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Tourism is booming along with production at Kentucky’s bourbon distilleries.
Along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail — featuring such venerable brands as Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Four Roses and Maker’s Mark among its nine participating distilleries — tourists made a record 627,032 visits in 2014, up 10 percent from the prior year, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association said Thursday.
When adding tourist stops at the nine small distilleries making up the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, visits totaled nearly 725,000 last year, up 14 percent from 2013. KDA counts each stop at a participating distillery as a visit.
KDA President Eric Gregory said the latest record-breaking numbers show distilleries are “the hottest tourism attractions around.”
The distilleries drew visitors from every state and more than 50 countries, he said. Bourbon tourists generally spend hundreds on food, lodging, fuel and souvenirs, circulating money in the region, according to a recent study of the state’s bourbon sector.
Distilleries have spent tens of millions of dollars on new or expanded visitors’ centers in recent years to cater to tourists.
KDA projects tourist visits will reach 1 million in 2018 if double-digit growth continues, Gregory said.
The number of participating distilleries is likely to grow in coming years as more distilleries open.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, created in 1999, added the historic Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville as a stop last year. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, in just its second full year of existence, had 96,471 visits last year at its nine distilleries, up 56 percent, the KDA said.
“There isn’t a week that goes by where we don’t get a call from somebody who is either getting ready to announce a distillery or looking for our help in trying to find sites to build a new distillery,” Gregory said.
Kentucky is home to 95 percent of the world’s bourbon production.
Bourbon production has shot up in recent years amid growing demand from U.S. and international consumers. The renewed popularity of bourbon-based cocktails has helped spur the growth, along with the introduction of premium, pricier small-batch and single-barrel bourbons.
The volume of bourbon aging in Kentucky has topped 5 million barrels.
Distillers are taking other steps aimed at sustaining the burgeoning tourism trade. Some Kentucky bourbon officials are visiting Napa Valley wineries in California to tap into that industry’s experience in catering to tourists, Gregory said.
Distillery officials also are hoping to persuade Kentucky lawmakers to relax some restrictions on distilleries as another way to fuel tourism growth, he said. The industry is reaching out to legislators in hopes of getting the changes passed in the General Assembly session that resumes next week.
“If we’re going to reach our potential to be like Napa, then we’ve got to have the tools to compete,” Gregory said. “And right now we’re being hamstrung by an archaic set of Kentucky laws.”
One change would allow whiskey to be served at restaurants on distillery grounds, Gregory said.
Another proposal would allow visitors to sample more bourbons during tours, he said. Distilleries now are limited to offering two one-half-ounce samples per guest. Wineries and microbreweries in the state can offer larger amounts of samples, he said.
Relaxing the limits would allow distilleries with larger portfolios to offer smaller samples but more of them, he said.
Safeguards are in place to make sure no one consumes too much whiskey, he said.
“We are very cautious to making sure that they are served only an appropriate amount of alcohol,” Gregory said.