Coronavirus Takes a Toll on 2020 Kentucky Bourbon Trail Traffic

Bourbon Trail Bourbons affected by Covid
Image by: Seth Thompson

For the first time in the 21 year history of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the number of annual visitors to the Trail has fallen. In 2019, the Bourbon Trail had a record 1,719,821 visits – but in 2020, amid the global pandemic, numbers fell by 66% to 587,307.

Restrictions closed bars, restaurants, gift shops, and most tours from March until May, and even today almost a year into the pandemic, some distilleries have yet to reopen to the public.

“Last year was devastating for tourism and experts are skeptical on consumer confidence until 2022 at the soonest,” said KDA President Eric Gregory. “Also, many of the main Bourbon tourism drivers – sports, concerts, fairs and festivals, conferences and other events – were canceled last year and probably won’t fully return anytime soon.”

Gregory said in a press release that the KDA and its 42 members are advocating legislation in the General Assembly that would further modernize Bourbon tourism laws and help distillers and hospitality partners pull through. “We’re not asking for a handout,” he said. “We just need the tools to endure and outlast this crisis.”

Gregory goes on to voice his support for the following bills from Kentucky legislature.

HB 415 – This legislation, sponsored by Rep. Adam Koenig, updates last year’s historic direct-to-consumer bill that is now a national model for Bourbon and spirits shipping. The bill will allow the use of third-party fulfillment centers to process orders and let Kentucky distilleries collect and remit wholesale and excise taxes on souvenir bottles purchased in their visitor centers. Streamlining these tax collections will provide parity with microbreweries who obtained this option in 2018. HB 415 is awaiting a vote on the House floor.

SB 67 – Sponsored by Sen. John Schickel, this bill will make permanent “take home cocktails” that has proven popular during the pandemic as restaurants struggle to stay afloat. Currently, this legislation would only allow restaurants to offer take home cocktails, yet several hospitality and tourism groups are advocating the inclusion of bars, wineries, breweries and distillers. This bill is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.

SB 108 – This measure would allow restaurants and hotels with a by-the-drink alcohol license to sell increasingly popular private barrel selection bottles to consumers. The KDA and others have asked sponsor Sen. Paul Hornback to also allow distillery visitor centers to sell these unique brand expressions, providing parity with beer, wine and other retail licensees. SB 108 is awaiting action in the Senate Licensing & Occupations Committee.

Photo Michter’s Whiskey.

“These are important measures that will give our distilleries a much-needed boost, which in turn will benefit local communities and their hotel, restaurant and hospitality industries,” Gregory said. “We need to get back on a path to recovery and our Kentucky Bourbon Trail distilleries will play a big part in that movement.”

Even amongst all the mess of 2020, Gregory is optimistic for the future.

“Even with the closures and challenges we faced in 2020, our members stepped up and made a difference in their communities by producing hand sanitizer and keeping workers employed to produce Kentucky’s signature spirit,” Gregory said.

“To carefully and responsibly welcome nearly 600,000 visitors at the same time is an achievement in itself. We look forward to working with the Kentucky General Assembly on legislation to safely attract visitors back to our Commonwealth and strengthen our place as the one, true and authentic home for Bourbon.”

Caroline Paulus
Caroline Paulus is the Senior Editor for The Bourbon Review. She lives and writes in Lexington, Kentucky. Follow her on Instagram @misswhiskeyhistorian to keep up with her latest in bourbon news - and a few old finds, too.