File this under having our priorities in order: A bourbon festival once made the Department of Homeland Security's National Asset Database of potential terror targets. Clearly, the United States appreciates its whiskey.
The festival has since been deemed "out of place" in the database, but parts of the South might disagree about the paramount importance of whiskey. In fact, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia distilleries—be they producers of bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, or "legal moonshine"—have begun to welcome groups for tastings, tours, events, and even on-site meetings.
In a way, holding an event at a distillery is a no-brainer. Beyond the obvious beverage advantages (you're assured of not running out), these venues are generally overflowing with stories and history.
Perhaps the best tale in whiskey's storied history is that Mr. Jack Daniel died after kicking his office safe in frustration; a broken toe led to an infection, which led to his death. The infamous safe is one of the highlights of the free Jack Daniel's distillery tour in Lynchburg, TN.
The distillery, about an hour from Nashville, has meeting rooms available and accommodates groups of all sizes. "We've never had a group so big we can't handle it," says promotions director Roger E. Brashears, Jr., who says the facility has hosted 2,800 for a meal function. "We try to welcome you just like we would kinfolks who come to visit—on second thought, we try to treat you better."
A visitors' center offers 47 displays about Jack Daniel's history and, according to Brashears, visiting groups should also plan to see downtown Lynchburg, "a town time forgot around 1900."
The Jack Daniel's "Buy the Barrel" program allows groups to select and purchase a full barrel for special bottling, yielding roughly 240 750 milliliter bottles; the client keeps the actual barrel and receives a certificate of ownership and brass plaque.
Reserve a Spot
The Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, KY, maintains a conference center, called The Historic Dryer House, in addition to its distillery and visitors' center.
"A dryer house was used [to dry grains from the distillation process] back when we were first in production in 1812," explains Kate Wesley, Woodford Reserve's sales and marketing manager.
The current building was erected in 1934 and reopened in 1996 as a reception and meeting space, accommodating 60 to 80 people and offering wireless internet access and AV equipment.
"The Dryer House is surrounded by the Mint Terrace and sits along Glenn's Creek. It's a charming and beautiful meeting space; it's nothing like what you'd get at a hotel, but that's the charm of it," Wesley says.
A 2,400-square-foot visitors' center serves as the primary reception space and can be rented in the evening for cocktail receptions and seated dinners for up to 200.
"To me, one of the cool things about Woodford Reserve is the flexibility and diversity they offer me from an events perspective," says Scott Goodlett, owner of Lexington, KY-based Scott Goodlett Events. "I can have a very intimate VIP event for 15 people or I can give that same intimacy to 150 people."
Goodlett, who handles eight to ten events at Woodford Reserve annually for clients such as Toyota, Johnson & Johnson, and General Electric, often incorporates elements of the local thoroughbred industry into events at the distillery by having a horse expert or jockey on site to answer questions and chat with attendees.
"I think the misperception of Kentucky is that, from a socioeconomic perspective, it's a step behind. In reality, Kentucky has become a place that attracts multibillionaires," says Goodlett of the newfound appeal of the Kentucky market.
"Companies have been all over the world doing events and yet they walk away saying 'Wow, I had no idea Kentucky had all of this to offer,' " Goodlett says. "You can play golf on any day in any place around the world, but you can only see the things I'm going to show you in Kentucky."
Woodford Reserve runs one-hour tours Tuesday through Saturday and seasonally on Sundays. In addition to the general tour, Woodford Reserve offers a more technically oriented two-hour "corn to cork" tour as well as a National Landmark Tour geared toward the historical aspects of the distillery.
Heaven Hill Distilleries lost its original distillery to fire in 1996, but the Bardstown, KY, grounds are still home to the warehousing and bottling operations as well as the Bourbon Heritage Center, which opened in October 2004. The distillery is now 30 miles away in Louisville.
The center was built to represent the entire bourbon industry, with white oak floors (bourbon matures in white oak barrels), a roof of copper (used in the pot stills), and limestone walls (the water used to make bourbon is filtered through limestone rocks).
Following a 20-minute film covering a short history of Kentucky, bourbon, and Heaven Hill, "bourbon hosts" take tour guests around the property.
"They are told the story of bourbon, the laws, the whys and wherefores of what we do and how we do it," explains Lynne Grant, Heaven Hill's director of guest services. Grant and her team have recognized the unique needs of convention groups and can be flexible to work with their schedules. "Especially with convention guests, we've realized that they can't always be around during the day, so we can open the center in the evening," she explains.
Post-tour tastings take place in the world's largest barrel, where guests participate in a 15-minute scent lesson and taste two single-barrel whiskies illuminated from below to show color differences. Tastings are limited to 21 participants at a time—a number suggestive of the legal drinking age, and intentionally small enough to create a level of intimacy.
Even for teetotaler Roc Linkov, events manager at The National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, KY, Heaven Hill is an ideal event venue. Linkov uses Heaven Hill roughly seven times a year for groups. "We've had outstanding feedback on it," he says. "It's very well done. There's a movie, detailed exhibits, hands-on exhibits, the gift shop is very interesting to people, and the tasting room looks like it could be at a high-end California winery."
Bond Over Brews
Distilleries aren't the only watering holes attracting groups; breweries are great locations for tours and receptions or dinners. The Great Lakes Brewing Company (GLBC) in Cleveland, OH, has two dedicated banquet spaces, the Tasting Room and the Rockefeller Room, to accommodate groups. The Tasting Room overlooks the brewing facilities, houses antique brewing memorabilia and a bar, and hosts up to 200 guests. The Rockefeller Room also has a bar and is a more intimate space for 20 to 50 attendees; the room is the former law office of industrialist John D. Rockefeller. Why consider a brewery? "Because it's unique and it's charming," says Kami Dolney, marketing coordinator at GLBC. "You get our beer—ours is the only beer served—and the brewery tour is a nice addition. It's not stale or stagnant; it's something that gets people talking."
U.S. Whiskey Distilleries
Kentucky has an entire bourbon trail, including:
Buffalo Trace: Franklin Co., (502) 696-5926
Four Roses: Lawrenceburg, (502) 839-3436
Jim Beam: Clermont, (502) 543-9877
Makers Mark Distillery: Loretto, (270) 865-2099
Wild Turkey: Lawrenceburg, (502) 839-4544
By Kentucky law, these facilities cannot sell liquor or offer tastings on Sundays or election days.
Outside of Kentucky, groups can visit:
George Dickel Distillery: Tullahoma, TN, (931) 857-3124 x230
Belmont Farm Distillery: Culpeper, VA, (540) 825-3207—licensed July 1, 2006, to be Virginia's only on-the-farm liquor store
A. Smith Bowman Distillery: Fredericksburg, VA, (540) 373-4555