Kentucky Bourbon Trail Tourism Nosedived In 2020 In Face Of Pandemic

Tourism along the fabled Kentucky Bourbon Trail in recent years has been hitting some astonishing numbers, with data from 2019 alone reflecting that visits to member distilleries of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association were just over 1.71 million in total. Such is not the positive news for 2020, however, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic bringing a dramatic change in fortunes for this aspect of the bourbon world.

Newly released information from the Kentucky bourbon trade group reveals visitors took a total of just 587,307 tours last year. This reflects a staggering 66 percent decrease, and also marks, for the first time in 21 years, a dramatic drop in those which chose to go onsite.

Woodford Reserve, formerly the Old Pepper distillery (image via Brown-Forman)

Impacting this in large part is that distillery tours, gift shops, bars and restaurants closed under government orders from March through June, KDA President Eric Gregory said in a prepared statement. Several distilleries are still closed for tours, while others have reopened under significantly reduced capacities as travel restrictions and public hesitation slows recovery efforts.

“Last year was devastating for tourism and experts are skeptical on consumer confidence until 2022 at the soonest,” Gregory noted. “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.”

The KDA had planned months of unique events last year to celebrate the 21st birthday of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour. All were canceled, along with the KDA’s Kentucky Bourbon Affair fantasy camp, the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame festivities and the Bourbon & Beyond concert week.

Looking at this more from a historical perspective, KBT attendance grew a phenomenal 315 percent from 2009 through 2019, with more than 70 percent of visitors coming from outside Kentucky. Combined attendance had topped one million visits each year since 2016 until last year. Total attendance had never dropped in the tour’s 21-year history.

The economic impact was not immediately mentioned. That being said, KDA research shows bourbon tourists trend younger, spend between $400 and $1,200 on their trip, travel in large groups and stay longer than the average visitor to Kentucky. Nearly half have household incomes over $100,000.