel concept that raised a lot of eyebrows. Fast forward almost 25 years and booze trails are a tourism stalwart for rural regions across the country, raising the bottom line for the producers involved while giving local economies a much-needed boost.
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There are currently 42 unique distillery trails, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), and dozens upon dozens of beer and wine pathways in the U.S. Regional tourism boards and county officials are now working with new technologies to provide ease of access for those drinking along the paths, lobbying lawmakers to ensure their continued success, and innovating to create new revenue-driving visitor experiences.
Create Incentives for Trail Visitors
Trail structure varies widely, but local personalization and an understanding of how visitors will make the most out of their experience is of utmost importance. Sometimes, that means offering a signature hat or a recipe-packed trail passport. Other times, it means focusing specifically on seasonal events.
Along 20 winding miles of the Missouri River, the Hermann Wine Trail organizers found that a set schedule of events has proven to be the secret sauce—not the traditional year-round trail map. “We started with a couple food and wine events and it took off,” says Patty Held, the president of the Hermann Wine Trail. “Our idea was to schedule events for our wineries at not traditionally busy times of the year because we wanted to increase tourism when it was slow. We never would have had 1,200 people in February until we did the Chocolate Wine Trail.”
In Sante Fe, New Mexico, a tiered prize system has incentivized not only tourists, but locals, to take part in the Santa Fe Margarita Trail. Approximately 32,500 people have participated in the trail since its creation in May of 2016, with 6,300 participants receiving five stamps or more earning them an official Margarita Trail t-shirt.
Sean Sullivan, the executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, agrees that prizes have been key to the Maine Beer Trail’s success since launching in 2009. And while Sullivan isn’t sending out hats for simply visiting 10 breweries anymore (“People will do that in a weekend!”), the Maine Brewers Guild still hands out plenty of grand-prize packages to people who have visited every single brewery on the trail. “In our experience, people want to be incentivized to visit more breweries, and we get really nice emails, letters, and scrapbooks from people. It’s so cool.”
Booze Trails Can Revive Rural Counties
Distillery, wine, and beer trails not only raise the bottom line for the craftspeople behind the beverages, but they are contributing to a holistic economic outlook in rural America. Across regions of the country where “dry” counties were the norm less than half a century ago, liquor trails now serve as tourism engines, revenue-drivers, and cultural anchors.
“Distillery trails are creating an economic impact on areas that were not as visited,” says Maggie Quinn, the director of public relations for the DISCUS. “We’re seeing in certain towns that local distillers partner with local farmers, so the economic impact isn’t just in tourism dollars; it’s also going into agricultural [spaces] and the bars and restaurants in local areas, too. Its reach is pretty expansive.”
Sullivan agrees that the trail system has worked to give breweries located at a wide spot in the road just as much credence, attention, and accessibility as those in major cities. “Our breweries are all over the place. They’re not just in the cities; they’re not just in the biggest towns; they’re in random dirt roads in rural towns where your average Mainer couldn’t point to on a map.”
“… the economic impact isn’t just in tourism dollars; it’s also going into agricultural [spaces] and the bars and restaurants in local areas, too. Its reach is pretty expansive.” – Maggie Quinn, DISCUS
Hermann Wine Trail has also created a symbiotic and lucrative relationship with the local chamber of commerce. “We work very closely with the Hermann Chamber of Commerce—they actually sell our tickets for us,” says Held. “Our ticket sales are the largest source of revenue for the Chamber. We couldn’t do what we do without our Chamber of Commerce, and they need our ticket revenue to help do what they do, too.”
“Think about Bardstown: they really do play on the same playing field as Louisville and Lexington in a lot of ways when it comes to bourbon tourism,” says Mandy Ryan, the director of Kentucky Bourbon Trail Experiences. “They are the bourbon capital of the world. They’ve had distilleries 10, 20, 30 years longer than Louisville has. You really cannot undervalue [a trail] … in a small community like that.”
Loosening Laws Boosts Sales Opportunities
Whether in small towns or big cities, statewide shifts in where and how alcoholic beverages are sold has also helped in the growth of trail tours anchored by distilleries, wineries, and breweries. In Maine, Sullivan notes that it wasn’t until 2011 that breweries were allowed to sell beer on site. “Once breweries could sell beer where they made it, it became a real driver of tourism and also a real value proposition for being a member of the Maine Brewers’ Guild.”
In Kentucky, the recent legalization of satellite tasting rooms is poised to expand, and rethink, what a “distillery experience” means along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. “We’re thinking a lot about satellite tasting rooms because we just got that legislation passed last session,” says Ryan. “For me, it’s a challenge of how do I advertise and set the visitor expectation? You might not see a still, but you might have an awesome tasting experience or an awesome cocktail class. I think that’s really going to change the landscape of Kentucky.”
With legislation freshly passed, Castle and Key 502 became a first-of-its-kind satellite tasting room for Castle and Key Distillery when it opened 55 miles away from the official bourbon-making grounds in early April inside the Louisville Omni Hotel’s Falls City Market. Similarly, in New Mexico, a reciprocity law passed in 2015 allowed their tasting rooms to sell other New Mexico-made beers, wines, and ciders, improving the economic outlook for producers across the state—as well as the experience for visitors.
Beverage Trails Are Going Digital
The Santa Fe Margarita Trail launched in 2016 with a paper map of where to grab the best Margaritas in town, but still sees an almost even split between visitors who use the analog version and those who use their app (16,350 app downloads and 16,155 paper passports sold last year, according to Tourism Sante Fe). The reason the paper passport has remained so popular? Joanne Hudson, the Tourism Santa Fe public relations manager, guesses it’s because of the recipes included. “The paper passport is also kind of an active souvenir [and] something to remember the trip. The recipe for every Margarita is in there … so it’s a little cocktail recipe book to take home.”
The market for one-of-a-kind, experience-driven souvenirs found exclusively along liquor trails is only poised to grow, according to Quinn. “It will be really interesting to watch just how ecommerce will be more integrated into these trails in the future. As the consumer bases grow and people want that taste of local flavor, how they’ll be able to purchase these spirits will also be interesting to see,” she says. “So, you could buy distillery-exclusive bottles or a particular trail [bottle] through that platform. There are a lot of creative approaches.”
On the front end, it’s well-known within the tourism industry that half the anticipatory excitement of a trip is planning it out ahead of time, and engaging, highly visual online resources help trail-trippers do just that. “I think the first thing is just making it easy for the visitor to envision their trip there and then to plan it … really developing some resources is so key,” says Ryan. “That might be itineraries on your website. It might be working with your local tourism agencies. Just kind of painting a picture of what people can expect when they’re there, I think is important.”
Create Cooperation, Not Competition Between Producers
One of the biggest concerns for anyone thinking about starting a regional liquor trail comes down to the local players: How do we ensure that everyone cooperates for the greater good of the tourism draw instead of competing? That, in essence, is what makes trails such an inviting prospect for the larger regional or state economy. It’s an opportunity to reimagine what an industry can achieve when resources are pooled.
In Kentucky, it boiled down to a spirit of looking out for the greater good. “We are moving into our 25th year next year as the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. And we do have people reach out to us pretty regularly [to ask] how do you get your stakeholders to work together and agree on things? What our members do very well is, in those situations, they’re able to take off their brand hats and … make decisions that are in the best interest of the entire industry.”
Analisa Leppanen, the founder of Golden Muse Winery, agrees. “The folks on the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail have been very helpful during the start-up process for my fledgling winery. I changed fields from academia, which is a very competitive industry, so something that I really appreciate about the wine industry is the feeling of camaraderie.”
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Sarah Baird is an award-winning journalist based in Kentucky. Her work appears regularly in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, GQ, and beyond. She is the author of four books, including New Orleans Cocktails and Flask.