In Bardstown last week at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, I saw several people wearing the brown T-shirts that proclaim their completion of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Yesterday the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA) announced that it has surpassed last year’s record number of visitors who toured all of its legendary distilleries and completed the souvenir 'passport' program.
Here is a tip for people who live in the north like I do. When fall really starts to hit Chicago, it's still summer in Kentucky for another two or three weekends.
The Bourbon Trail record was apparently broken some time ago. Yesterday's announcement said that through August of this year, more than 4,000 visitors had returned their completed passport to the KDA and received a commemorative T-shirt for their accomplishment. The total for all of 2009 was 3,000 and the total since the program started in 2007 was 8,000 before 2010 began. So, yeah, it's catching on.
The point of this isn't that 4,000 people had their passports stamped at every Bourbon Trail distillery, or that the number for all of 2010 might be 5,000 or more. It is that each 'passporter' represents X-number of other people who didn't do the passport, but did spend some time engaged in whiskey-related tourism. If the passport program is growing then it's a pretty good bet that whiskey tourism itself is growing at a similar pace, i.e., rapidly.
Tennessee's Jack Daniel's is still the tourism king, with about 250,000 visitors a year. (It probably goes without saying that Jack Daniel's is not on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.) Several Kentucky distilleries now draw at least 100,000 people a year, and they're all reporting growth. Several have upgraded their visitor experience in recent years or are in the process of doing so now, most notably Jim Beam at its main Clermont plant.
Both of Kentucky's main cooperages (barrel makers) now offer public tours.
What's also happening is that other businesses are noticing these numbers and wondering where whiskey tourists like to stay, what they like to eat, and what they like to do when they're not visiting distilleries, other than drink whiskey. Louisville has instituted its own Urban Bourbon Trail (UBT) which focuses on bar-restaurants with a particular focus on bourbon. Several of the UBT spots are in hotels.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail passport program also helps the KDA develop demographic and psychographic data about bourbon tourists, again assuming the passporters are representative. They are coming from all over the place, including many foreign countries, although the greatest numbers are coming from adjacent states such as Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and...yes...Tennessee.