It wasn’t until my first time at Four Pillars Distillery, back in February of 2017, that I realized where the craft spirits movement was heading. Actually, let me rephrase that: it’s when I realized where the craft spirits, craft beer, and boutique wine industries were all heading. I was sitting with acclaimed winemaker Steve Flamsteed (pictured above right), drinking a gin and tonic on a Thursday afternoon, and taking in the packed room at the distillery bar.
“Is it always like this?” I asked, in complete bewilderment. There were at least 50 people in the house, filling the room with conversation and life, transforming the concept of a gin distillery into more of a meeting hall. A clubhouse. A community center.
“Yeah, mate,” Flamo answered; “It’s happy hour and the winemakers are thirsty.” I remember thinking to myself that Four Pillars must sell more gin out of its own bar to the local clientele on an average weeknight than it does in the entire state of California.
“What an absolutely genius idea,” I said to myself; “A gin distillery in the middle of Australian wine country!” At the end of the day, when everyone has spent their entire shift working with wine, everyone goes to the gin distillery for a cocktail. It was a complete departure from the craft distillery model I had grown up with—the hybrid column-pot still, packed into an industrial warehouse somewhere on the outskirts of town. The mindset that the quality of the spirit itself mattered more than its presentation, and that building a global distribution network was the only way to grow. That formative idea was now completely destroyed. Four Pillars had invested in hospitality first and foremost. Start with your own backyard, then worry about the global market afterward.
Two and a half years later, this model is ubiquitous. Small wineries are now hosting women’s bookclub meetings and yoga retreats. Craft breweries have trivia nights and show movies outside in the summer. Micro-distilleries are bringing in local bartenders for cocktail events, throwing soirées with live music. Once considered “additional revenue streams,” the hospitality-centered services around alcohol production are quickly becoming just as important as the product itself, providing quick capital for cash-strapped enterprises who have found a way to engrain themselves as a community pillar.
Of course, it’s not just the small producers who are jumping into this arena, and it’s not just the drinks industry. Lifestyle brands of all sorts are getting their feet wet with hospitality. Equinox has set up its own hotel in New York, for those who consider health and fitness part of their vacation needs. Taco Bell recently launched a hotel in Palm Springs, for those who can’t be bothered to hit the drive thru after getting shit-faced in the desert. It’s pretty much everything you learn in “Marketing to Millenials 101” come to fruition: today’s consumers want experiences, not things.
As more products come to market and the competition gets tighter, today’s craft producers can’t afford to focus solely on the product. They have to put just as much effort into their Instagram rooms and their keto-friendly small bites. It’s the new reality of the drinks business in 2019.