With thousands of distilleries now operating in the United States, there’s a good chance you’ll have the opportunity to visit at least one of them.
I’ve visited dozens, if not hundreds, of distilleries around the world, from some of the largest producers in the world to tiny mom-and-pop shops. Tasting room vibes vary wildly, from garagiste-style operations that let you taste brandy next to bins of fermenting fruit to slick-and-glossy visitors’ centers created by “Consumer Experience Designers,” but a few simple strategies can help you make the most out of any visit.
- Do your research and make a plan. Before you head out, check out what distilleries are in the area, when they’re open, and what kinds of experiences they offer. Some distilleries in major tourist centers are open seven days per week, while rural farm distilleries might only be open for business on the weekends. Distilleries’ websites are a good place to start, but social media accounts might have more up-to-date information about special events or offers.These days, most distilleries can serve at least tiny samples of their products, but all states are different. If you’re in the mood for a martini, you might be disappointed by local laws that prohibit distilleries from serving cocktails. Food, too, can be hit-or-miss, so check out restaurants on your route or see if any of your visits might have a food truck parked outside.
- Dress for success. If you’re doing a behind-the-scenes or “hardhat” tour, skip the stillettos or flip flops. Distilleries are factories, complete with slick or sticky surfaces, loud noises, and grated elevated walkways that look like the set from a John Claude Van Damme film. Closed-toed shoes and comfy clothes are a good idea.
- Tackle transportation. Spirits samples add up fast. If you’re in a city, plan to take public transit, Lyft, or Uber. If you’re in the countryside, pick a designated driver or hire a car for the day—it’s way more fun than stressing out over your samples or abstaining from that single barrel super pour at the end of your tasting.
- Be on time, especially if you’ve made an appointment. Distillers are busy, and tasting room staff are often scheduled around existing appointments. Respect their time and stick to your schedule—or, if you know your plans are going to be fluid, choose distilleries with open tasting room hours and just pop in.
- Introduce yourself. All kinds of people come through the doors of that tasting room, from teetotaler neighbors who are just curious about what’s going on inside, to international whiskey collectors. If you already know a lot about the distillery and you’re a big fan of its products, tell them so! Distillers love to meet their fans—and, if you’re lucky, slip them special samples. If this is your very first time tasting rye whiskey, tell them that, too. Knowing customers’ experience level can help tasting room staff tailor their conversation to you.
- Ask questions. There is no question too silly, too basic, or too nerdy to ask on a distillery tour. Usually, tour guides know an amazing amount about their products. And, if you do manage to land a stumper, well, there’s something satisfying about that, too.
- If you like something, buy something, especially if it’s a smaller operation. Sometimes—although not always—distilleries make a better profit margin on the bottles they sell from the tasting room than those you buy at retail through a distributor.
- Tip your tasting room staff. If you tip servers who spend five minutes taking your order, delivering your food, and clearing your plates, you can tip the guide who just spent an hour taking you on a tour and then served you a flight of mini-cocktails.
- Get social. If you had a wonderful time, post pictures of your visit on social media. Distillers love seeing their business through their customers’ eyes, and it’s a great way to say thanks by encouraging your friends and family to visit.
- Hangovers are the worst. Drinking plenty of water won’t undo overindulgence, but it’s still the best way to stave off the crud the next day.
Happy distillery visiting!