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Gin Tourism is Booming

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Four PIllars Gins Bloody Shiraz Spiced Negroni
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Written by Gin Foundry

Gin Tourism is close to our hearts here at Gin Foundry. We’ve even got an entire section of the site dedicated to helping people find out which tours are available to them and where they can go! We love nothing more than to visit a gin maker in their natural habitat and get the low down on what they’re crafting. What’s not to love about watching someone shovelling fresh juniper into their shiny copper stills?

We’ve been tracking the growing trend of distillery tourism for a few years now, as well as documenting our trips and visits where possible. Have a look quick read of our terribly soundtracked  two day road trip from a couple of years ago, where we took in six distilleries in the south of England, falling in love with the grain to glass ethos down at Ramsbury and the stark raving passion of the duo behind Campfire Gin.

The more we look, the more we fall in love so we’re pleased to see that open door distilleries, in all forms, have been on the rise overall, with record numbers of distilleries now open for a visit at the start of 2019. It’s been rapid fire – in  the space of four years we’ve gone from having around 30 distilleries that were open a few days a week for intrepid (and organised) tasters who booked ahead, to over 130 open for tastings at least once a week. And that’s in the UK alone.

More explorers are visiting them too! There are way more drinkers choosing to peel back the curtains and take a peek behind the scenes of the mad world of spirit production than ever before, with the big brands such as Bombay Sapphire now hosting over one hundred thousand visitors each year. It’s not just us, either; on the other side of the world Four Pillars Distillery is the number one visitor attraction in the Yarra Valley, hosting tens of thousands of guests each year.

Are Gin makers maximising the opportunity?

While tourism numbers look set to grow in the months ahead, it seems that many distilleries may well be left in the dust. Whilst Gin is certainly embracing this trend, it isn’t the one propelling it forward. Most of the progress we’ve seen in 2018 (and all of the real turning points from within the drinks tourism sector) have come from other categories, so while Gin tourism is undoubtedly on the up, it’s Wine, Beer, Whisk(e)y and independent parties that are leading the way with bigger investment and further expansions planned in those sectors.

In the US, there have been many notable private companies creating innovative, guided tours in various states, a sector that’s only really boomed in the wine industry here in the UK. There are examples of companies who offer ‘passports’ to tasting rooms (see Portland’s Distillery Row, for one), and others who link in with other tourist attractions to add a secondary visit to the local distillery.

Those involved in these entrepreneurial ideas have not only held up their hands to champion craft spirits, but have worked hard to develop business opportunities from it, with great success for both them and the distillers they promote. They are already, and will continue to be, a key part of the American craft drinks industry in the future, even if they themselves are not doing either the making or the serving.

Here in the UK and Ireland the likes of Bord Bia and state funded Irish organisations have been actively promoting craft distilling as a whole, to facilitate export certainly, but also with a view on increasing inbound visitor numbers. Visit Scotland and other national organisations have also stepped in to help promote their country’s producers. For the most part, though, these have been primarily focused on Whisk(e)y makers.

That’s not necessarily bad news, though; even though Gin makers are only just starting to tap into this potential gold mine, the state sponsored support is – even if it isn’t calibrated to juniper yet – at the very least a sign that the idea of drinks tourism is being taken seriously as core to the spirit industry’s future.

New technology and startups are helping, too. Whilst US-centric at present, there are a number of apps and such helping to connect distilleries to people. This will spread around the world, and when combined with top-down, state funded promotion, will present new distillers with a strong case to build tourism into their business models. Rather than squeezing visitor centres into existing distilleries, they’ll be built around their visitors.

Dan Szor of Cotswolds Distillers was one of the first to point this out, when he stated – all those years ago – that if you “build it, they will come”. The enlightened consumer is a very real thing – people are not only curious about process, they’re going out of their way to find out about it.

So how big is this market in the UK?

Frustratingly, we don’t have a reliable figure to go off yet. The government grants or tourist board interventions all suggest there’s something sizeable there, but we feel the best indication is gleaned when one starts looking towards the brands themselves.

The Macallan unveiled a multi-million pound state of the art distillery and visitor centre last year to rapturous applause, while Jameson reported a projected multi-million euro income stream from their sites. Thomas Dakin have (some three years later than planned) FINALLY broken ground on their new space, while Edinburgh Gin and Manchester Gin both showcased the blueprints of their sexy looking centrally located spaces due to be completed in the upcoming months. Meanwhile, 58 Gin already looks to be much bigger than most predicted.

The aforementioned Cotswolds Gin’s upgraded centre is almost complete, and further down the road TOAD are making good progress with theirs. If that wasn’t enough in terms of big new buildings, a little birdy told us that Martin Miller’s has something in the works over in Iceland, and we also heard about significant builds underway in three major distilleries, each seeking to add more interactive experiences, room for tastings and additional parking.

Each distillery we have asked specifically about the subject in the past month has reported an increase in tour demand of well over 50% over the past twelve months, with some quoting as much as 150%. To reverse this into a figure, based on existing offers being all running at capacity, we’d estimate the amount of pounds spent touring distilleries to be well in to be in the tens of millions already.

With provisions being in put in place to meet the ever climbing demand, it’s safe to say there’s a whole lot of money to be made in Gin tourism.

How far will this go?

How many will be polishing their stills to be camera ready or frantically refreshing their browsers to check their Trip Advisor scores no one quite knows, but we’re confident that one in three distilleries in the UK will be open for tourism several days a week by December 2019.

For those wondering how that compares to today, according to HMRC’s latest headcount of licensed UK distillers, to get to a third we’d need 137 distilleries to open up their doors. That’s actually less than the current figure opening up once a week, but we’re talking full-time, full-scale tours here. There’s a difference between an event night and an open door policy, but the former is usually a sign that the latter is coming…

The calls for transparency are just too high to ignore, with the demand for information surrounding the who’s and how’s of products palpable amongst drinkers. Opening doors and showing guests around is a powerful way to fulfil those demands and sends a loud statement that you are credible and sincere. By opening the doors, a distillery is saying ‘we have nothing to hide.’ Moreover, for others, just as it was with Hendrick’s and the £13 million pound centre it unveiled in October, it’s about also showcasing their brand identity to its fullest. Uncompromising and unbridled – to visit is to experience and understand.

Taking brand advocacy and consumer trust off the table, however, is where one can really judge (and understand just how big) it could all become. Even those who don’t feel the need to respond to the pressures of brand building and whom are fortunate enough to have good distribution (therefore, those who are not seeking to increase sales volume) are actively pursuing having a ‘cellar door’.

Why? It’s good business to sell direct; on average one bottle sold from the cellar door is worth 2.5 sold wholesale, and according to our sources, the average spend at distillery shops in the UK is just over £20 per person (on top of the tour price).  With that margin difference alone, it’s possible to see how new growth for a business doesn’t have to come from increasing the amount they produce, merely increasing the amount they sell themselves.

Conversely, if the category contracts and the bubble bursts, with so many gins competing for a finite amount of retail shelf space and a less enthusiastic customer, sales will be hit hard. Being able to rely on their own reach to sell directly to a stable customer base spending both in the shop and looking at other experiences (read other income avenues to simple product sale), the distillery tour and the shop may well offer some much needed income security for many a craft producer.

It’s an exciting area to watch, and the great news about it is that it’s win-win for drinkers. We are very near a future in which a majority will be able to pop into a local distillery to say hello, learn about what they’re making and find out the true process that goes into every drop of Gin.

Gin, straight from the horses mouth you say? Absolutely – and that doesn’t even have to be a mixed metaphor. If you want that to be literal, head over to ELLC – they’ve got a horse hanging upside down on the sign above their ever-welcoming door…

bombay laverstoke mill
Bombay Sapphire Gin Laverstoke Mill