The proposition of the tasting room is simple: It’s half bar and half liquor store, a place where people can buy a flight of booze to enjoy right away and leave with a few bottles for later. That one-two punch at the cash register has made tasting rooms a lucrative venture for vintners, so it’s no surprise that the concept is spreading — first to breweries, and now to distilleries.

There are 89 licensed craft distillers in California, and business is booming. Nationwide, craft distillers saw sales rise 23.7 percent by volume in 2017. Last year was a tipping point for the industry, in that overall sales of craft liquor grew at a higher rate than the increase in craft distilleries themselves, according to the market analyst International Wine and Spirits Research. In other words, craft distilleries are gaining their footing in a competitive market historically dominated by beer, wine and imported spirits.

At the same time, California has passed two laws in three years that have loosened restrictions on how hard liquor can be sold. In 2016, distilleries were granted permission to sell bottles directly to consumers — provided they had participated in a proper tasting — which created an incentive to open tasting rooms and create a new revenue stream.

“Tasting rooms are vital to a distiller’s operation,” says Brandy Rand, U.S. president of International Wine and Spirit Research. “They offer potential customers the ability to try the product before purchasing it. This is especially important when considering the price points of craft spirits,” which tend to be higher than non-craft spirits and competing products such as craft beer.

Not coincidentally, hard-liquor tasting rooms are popping up in California, where wine tasting is already popular. Spirit Works, a craft whiskey and gin distillery in Sebastopol, just marked its fifth anniversary. That makes it a relative old-timer among North Bay distilleries, and more competition is on the way. Hanson of Sonoma Distillery, a family-run business that launched in 2014, opened a vodka tasting room this summer in what used to be the Carneros Brewing Co. taproom, adjacent to the distillery. Hanson’s specialty is a unique grape-based vodka, so its tasting room is especially useful for introducing potential customers to an unfamiliar product.

The new tasting room “has been great for us,” says distillery patriarch Scott Hanson, “because it allows us to communicate directly with our customers.” It’s been especially handy, he added, since the existence of grape-based vodka is a bit novel: “I don’t think people are confused, but they are curious about all the products besides wine that can be made from grapes.”…READ THE FULL ARTICLE

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