Whiskey Trail Fever

Whiskey Trail Fever

Where to find the best visitor centres outside Kentucky

Places | 21 Oct 2016 | Issue 139 | By Liza Weisstuch

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In 2015, more than three quarters of a million people toured the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the extensive path of nine iconic Bourbon distilleries. That same year, countless more small distilleries opened around the country, bringing the total number close to 1,000. Whiskey fever is running high in America, but people no longer have to make a pilgrimage to Kentucky to learn about the art and science of spirits making. Many smaller operations around the US have invested serious capital to make their distilleries a destination, and not just for tourists, but for the community. From in-house cocktail bars to on-site restaurants with local food offerings to chill spaces to just kick back and hang out for the day, the American distilling movement is becoming a tourism industry all of its own. Here are a few distilleries where a tour offers more than just a distillery walk through and a thimble of spirit.

1. Philadelphia Distilling

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Philadelphia Distilling, which started in 2005, moved to a new location in the city's hip Fishtown neighbourhood in October. They refurbished a century plus old building that was abandoned for 45 years, creating a bar and outdoor hangout space around the slick new distillery. The distillery sits on a stage-like setup behind six 12ft high windows that make the backdrop for the bar. This means that you can look over the bartender's shoulder at a brand new 2,500 litre copper pot still, the original 1,500 litre pot still and a brand new column still. Their Blue Coat Barrel Reserve gin is a must for any whiskey lover. Order a drink, some gastropub-style snacks and watch them mill grain, ferment, distill and bottle, all of which is also visible from the outdoor tables.

2. New York Distilling Company

Brooklyn, NY

Touring New York Distilling Company, located on an industrial stretch of Brooklyn's super hip Williamsburg neighbourhood, is almost happenstantial. After all, the Shanty, a stylish brick wall bar separated from the distillery by a wall with a vast window, is a destination for cocktail lovers long into the late hours of the night. And for good reason: Drinks - mostly of the classic type - are made with New York Distilling Company's house made spirits, like Ragtime Rye, a straight whiskey, and Mr. Katz's Rock and Rye, a long forgotten product made with whiskey and rock candy.

3. St Augustine Distillery

St Augustine, Florida

This Florida distillery is unique in that hundreds of tourists are dropped off at the front door throughout each day. It's on the route of a hop-on/hop-off trolley route that runs through the town, a major tourist destination. In standard fashion, visitors (there were 123,000 last year), take a tour and can sample the brand's gin, pot-distilled rum, vodka and a cocktail in the tasting room. And starting this fall, the first batch of the St Augustin's double cask Bourbon, which has a distinctive ageing effect from the humid climate, is available, too. The distillery, which opened to the public in 2014, is located in a renovated ice plant that dates to 1917 and that vintage space, as you can imagine, makes for a pretty stately bar. The Ice Plant Bar, which serves the distillery's spirits but operates separately now occupies that space.

4. Black Dirt Distillery

Warwick, NY

Black Dirt in Warwick, New York (about an hour from Manhattan) is a hybrid destination: its first location, opened in 2002, is a winery/distillery with a chill café, an indoor and outdoor tasting bar, an outdoor grill and apple picking in season. It's a few miles from a second distillery, which opened ten years later. Now, in a very resourceful move, Black Dirt is piquing interest in local spirits on a grand scale with the new Black Dirt Bourbon Barn, a satellite tasting room and retail shop that opened in September about 20 miles away at Woodbury Commons, a sprawling, bustling complex with high-end outlet stores. There's seasonal outdoor seating and shoppers can drop in for Black Dirt cocktails as well as beers, cheeses and more from area farms. The distillery offers contract distillery services to other licensed distillers and producers.

5. Ole Smoky Distillery

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Gatlinburg sits a quarter-mile from one of the main entrances to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It's estimated that ten million cars of nature loving tourists pass through that one gate annually. Ole Smoky Distillery, which produces up to 13 moonshines, is equipped for the high traffic. A veritable campus, it welcomes about 2.5 million visitors annually, which is more than double Jim Beam sees. The Holler, as the distillery is called, features a U-shaped complex designed in the style of local Tennessee mountain cabins. In the open space, a stage and rows upon rows of chairs are set up for the daily bluegrass show. The distillery is stage left and the tasting room and emporium-like shop is stage right.

6. Woodinville Whiskey Company

Woodinville, Washington

In 2010, when Woodinville Whiskey Company opened outside Seattle in a setting overlooking Mount Rainier, they were perfectly positioned to welcome crowds out of the gate. After all, there are over 100 operating wineries in a five mile radius; Red Hook, a longtime craft brewery, is a neighbour, too. As this pocket of Washington state became a drinker's destination, Woodinville co-owner Orlin Sorensen took advantage of the heritage and revitalised Hollywood Tavern, a rundown 70-years-old joint, to its old-school glory, so guests can head there for a flavour of old Pacific Northwest after a jaunt through the distillery and tasting room. The Tavern, which opened in 2013 and serves food, rounds out the visit with whiskey flights and cocktails. They work with the distillery's products beyond the bar, using the whiskey in its barbecue sauce, milkshakes, and more. The distillery is excited to finally announce the release of its Straight American whiskey available from 3 October.

Kings County Distillery

Brooklyn, NY

This distillery is located amid a number of creative businesses in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, arguably one of the more historic areas in New York City's history-packed landscape. Fitting, then, that there's a museum - the Boozeum - on the distillery's second floor, featuring objects that nod to the state's distilling history: a prohibition-era still, newspaper clippings, and a bottle of the first whiskey they distilled, the first in New York since Prohibition. A short walk from the distillery, there's a pair of gatehouses that long stood as a symbol of the city's industrial heritage and today one of them is home to an antique tasting room that doubles as a bar for visitors as well as workers in the Yard. Kings County's whiskeys are sold neat and in cocktails and, as it's typical Brooklyn fashion to team up with other local businesses, the Brooklyn-based People's Pops creates a boozy popsicle that can be ordered here with a shot and used as a chaser.

8. High West Distillery & Saloon

Park City, Utah

Skiers, rejoice. You barely have to take off your skis to visit this downtown Park City stalwart. The so called gastro distillery, a pub/distillery hybrid, has a ski in facility, so during the winter people just coast to the front of the saloon and hang out around one of the outdoor fire pits with warm wintery drinks with whiskey made at the distillery just inside. And High West's product line is ever expanding. Make sure to check out the limited edition Yippee Ki-Yay, a Bourbon aged in ex-wine barrels.
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