Every business must stand out if it wants to be successful. This is in addition to working hard and having a product that people want. One standard way craft distilleries put themselves apart from the competition is through sheer quality. But the thing is, quality stops being a standout feature when every other craft distiller can rightfully claim the same thing. This desire to stand out has given rise to unique blends and infusions, which are great. That said, these are usually single product specific. As amazing as one bottle of uniquely blended or infused spirit may be, it doesn’t help all the other products that aren’t it fly off the shelves.
One way to stand out is through the use of a theme. Most distillers have a theme of some sort, but this is sometimes in the background or relegated to window dressing for the label. A label might play up the backwoods bootlegger or noir speakeasy, but that image might only be minimally present in the tasting rooms. Not only that, there is no reason for the imagery to be limited to the history and themes of hard liquor’s past.
One example of a distillery that went full out on its chosen theme is Backwards Distilling in Wyoming. The owners have always loved the circus and the mystique connected to it. They have decorated their tasting room with vintage Ringling Brothers posters and named their various spirits Ringleader, Contortionist, Sword Swallower, and such. Not only does it help set them apart, but it is also something they enjoy.
Choosing a theme can be a daunting enough task as is, but embracing it fully as on-premises décor is a big decision as well. Whatever it is, it will be something that the owners and people working there will have to look at for years to come. Will you still think the theme you picked is as cool twenty years from now as you felt on day one? And how far do you want to go with the theme? Are we talking a little bit of décor to add atmosphere, or are we wanting to make visitors feel wholly immersed in the theme like if you are going for a WWII vibe, do you want the tasting room to be an actual bunker or the bar a B-17 cockpit? There are many, many things to consider, including one big question.
If theme restaurants are dying, why would themed distilleries work?Like the liquor industry, the restaurant industry is changing. It’s a complicated situation with restaurants that has many variables, but it ultimately boils down to people’s eating out habits are changing while many restaurants haven’t. Millennials, the demographic that gets blamed for every business that goes under, want convenience and value. For the rest, the great recession has made many people gun shy on spending money on mediocre food. True theme restaurants are still doing okay-ish if they happen to be around tourist areas. Keep in mind though that people tend to incorrectly lump themed joints with casual dining chains like O’Charlie’s and T.G.I. Friday’s. Those are bottoming out.
Those factors don’t directly apply to the idea of themed distilleries. For one, nothing you get there will be mediocre. Mainly though, craft distilleries are passion projects. No one starts a distillery as a get rich quick scheme or as a hands-off, money generating business. Everything that the owners put into it means something. Any theme they come up will have this same heartfelt quality. This is way different from most of the chain restaurants where you can still smell the focus group all over whatever theme or atmosphere they put out there because it tested well.