Distillery Tasting Rooms are Reopening—But With Some Serious Changes

A photo of a tasting room at North Shore Distillery
Photo courtesy of North Shore Distillery

Roughly five months after distilleries closed their doors to the public to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic, many have started to reopen for tours and tastings. Of course, it’s not quite business as usual: distilleries have made substantial changes, with social distancing and safety guidelines in mind.

“You have to think outside of what would have worked before,” says Amy Eckstein, owner of Deerhammer Distilling Company in Buena Vista, Colorado. “We said, take everything off the table and figure out what will work under these rather stringent regulations.”

A flight at Garrison Brothers Distillery
Photo courtesy of Garrison Brothers Distillery

Of course, guidelines vary widely from state to state, and in some cases even region by region.

Many distilleries, including Deerhammer, have moved tasting room and cocktail room activities outdoors, to more easily comply with social distancing guidelines.

“Our tasting room is so small, to keep everyone six feet apart, you’d have two people in there,” says Eckstein. Toward that end, a back loading dock was set up with tables and chairs to offer more spacious seating arrangements than the usual patio area could provide.

In addition, while the distillery’s bar typically specializes in elaborate, high-end cocktails, Deerhammer adjusted its cocktail style to pre-batched kegged cocktails. “Instead of waiting in line for a multiple-step cocktail, the turnaround is quicker, so there’s no line, no congregation,” she explains.

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Some distilleries have gotten creative to make outdoor drinks enticing. North Charleston’s Firefly Distillery—which had opened a new space in February, only to have to close it in March—now serves cocktails from an Airstream trailer for guests to enjoy at picnic tables outdoors. The distillery also hosted an eight-week outdoor concert series called “Safe Sounds” in which guests purchased a 10×10 square, marked with athletic field paint, from which to partake in drinks, food and music.

With seats at a premium, many distilleries also are requiring advance reservations. When North Shore Distillery reopened its Green Oaks, Illinois, facility on May 29, the number of available seats shrunk from 75 to 16. All were outdoors.

“We’ve always had outside seating, but it has rarely been used until now,” says Cofounder/Co-owner Sonja Kassebaum. “We had to implement a reservation system to track requests for tables.”

North Shore also updated service so cocktails are ferried from bar to tables, a distance of about 100 feet, in cocktail shakers on trays. The drinks are then poured at the table. Other changes include daily temperature checks for employees, mandatory training for staff about preventing the spread of coronavirus, and additional cleaning and sanitizing measures.

A photo of Virginia Distillery
Photo courtesy of Virginia Distillery

“Suffice to say, it’s been kind of a lot of additional work for only 16 seats,” says Kassebaum. “But it’s what we’ve got to do, and what we feel is the right thing to do given the circumstances.”

Distilleries are also trying to navigate tours and classes, typically held indoors. Some are turning to technology for solutions. When Virginia Distillery in Lovingston, Virginia, reopened its visitors center June 19, guests could use their phones to scan QR codes to activate videos about whiskeys sampled during a tasting. The distillery has since closed its visitors center again but currently plans to reopen in September.

A photo of the still house at Garrison Brothers Distillery
Photo courtesy of Garrison Brothers

Hye, Texas-based Garrison Brothers is offering drive-through bottle sales and cocktails-to-go, but is not doing tours. In June, for a special Father’s Day offering, the distillery unveiled an “immersive virtual distillery tour,” accompanied by a cocktail kit.

In general, visitors to distilleries now can expect a few constants in the name of safety: reduced hours (“After 8, people know each other and want to mingle,” Deerhammer’s Eckstein observes. “We used to close at 10. Now we close at 8.”); hand sanitizer everywhere; face masks, usually compulsory for staffers and strongly encouraged for visitors; and contactless payment options.

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Seen less often, but just as important: a sense of humor. For example, in addition to light-hearted signage (“Share whiskey not Covid”), Deerhammer keeps a bucket of six-foot-long bamboo “social distancing sticks” to brandish when tasting room guests need a reminder to give each other some space.

“It’s more of a joke, and it’s easier than telling people not to congregate,” Eckstein says.

It does the trick, but also has the benefit of prompting laughter and even the occasional social media post. “We need to breathe some light into this dark situation,” she says.

Published on August 11, 2020
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