Free labour. Sweet words to any business person’s ears. Most companies, large and small, count on good word-of-mouth advertising, a kind of unpaid labour, to promote their products and services. It is a peculiar feature of our modern consumer culture that people don’t just buy, they will also help sell the products they love by talking them up and even wearing their logos and brand names.
Whiskey producers have long cultivated this tendency. Maker’s Mark has its ambassadors. Jack Daniel’s has its Tennessee Squires. Johnnie Walker’s ‘walking man’ is as ubiquitous as the Nike ‘swoosh.’
For small spirits producers, local good will is essential because it promotes brand adoption and loyalty. One advantage of being small is the ability to develop personal connections, both with trade customers, especially bartenders and beverage managers, and also consumers. It’s one of the few natural advantages a micro-producer has over the big guys.
But that’s advertising. What about fans who are willing to go to the factory and work on the assembly line for a day or two, for no pay? Where do you find people with that kind of enthusiasm for a brand?
Volunteering to help out at American micro-distilleries, of course.
Instead of pay, typical volunteer bottlers get lunch, a bottle to take home, and maybe a t-shirt or other tokens. Mostly they get a story to tell their friends.
If they tell it while pouring out a few fingers of their ‘employer’s’ product; well, that’s the whole idea.
Much like rural neighbours getting together for a barn raising, hog butchering, or quilting bee, micro-distillery enthusiasts are volunteering for bottling parties by the hundreds. Sometimes they fill bottles but mostly they apply labels and other adornments, such as hang tags and wax seals. But they do work, for as little as three hours up to as many as 14 during two days, and many producers couldn’t get their products out without them.
At Koval in Chicago, in a city neighbourhood called Ravenswood a few miles from downtown, two tables are set-up in what little open space is left in the cramped, urban facility. An ad-hoc assembly line is organised. Today it is Koval’s Lion’s Pride whiskey. The bottles are filled and capped, labels are applied, and a plastic capsule is heat-shrunk over the neck and top. The finished bottles are then placed in cases, and the full cases are sealed and stacked on pallets ready to go.
The participants are young and local. The atmosphere is both chaotic and relaxed. It’s a fun and different way to spend a few hours on a Saturday. From time to time, a camera flashes and one assume a Facebook status has been updated or a Tweet has been sent. It’s not just free labour, it’s free word-of-mouth advertising in real time too.
Robert Birnecker, one-half of the husband and wife team that runs Koval, is everywhere supervising and improvising. It all seems a bit haphazard, but the stack of finished cases grows steadily. When full, the pallets and their contents will be swathed in plastic. On Monday, they will be trucked to the local distributor.
"Learn how to bottle, cap, seal and label whiskey and work the magic whiskey cow"
Like most places that do this, Koval advertises its bottling parties in mostly free media, like emails, newsletters, web sites, blogs, Facebook pages, etc. You have to make a reservation and the lists fill up fast. Some build a waiting list and give people on it first stab at the next one.
Catoctin Creek Distilling Company is in Purcellville, Virginia, about 50 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. They do many events, including frequent ‘Bottling Workshops.’ They advertise them as “a fun and hands-on experience at the distillery,” where you can “learn how to bottle, cap, seal, and label whiskey,” and “work the magic ‘whiskey cow’!”
Each volunteer gets to make a custom bottle of whiskey or gin to take home, and also signs a few to “make whiskey history.” Each workshop is limited to 20 people.
Unlike most distilleries that have volunteer bottling events, Garrison Brothers is in a remote part of the Texas Hill Country, in the metropolis of Hye. Fredericksburg, the nearest town of any size, is 20 miles away. Although they draw a few locals, most of the volunteers at Garrison’s bottling soirees come from Austin (60 miles away) or Houston (220 miles).
What’s more, because some of the work is complicated and requires training and practice, Garrison asks them to give two full days. So in addition to travelling at their own expense, many have lodging costs too. In return, they receive a hearty breakfast and lunch each day, a signed bottle to take home, plus a t-shirt and other gifts.
Here, most of the folks are in their 50s and up. Many are retired. More than a few are well-off. Pick-up trucks dominate the parking lot. Many of the volunteers spend their days over a hot crock pot full of molten wax. The building is not air conditioned.
It gets hot in Texas, even in February. Mercifully, Garrison tries to schedule bottling runs for when the company is not distilling; good thing, since it does both in the same room.
During two weeks of bottling this past February, Garrison hosted 69 two-day volunteers and about 10 one-day volunteers. They worked from 9 am to 4 pm, Wednesday through Sunday. They completed 7,356 bottles, almost 750 a day. “We like to think every single bottle is an individual work of art,” says President Dan Garrison.
Garrison works too, individually signing each bottle. He is frequently the chokepoint. The whole line stops whenever he takes a phone call.
It is fun. Everybody is in a good mood. Everybody is there because they want to be. Garrison sent out emails in early January and had all of the bottling teams for February lined up in about a week.
He now has more than 600 names on his waiting list.
“Though the atmosphere is energetic and lots of fun, we try not to position these efforts as ‘bottling parties,’ says Garrison. “I fear TTB, TABC, OSHA and those responsible for administering the National Labor Relations Act might frown on the practice. According to my attorney, since we are a for-profit enterprise, it is illegal for us to use volunteers and not pay them. If they want to, she says, they could all come together in a class action case and sue me for back wages.
“I think that unlikely, so I ignore her. Feel free to print that.”