Whether large or small, this marketing approach can be as effective as it is fun.
It doesn’t matter if you’re distilling the greatest unique spirits in history, pulling corks from the best wines ever bottled, or tapping a keg of the most complex and delicious cider or IPA mankind has yet crafted. You created it so that someone besides yourself will taste it, buy it, and tell their friends. Onsite tasting facilities are the time-honored way to not only get your product into the mouths of the public, but to gather critical feedback — and most importantly for small and beginning businesses — to make some cash.
The days of simply opening a tasting room/tap room and being swarmed with thirsty, curious customers without even trying are long gone in most places (if they ever existed at all). Increasingly, new brew pubs and cider houses are opening into markets with existing competitors. Even wine-tasting rooms in vineyard-tour locations need to give serious consideration to building and maintaining a customer base. At this point, the relative rarity of craft distiller tasting rooms may actually require distillers to put even more effort into attracting customers. They may have few, if any, local competitors, but many potential customers may not even know that craft distilleries exist, much less that they offer tasting rooms.
Hosting special events is a marketing mechanism worth considering by any beverage maker with access to an indoor or outdoor venue, regardless of size. From the tried-and-true live music, ladies nights, and Super Bowl parties to no-holds-barred blowouts, special events can generate social media buzz, draw new customers to your brand and build existing customer loyalty, and set you apart from the competition.
Everyone has an idea of traditional promotional strategies for the various craft beverage market segments: Pubs are casual and homey, wineries tend toward more formality, and bars fall somewhere in between. You can play with these tropes and even use them counter-intuitively to create interest, but take care that you don’t actually turn off your natural customer base. You might be able to draw a lot of curious people to a pig-wrestling event on the manicured grounds of your vineyard, but how many $25 bottles of pinot gris will they buy, and how many potential customers might turn away from “the pig wine” in the future?
However, as with all marketing and promotional advice, ignore the absolutes. Maybe pig rasslin’ is exactly the kick your new winery needs. Maybe an exclusive black-tie art exhibit will bring so much attention to your beer or cider that you’re running at capacity for years. Maybe there are reasons most businesses target the traditional demographics.
Now that your mind is engaged — and not too distracted by pig rasslin’ — here are some examples of innovative promotional strategies that others have tried.
Muddy Creek Brewery in Butte, Montana, has put a modern spin on a very old pub idea, the “Buy Someone a Drink” board, by combining it with social media. The old way was no use at all in bringing in new customers. But when regulars see their names in a picture of the board posted on Facebook, they can be enticed to return sooner — and people will let their friends know if they recognize a name.
Muddy Creek’s old-school “Buy Someone a Drink” board gets a new
twist when customers share it via Facebook. The brewery owners say
it helps build community while drawing customers to the venue.
Muddy Creek is also trying out live music in the tap room, but the brewery isn’t totally committed. Chris Sherman, cofounder/owner, explains, “We don’t really know what draws customers in and what does not really help us. As a result, we are experimenting.”
A third promotional project at the brewery is the least intuitive of all: Theology Pub. One night a week, the brewery hosts a discussion about God and religion. A Facebook page is dedicated to the event. A quick search on Facebook finds a handful of similar events held in pubs in Europe and sprinkled throughout the U.S.
Union Wine Company. Remember the pig rasslin’? Well, Union Wine Company in Sherwood, Oregon, hasn’t gone that far yet, but it might. The winery has put its tasting room on wheels, specifically a vintage French delivery truck. It makes sense for this winery, which cans its pinot noir and pinot gris in addition to offering traditional bottles (see Debate Over Cans Rages On). The truck travels to festivals and events and promotes the company’s casual “pinkies down” philosophy.
Union Wine Company’s restored French Citroen mobile tasting room fits perfectly with the company’s “pinkies down” marketing campaign and culture.
Attracting Spirits Aficionados
Although cider, beer, and wine tasting rooms are often connected to full-service restaurants or pubs, for a variety of reasons, many of them regulatory, craft spirits tasting rooms often cannot invite customers to linger. The typical tasting room offers product samples, a facilities tour, and often a small store where bottles can be purchased (if allowed by law). So, the goal for craft distillers is not always to bring customers in to consume, but to impress.
Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, pushes this concept to the limit with special events throughout the year to celebrate holidays, highlight its bourbons, and generally draw folks to the sprawling facility to visit and experience regularly scheduled complementary tours and tastings. Given its tremendous size and 200-year history, Buffalo Trace might not meet the strict definition of craft distiller — but its special events are marketing inspiration to beverage makers of any size or makeup.
Various dinner events — including Valentine's Day, Father's Day, and even Halloween — feature Buffalo Trace spirits paired with unique cuisine. A festival draws crowds in the spring, and the Great Buffalo Chase 5k run/walk on July 4 winds through the property and awards cash prizes. An Easter egg hunt and visit with Santa are family oriented and free.
What is the distillery's strategy behind these events — especially the family events that don't involve promoting or consuming alcohol? Kristie Wooldridge, public relations associate manager, communications, explains, "We simply enjoy giving back to our community by offering complementary community events throughout the year. At our ticketed dinners, we enjoy educating guests about our whiskies in entertaining ways that highlight our history." And community events are not necessarily the realm of only large, established companies: "There are many ways to give back to the community," Wooldridge says. "With the right resources and support, community events are a great way for any company to contribute."
In Seattle, Local Craft Tours has partnered with a select number of craft distilleries to provide a variety of luxury distillery tours. Ferried by Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van and sustained by gourmet snacks and cocktails made with craft spirits, customers enjoy tours and tastings at three area distilleries.