To say COVID-19 has shaken things up would be an understatement, and whisky makers are experiencing as many changes as everyone else. As different states in the U.S. attempt reopening—some more successfully than others—craft distilleries are grappling with how to handle the aspects of their business that are open to the public, such as tasting rooms, visitor centers, tours, and bars.
“I think we’re all experiencing a little whiplash from all the changing guidelines for businesses and how they can operate during this pandemic,” says Robin Christenson, co-owner of Blinking Owl Distillery in Santa Ana, California. Though the Golden State began to reopen starting in May, a new surge of COVID-19 cases forced it to re-impose some previous restrictions. In Orange County, where Santa Ana is located, outdoor dining is allowed, while indoor dining, indoor bars, and tasting rooms remain closed—which is tough for Blinking Owl.
“We just don’t know when people will feel 100% comfortable going out again the way they did before the pandemic,” Christenson says. “Either way, we do feel people crave connection and creature comforts right now.” She adds that after Blinking Owl had to close its tasting room back in March, it was able to pivot to producing hand sanitizer, and the sales from that helped sustain the business and allowed the distillery to hire back its entire furloughed staff. “We’re now in the position to add a restaurant to the distillery, and we are aiming to reopen by late summer with food and cocktails in our spacious outdoor patio.”
Blinking Owl’s patio allows guests to spread out and practice social distancing, and as Christenson points out, “We live in perennially sunny and warm California, which makes it ideal for outdoor entertaining.” The outdoor reopening plan also includes takeout options, “from charcuterie boxes to open-faced sandwiches and definitely craft cocktails to-go,” she adds. In the meantime, fans can order Blinking Owl products, such as whiskey and hand sanitizer, for curbside pickup or delivery within California.
PUTTING A PAUSE ON THE PUBLIC
Virginia Distillery Co. in Lovingston, Virginia also faced a rollback of its reopening. The distillery’s visitor center first closed in mid-March, before the state of Virginia officially shut down businesses, says CEO Gareth Moore. “We reopened in June for outdoor tastings only, but made the decision earlier this month to pause operations until at least September, given the summer heat and our approach with outdoor-only tastings,” he says, adding that the distillery’s approach to reopening has been to be a month behind the state’s phase. Virginia is currently in its third phase, which allows indoor and outdoor dining at businesses such as restaurants, distilleries, and tasting rooms, though with many social distancing restrictions in place.
As Moore points out, COVID-19 cases are still spreading in Virginia, and that factored into the decision to close again. “The distillery remains case-free, but we knew a short-term closure was in the best interest of our staff and guests. As the environment is changing weekly, we will keep our eyes open and assess in regular increments to determine when we will reopen and in what fashion.” He adds that when Virginia Distillery Co. does reopen, safety will be first priority, and they will follow the guidelines of the CDC. Fortunately, the distillery is still occupied with production, which Moore says “is still very much in motion” following the April release of Courage & Conviction, its flagship single malt whiskey.
Though not currently open to the public, Virginia Distillery Co. has still been able to connect with whiskey lovers, thanks to one development that Moore considers a silver lining: direct shipping, which Virginia introduced in April for the state’s distilleries. Shipping whiskeys directly to customers has been “hugely successful and a great opportunity for us to interact with our Virginia customers in a whole new way,” Moore says. “Focusing efforts on the online channel has been impactful, as have virtual tastings, which have been a fun way to introduce our newest whiskey out into the world.”
WIDE OPEN SPACES
While some distilleries have to walk back plans to reopen, others have been able to welcome the public once again, with new precautions in place. Iron Fish Distillery in Thompsonville, Michigan sits on a 120-acre farm, which happens to make for ideal social distancing; it originally closed in mid-March and reopened on Father’s Day weekend with a focus on its outdoor space as about an acre of the farm is dedicated to outdoor seating. Owner and operator Richard Anderson describes the farm as “almost a football field and a half long,” noting that they have expanded outdoor and patio seating, among other changes from pre-pandemic times. For example, the distillery still serves food and cocktails, but now offers a more limited menu, and while there are wait staff, there is also a self-serve section, plus takeout food and cocktails and an online store. Operating hours have been reduced from ten opening hours a day to five, and indoor tours of the distillery are on pause.
Outdoor seating has been a boon, but it gets disrupted by summer rainstorms. “Our weather backup—because it does rain—is this massive dairy barn with big barn doors,” says Anderson. The barn facility could seat over 200 people before the pandemic, and now can fit about 80 with social distancing. With all the precautions it has in place, Iron Fish has implemented a reservation system to ensure it has enough room for all of its guests on any given day; those that drive up without a reservation will be accommodated if there is still space.
The most unique way to guarantee a spot for tasting whiskey at Iron Fish? Reserve a campsite. The distillery has a partnership with Harvest Hosts, a membership service that allows people traveling in self-contained RVs to stay overnight at locations like distilleries, breweries, and farms for free. There are eight camping locations around the Iron Fish farm, and Anderson points out that they are adjacent to its 1½-mile hiking trail. “Other than just having full access to the farm and having permission to walk anywhere in the farm area, [the campers] just come on over and have a drink and experience the distillery,” he says. In addition to the camping, Iron Fish also has a renovated farmhouse that’s available to rent through Airbnb.
A DRAM ON THE FARM
Many miles away on the East Coast, another farm distillery is welcoming the public once again. Coppersea Distilling sits in the Hudson Valley in New Paltz, New York—a state that was pummeled by the coronavirus for months. “We normally open for the season around mid-March, so for us the shutdown pushed off our opening date,” CEO Michael Kinstlick says. “We opened to the public in mid-June, when our region in New York was allowed to open up.” He adds that while Coppersea used to do tastings in The Tavern, a converted barn, it has shifted to exclusively outdoor service.
Similar to Iron Fish, Coppersea’s vast outdoor space is a benefit at the current moment. “We are fortunate to operate on an actual farm and have the space for distancing between customers,” Kinstlick says, adding that the distillery began serving “whiskey slushees” for the summertime, along with its regular offering of tasting flights, pours of spirits, and cocktails. And, like many distilleries, Coppersea is offering curbside pickup of bottles in addition to in-state shipping through its online store.
No matter where they’re located or what their states’ current plans allow, all U.S. craft distilleries are in the same boat—none of them are operating in the same manner now as before the pandemic. How long these new setups will operate, and whether they’ll need to adapt to other restrictions or changes, remains a question mark. Kinstlick maintains an attitude of optimism about the future, but says Coppersea will continue to follow state guidance. “We, like everyone, are trying to make the adjustments we can, first and foremost to keep our employees and customers safe, and then hopefully to offer a space people can enjoy themselves.”