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Beyond the Minibar: Why Booze Companies Are Opening Hotels

A new way for beer nerds and cocktail lovers to vacation

Photo: Olexandra Miskiv/Shutterstock

For far too long, room and board has fallen outside the purview of the world’s great distilleries and breweries, with low-key lodging experiences available exclusively to industry insiders. Sipsmith gin, a prime example, maintains a nondescript loft above its still house and tasting room in a residential neighborhood west of Central London: The Air G&T, as it is known, is invite-only for global bartenders and trade.

But the era of craft beverages is altering that reality, and innovation is now driven by a new wave of consumers: thirsty for knowledge, yearning for full immersion. All this is to say, don’t be surprised if your next trip to a tasting room leads directly to a nearby guest room.

In late 2016, Portobello Road grabbed international headlines after launching a so-called “gin hotel.” The property features boutique guest rooms, open to the public, located three stories above a working distillery, with a gastropub and a Spanish-inspired tapas bar sandwiched in the floors between. There was good reason for all the fanfare: Although the concept might not seem revolutionary, it was actually first of its kind, not just in London, but across the entire U.K.

Given its overnight success, it’s worth noting that the gin hotel almost never happened. It wasn’t incorporated into Ged Feltham’s business plan when he founded the Ginstitute — an educational project, first and foremost, designed to give students a hands-on experience with London’s most celebrated spirit — in November 2011. But as attendance grew, along with the nascent Portobello Road brand, the need for space became a pressing issue. That’s when Feltham and his partners landed upon a beautiful four-story townhouse (now dubbed, simply, the Distillery), with an enviable address at the heart of the Portobello Road street market, a well-trafficked destination in the city’s Notting Hill section. “It was never our intention to create a gin hotel,” Feltham admits. “But we liked the idea of introducing boutique guest rooms so visitors to the Ginstitute could stay above a working distiller.”

A full experience here begins with building the botanicals for your own take-home bottle in the basement distillery, pairing a wide assortment of bespoke cocktails with eccentric pub fare in the restaurants above, and mixing your own bedside nightcap with all the ingredients supplied in your penthouse suite — three chambers in total. “The Distillery is proud to be the world’s first gin hotel,” Feltham boasts, but unfortunately, the property has no physical way to accommodate expansion. Consequently, a stay here requires considerable planning. “We recommend that visitors plan to book their rooms as far in advance as possible: They quickly sell out.”

While Portobello Road is a game-changer for gin enthusiasts, Patrón has taken this model to the highlands of tequila, scaling it up to epic proportions — although, unfortunately, access here is invite-only. In January, the premium brand unveiled La Casona, an addition to a Spanish Colonial-style hacienda which already houses its outsized distillery. It’s a five-star resort masquerading as a guesthouse: 20 suites, gourmet dining, a full-service bar, a fitness center, and even a karaoke DJ.

“To truly understand and appreciate our commitment to the quality and craftsmanship that goes into every bottle of our tequila, you really have to visit the source,” explains CMO Lee Applbaum. “For many years we’ve organized trips for our distributors, bartenders, retailers, and journalists, but the closest hotels were more than an hour away in Guadalajara. So we decided to build a world-class residence on our property to comfortably accommodate our invited guests, just steps away from the distillery itself.”

Courtesy the Ginstitute.

If sinking millions of dollars into a luxury hotel that remains closed to the general public seems absurd, it speaks to the daunting challenges associated with running such an operation. “As much as we would love to be able to share our Hacienda with the general public, we’re simply not equipped to do that at this time,” Applbaum says. “Hacienda Patrón is a busy working distillery, and that’s our primary focus.”

Opening up to the public requires special licensing — and all the accompanying paperwork. The process can even invite unintended governmental scrutiny. And legal fees are never cheap. But limited finances are hardly an issue for the world’s leading producer of premium tequila. In reality, the brand’s runaway success is likely why they’re so reluctant to spring ajar its doors. The continuously operating distillery on-site houses countless millions in product: Let the public in, and you open yourself up to unnecessary risk. With its current configuration, the property can accommodate trusted guests with a resort-specific staff of no more than a dozen. Minimal activity, minimal risk.

As it is, La Casona is hardly desolate, hosting a cavalcade of international industry professionals as well as serving as occasional film set; late last year, its sleek, well-appointed kitchen served as the backdrop for the Top Chef season finale. With an air of exclusivity, the property will also attract high-end buyers, providing an environment where the ink can dry on million-dollar deals — a much more lucrative income than a traditional hotel would provide. But as word spreads, and industry climate shifts, the temptation to open it to the public might become too alluring to resist.

Other spirits brands manage to thwart operational difficulties by maintaining a firm firewall between distilling and lodging. On the island of Islay, in Scotland, Bowmore owns the quaint Harbour Inn directly across the street from their historic 248-year-old scotch operation. It consists of seven mid-sized rooms, a Loch-facing restaurant, and a proper Scottish pub.

Although reservations can be secured through the distillery’s website, Bowmore leaves the logistics of running an inn to hired innkeepers, who are considered separate from Bowmore employees. You won’t find anyone related to the brand working the counters or pouring your pints. Next door are the Bowmore Cottages, which are even more informal, designed for groups to share much like an Airbnb. This particular model benefits from the island’s remote geography, and the operation flies largely under the radar.

In the States, Oxbow Brewing Company in rural Maine has adopted a similar approach. The Farmhouse Rental, owned by Oxbow and located just steps away from the brewhouse and tasting room, doesn’t just operate like an Airbnb (it’s a fully equipped home with kitchen, shared living spaces, and laundry), it actually is one. “We use the site as our sole booking service,” says Greg Jasgur, director of sales. Hands-off, sure. But it also enabled them to become the first such outfit in all of American craft brewing, and the idea was born entirely of circumstance.

Since the facility is effectively in the middle of nowhere, lodging has been a practical way to entice visitors to this stunning, bucolic landscape. And thirsty travelers have pilgrimaged from as far away as Eastern Europe and the western United States. “I think that people are just more interested in learning where their products come from,” Jasgur says. “Between the beer geeks and the infrastructure of the internet, which spreads the word and allows the actual bookings… it all feeds into it.”

The most compelling signs of a full-fledged trend came earlier this year. Sensing swelling demand, Scottish-based BrewDog elected to crowdfund large-scale lodging as an integral component of its debut facility in the U.S., called the DogHouse. “The idea came from our craft-beer community,” explains co-founder Martin Dickie. “They took to Twitter to tell us they wanted a craft beer hotel — so we thought, ‘Why not?’”

The IndieGoGo campaign raised just over $60,000 toward an initial target of $75,000 — within the first 24 hours. To date, they’ve raised nearly $300,000 from roughly 2,000 supporters, all for a proposed hotel in Columbus, Ohio — not exactly a town that screams “tourist destination.” It’s a measurable testament to how starved drinkers are for such a model. “Loads of breweries are pushing the envelope at the moment, but we’ve not heard of anyone doing this,” says Dickie.

In terms of scale and immersion, nothing even comes close to BrewDog’s plans. Everything will cater to the beer geek: mini-fridges in the shower, malted barley massages, even a public jacuzzi filled with the brand’s flagship Punk IPA. Fifty rooms in total all feature windows peering into the brewhouse. And that’s just the start of it.

“All of the unique features of the hotel have come from the community, and we’re constantly seeking new weird and wonderful suggestions,” Dickie says. “If we like them and can make them work, then we will.” While you needn’t donate to the IndieGoGo campaign in order to secure a stay, financial backers enjoy all sorts of perks, ranging from free stays to the chance to design their own sour beer.

On its face, it’s almost shocking that on-site lodging has taken so long to emerge across the booze industry. Logistics have formed the most sizable stumbling block; from day-to-day operations (staffing, insurance, security concerns) to a byzantine gauntlet of legal hurdles.

But more and more breweries and distilleries are willing to work through these obstacles in light of increasing upsides, and today’s passionate consumers want to be up close and personal like never before. Brands are always eager to share their story in new and inventive ways. Bringing you under their roofs satisfies both sides of the equation. Everyone wins — except maybe your Uber driver.

Brad Japhe is a freelance journalist focusing on craft beer, spirits, and travel. Follow his adventures on Instagram.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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