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By Mark Gillespie
March 17, 2020 – Scotland’s largest whisky festival is the latest to fall by the wayside in the wake of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Directors of the Spirit of Speyside Festival announced Tuesday evening that this year’s festival has been cancelled in line with government guidelines recommending against large-scale events.
The festival had been scheduled for the week of April 29-May 4, and thousands of tickets had already been sold for more than 700 different events throughout the Speyside region. The festival traditionally draws visitors from all over the world to Speyside every year as distilleries open their doors, including some only open to visitors during the festival.
Spirit of Speyside Chairman James Campbell said there was no choice but to cancel the event and regroup for next year when directors met Tuesday evening.
“We were very sad, and if there had been any other alternative…our number one priority is to make sure that our visiting guests and the people of Speyside in our local communities and all of our distillers and event providers are safe, and we do not want to put them into any unnecessary risk,” Campbell said in a telephone interview with WhiskyCast following the meeting.
“We tried to wait as long as possible before making a decision and we’ve always been hopeful that somewhere along the line, the news on the coronavirus would maybe turn for the better and we would be able to have a fantastic festival once again, but the news just keeps getting worse,” he said. Campbell noted that it was only fair to give ticket holders as much time as possible to cancel travel plans, along with allowing the participating distilleries and event promoters to make their own arrangements.
Festival volunteers will be contacting ticket holders, according to the web site. However, refunds will be at the discretion of individual event providers. Campbell noted that the Festival’s web site works much like a “travel agent” in coordinating ticket sales for distilleries and event organizers, but expects that most event providers will be willing to offer refunds.
The cancellation will have an economic impact in the Speyside region. According to Campbell, the event brings about £2 million GBP into the local economy each year. That means lost revenue for local hotel owners, pubs, restaurants, gift shops, and even the local taxi services who provide safe rides to festival attendees. As of now, the Spirit of Speyside: Distilled festival scheduled for August 28-29 in Elgin is still on, along with a gin festival scheduled for July assuming that the coronavirus crisis has passed by then.
Directors of Scotland’s other major whisky festival met Tuesday to discuss their options, with an announcement expected Wednesday. The Islay Festival of Malt & Music is scheduled to begin May 22, and all of the island’s nine distilleries have closed their visitors centers for now.
The Islay event traditionally sees the island’s population swell from around 3,000 residents to nearly 10,000 during the week, stressing the local infrastructure in the best of years. The Fèis Ìle Facebook page announcing the emergency meeting noted that impact as part of the considerations in making a decision.
“The welfare of islanders and visitors alike is of utmost importance, including the festival’s impact on health and transport services. As any decision we make does not prevent people from travelling to Islay at the time of the Festival, it is important that if Fèis Ìle 2020 is postponed or cancelled, we produce a clear and co-ordinated response from all parties.”
In addition to those events, organizers of the Campbeltown Malts Festival scheduled for May have announced the cancellation of their event scheduled for May 19-22. Springbank Distillery announced the cancellation on social media and its web site, along with the shuttering of its distillery to visitors until further notice. Ticket holders will be offered full refunds. Glen Scotia Distillery in Campbeltown also closed its visitors center with the joint festival announcement.
We will continue to update this story as necessary.
By Mark Gillespie
March 16, 2020 – With Scottish officials issuing new guidance on the coronavirus crisis recommending that large gatherings be avoided, more distillers are closing their doors to the public for tours and the fate of this spring’s major whisky festivals is very much in jeopardy.
Directors of the Spirit of Speyside Festival have scheduled an emergency meeting Tuesday to discuss their options in light of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s call today to stop all “non-essential social contact” for now. Thousands of tickets have already been sold for the festival’s 700-plus events, with visitors expected in the Speyside from around the world when the festival begins April 30. Islay Festival of Malt & Music directors are also meeting Tuesday evening to discuss their options for Fèis Ìle, which is scheduled to begin May 22. Both groups have advised that announcements will be made on their respective web sites and social media channels once decisions are made. In addition, Whisky Live London promoter Paragraph Publishing has now postponed that event until later this year, with a new date to be announced later.
Sturgeon’s call for Scots to avoid public transit and social contact came a day after her government called for a voluntary end to large public gatherings until further notice. The Scottish Government does not currently have the legal authority to order a mandatory ban, but suggested that it could seek that authority. The move is not directly intended to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, but to provide relief for first responders to allow them to prioritize care for those infected with the virus.
The Islay event presents unique challenges for public health officials in that the island’s population swells from its usual 3,000 to around 9,000 people during the week, placing severe stress on Islay’s infrastructure in normal years. With limited public health facilities on Islay, the ability to deal with a coronavirus outbreak during the festival would be minimal at best.
After a meeting of the island’s distillers Monday evening, all nine of Islay’s distilleries have now closed their visitors centers. Ardbeg and Bunnahabhain had been screening visitors from known coronavirus hot spots for symptoms, but joined their colleagues in closing Tuesday along with Bruichladdich and Kilchoman. Bunnahabhain owner Distell announced Tuesday morning that it will also close its Tobermory and Deanston distilleries to visitors until at least April 3.
Diageo has closed the visitors centers at all 12 distilleries in Scotland that operate tours and visitors centers until at least April 3. In a statement, Diageo executives said “the health and well-being of our employees, visitors and on-site partners is our highest priority.” The decision includes some of Scotland’s most popular distilleries for visitors, including Lagavulin and Caol Its on Islay, Dalwhinnie in the Highlands, Cardhu and Cragganmore in Speyside, and Glenkinchie in the Lowlands. Those holding tickets for tours scheduled between now and April 3 will be able to get refunds or reschedule after tours resume.
Monday, Edrington closed the gates to its landmark visitor destination at The Macallan in Speyside, less than two years after the £150 million GBP complex opened to the public. Highland Park Distillery on Orkney has also closed its distillery shop and tours, though the Highland Park shop in downtown Kirkwall will remain open for now. Edrington officials pledged to keep paying tour guides and shop workers during the shutdown, saying in a statement that “in addition to safeguarding our visitor experience employees and guests, the decision to close will also protect the operations staff, who continue to work as normal within our distilleries. We would like to thank all our people for their patience and professionalism during this unprecedented time.”
Glenmorangie Distillery in the Highlands remains open for now, but is screening visitors from known coronavirus hot spots for possible exposure. While its visitor center will remain open, Glen Moray Distillery in Elgin ended tours Monday with a notice on social media.
Edradour Distillery had only been offering limited tours during the winter, with plans to expand that in April for the tourist season. However, the distillery has now decided it will close to the public completely through the end of April. Ben Nevis Distillery has also announced that it will close down tours and its gift shop until further notice.
In the United States, Sazerac has now locked down the Buffalo Trace and Barton 1792 distilleries in Kentucky until further notice. In addition, events at Buffalo Trace scheduled through early April are being cancelled, including the Easter at The Trace celebration scheduled for April 5. The final event in the distillery’s Legendary Craftsmen Dinner Series scheduled for March 27 has been rescheduled for August 27. The Sazerac House in New Orleans, Louisiana and the A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Virginia are also closed until further notice as well.
Smaller U.S. distilleries are also now closing their tasting rooms and gift shops in line with state government emergency orders. That list includes Catoctin Creek in Virginia, which will keep its on-site shop open for bottle sales only and is also providing free sanitizing alcohol to consumers who bring their own bottle to the distillery. Co-founder Scott Harris told WhiskyCast in an email that the alcohol is not intended for use as a hand sanitizer, but can be used to disinfect surfaces when commercial products are not available. The distillery is also cancelling all events through the end of March, with no decision yet on April events.
Constellation Brands-owned High West Distillery has closed both its original site in Park City, Utah and its main distillery in Wanship, Utah to the public until further notice. Tuthilltown Spirits in Gardiner, New York is also closed as part of the worldwide closing of William Grant & Sons distillery experiences.
Sagamore Spirit Distillery in Baltimore, Maryland is one of the few distilleries to shut down production as well as visitor center operations. The distillery announced on its web site that the entire facility will be closed until at least March 27, and guests with pre-booked tours will be contacted to arrange for refunds or a rescheduled visit.
The U.S. chapter of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society has now postponed all of its tasting events nationwide through the end of April. The organization’s web site does not specify whether refunds will be available or when the postponed events will be rescheduled. A spokesman for the Society headquarters in Scotland has advised WhiskyCast that many of its tasting events in Europe have also been cancelled in line with local government mandates. For now, the SMWS venues in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and London remain open and tasting events will continue with special hygiene measures in place.
This story will be updated as necessary.
Editor’s note: This story was updated with the closing of Distell’s Bunnahabhain, Tobermory, and Deanston distilleries to visitors Tuesday morning, along with additional information on the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
By Mark Gillespie
March 15, 2020 – Pubs are a way of life in Ireland, but the COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic has forced the Irish Government to call for a complete closing of the country’s pubs as of “last orders” tonight. The request from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s administration will mean a “dry” St. Patrick’s Day Tuesday, but government officials have determined that shutting down pubs until March 29 could help prevent the spread of the virus. The request is voluntary, but government officials will monitor compliance to determine whether “different measures might be required.
As of Sunday afternoon, 169 people in Ireland had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus with two deaths reported.
While a number of pubs had already closed voluntarily, health officials cited “reckless behaviour by certain members of the public in certain pubs” Saturday night. News reports showing images from social media with the hashtag #CloseThePubs showed packed pubs in Dublin’s Temple Bar neighborhood and other parts of the country Saturday night. Government officials met Sunday with leaders of Dublin’s Licensed Vintners Association and the Vintners Federation of Ireland, which are urging their members to comply with the request.
Here is the complete text of the government’s statement:
Following discussions today with the Licenced Vintners Association (LVA) and the Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI), the government is now calling on all public houses and bars (including hotel bars) to close from this evening (Sunday 15 March) until at least 29 March.
The LVA and VFI outlined the real difficulty in implementing the published Guidelines on Social Distancing in a public house setting, as pubs are specifically designed to promote social interaction in a situation where alcohol reduces personal inhibitions.
For the same reason, the government is also calling on all members of the public not to organise or participate in any parties in private houses or other venues which would put other peoples’ health at risk.
The government, having consulted with the Chief Medical Officer, believes that this is an essential public health measure given the reports of reckless behaviour by some members of the public in certain pubs last night.
While the government acknowledges that the majority of the public and pub owners are behaving responsibly, it believes it is important that all pubs are closed in advance of St. Patrick’s Day.
The Licenced Vintners Association (LVA) and the Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI) both supported this decision and urged all their members to close in line with the government’s request.
The government and the LVA and VFI also discussed the support measures for businesses and their staff affected by the COVID-19 crisis which have been put in place last week.
The government will continue to monitor the situation, including the compliance of all pubs with this request, as well as any further or different measures which might be required in the future.
The effectiveness of the Guidelines on Social Distancing in other parts of the hospitality and leisure industry, for example restaurants and cinemas, will also be kept under review and subject to further consultation with stakeholders in the coming days.
The government had already imposed a ban on large events and gatherings of more than 100 people, and all of Ireland’s distillery visitor centers and whiskey-focused attractions have closed their doors to the public. It’s believed that the government does not have the legal authority to simply order pubs to close without legislative approval, even in a state of emergency.
The move has the potential to cause problems along the open border with Northern Ireland, where the British Government is still advising its citizens to proceed with normal daily activities for now. With pubs on that side of the border remaining open, the possibility for an increase in drunken driving exists as people search out open pubs. A spokesman for the Garda, Ireland’s national police force, told WhiskyCast in an email that “the enforcement of Road Traffic legislation, in particular drink/drug driving will continue and the management and co-ordination of same rests with the local Regional Officers.”
This story will be updated as additional details become available.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include additional information, including a response from the Garda to our question about drunk driving enforcement.
By Mark Gillespie
Updated March 15, 2020 – As the impact of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic spreads, more whisky events are being cancelled or postponed and the list of distilleries temporarily halting public tours and closing visitors centers is growing – with more expected in the coming days.
This could be a critical week for whisky lovers planning to attend the upcoming major spring whisky festivals in Scotland, where Scottish officials will release more details Monday on their plan to ban large public gatherings. The Spirit of Speyside Festival and the Islay Festival of Malt & Music both attract thousands of international visitors each year, and organizers of both events are waiting for guidance from the government while stressing that they hope to be able to present their events as scheduled.
In addition, Universal Whisky Experience founder Mahesh Patel announced Sunday night that The Nth, his high-roller whisky and spirits show scheduled for next month at the Wynn Las Vegas resort, is being cancelled. While Nevada officials have not yet moved to limit public gatherings, Wynn Resorts executives decided voluntarily to cancel large entertainment gatherings for the immediate future. The show will be rescheduled for April 23-24, 2021, and existing 2020 tickets will be honored for the 2021 event. Wynn will issue refunds for deposits on hotel room reservations for this year’s event.
Diageo is keeping the visitors centers at 12 of its distilleries in Scotland open for now. An Edinburgh-based Diageo spokesman confirmed the decision Sunday in an email to WhiskyCast, while emphasizing that the decision remains “under continual review,” and additional sanitation measures are in place at all facilities.
Friday, the world’s largest spirits producer closed its distillery visitor experiences in Kentucky and Tennessee until further notice. The move affects the Bulleit Distilling Co. in Shelbyville, Kentucky and the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in the Louisville suburb of Shively, along with the George Dickel visitors center at Cascade Hollow Distilling Co. in Tullahoma, Tennessee. Tours at the Roe & Co. Distillery and the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, Ireland have also been shut down until at least March 29 in line with government restrictions
Pernod Ricard’s Corby Spirit & Wine unit decided Sunday to close its J.P. Wiser’s Experience brand home at the Hiram Walker Distillery in Windsor, Ontario until April 3. The distillery will continue to operate as usual, and direct-to-consumer online sales will still be available to Ontario residents.
Whisky Advocate magazine has rescheduled its annual WhiskyFest Chicago event from the original date of March 27 to December 11, one week after WhiskyFest San Francisco. The decision came after Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker ordered a 30-day statewide ban on events with more than 1,000 attendees. Tickets purchased for the March event will be honored on the rescheduled date.
Paragraph Publishing has postponed this week’s Whisky Live in Tel Aviv, Israel until a May date to be determined. However, plans are still in place to go forward with Whisky Live London March 27 and 28, along with the Whisky Magazine awards dinner on March 26, with the guidance that “we are closely monitoring UK government advice on the coronavirus outbreak, which is currently that people should go about their business as usual.” This week’s Whiskey and Barrel Nite event in New York City has also been postponed, with a date to be announced in the near future.
The American Distilling Institute postponed its 2020 convention in New Orleans after Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards signed an order Friday banning public gatherings of more than 250 people through April 13. The ADI conference was scheduled for April 6-8 at the Hyatt Regency New Orleans. ADI President Bill Owens said in a statement that plans for rescheduling the conference will be announced this week. That came a day after the American Craft Spirits Association announced the postponement of its annual conference in Portland, Oregon.
This weekend’s Trondheim Whisky Festival in Trondheim, Norway, was cancelled after Norwegian officials imposed a ban on events with more than 500 attendees. Organizers are hoping to reschedule the festival for later this year, but are offering full refunds to ticket holders.
The list of cancellations and postponements for upcoming events also includes the Whisky Festival Noord Nederland in the Netherlands, along with Whiskies of the World U.S. events in San Jose, San Francisco, and Nashville. The main tasting event for the BC Distilled festival in Vancouver, British Columbia April 4 has been cancelled, but organizers are moving forward with smaller satellite tastings.
The coronavirus pandemic has had no apparent impact on whisky production, and distillers are trying to keep it that way by minimizing contact between distillery workers and the public.
Beam Suntory is ending tours and closing visitors centers at all of its facilities worldwide starting Monday, including the Jim Beam American Stillhouse and Maker’s Mark Distillery in Kentucky, the Laphroaig, Bowmore, and Glen Garioch distilleries in Scotland, and Ireland’s Kilbeggan Distillery.
Heaven Hill has shut down its Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown, Kentucky and the Evan Willians Bourbon Experience in Louisville until further notice, as has Campari’s Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg. In a statement, Campari executives stressed the need to protect distillery staff and consumers alike.
“While the Visitor Center will be closed, our distillery remains operational, and we shall continue operating at a normal production rate. Accordingly, all spirits produced and bottled at the Wild Turkey Distillery will continue to meet our high standards of safety.”
Campari is also closing its visitors centers at Glen Grant Distillery in Glenrothes, Scotland and the Forty Creek Distillery in Grimsby, Ontario for at least two weeks, along with other Campari brand homes worldwide.
Four Roses Distillery has suspend tours and closed its gift shops through at least March 29 at the distillery in Lawrenceburg and the maturation/bottling complex in Cox’s Creek, Kentucky. Visitors with pre-purchased tours during the shutdown will be contacted and issued full refunds, according to a Four Roses spokesperson.
Michter’s is suspending tours at its main distillery in Louisville and the Fort Nelson microdistillery on Louisville’s downtown “Whiskey Row” until at least April 1, according to Michter’s president Joseph Magliocco, and Rabbit Hole Distillery in Louisville has cancelled tours and events through the end of March.
California’s Sonoma Distilling Company also said Friday evening on its Instagram feed that its tasting room in Rohnert Park will be closed until further notice “in an abundance of caution and in respectful support of community well being.”
Brown-Forman is now doing the same, adding the GlenDronach, BenRiach and Glenglassaugh distilleries in Scotland, Slane Distillery located at Ireland’s Slane Castle, and the Brown-Forman Cooperage in Louisville to previously announced closings of visitors centers and tours at Jack Daniel Distillery in Tennessee, along with the Woodford Reserve and Old Forester distilleries in Kentucky.
Whyte & Mackay has extended its cancellation of tours at The Dalmore and Jura distilleries in Scotland to May 1 after originally cancelling them through March. A company spokesman told WhiskyCast in an email that the gift shops at both distilleries will remain open during the period. Inver House has closed its Balblair, Old Pulteney, Knockdhu (anCnoc), and Balmenach (Caorunn Gin) distilleries in Scotland to visitors.
WhiskyCast has reached out to all major whisky companies to get updates on the status of their operations, and will update our coverage as we receive details.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include new information.
By Mark Gillespie
March 12, 2020 – The Scottish government is among the latest to ban events with large crowds as the COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus pandemic spreads. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called for the cancellation of events with 500 more people starting next week in order to free up emergency services workers, with no timetable on when events might be able to resume.
As a result, the directors of the Islay Festival of Malt & Music are organizing an emergency meeting to discuss the status of this year’s Fèis Ìle scheduled for May 22-30. That meeting will include local leaders, distillery representatives, and festival directors, and will depend on additional guidance from the Scottish government. Late Thursday night, festival directors posted this update on the event’s Facebook page:
“Following the First Minister’s announcement to ban large gatherings from Monday, we are in the process of arranging an emergency meeting with the Festival Committee, distilleries and other parties. The welfare of islanders and visitors alike is of utmost importance, including the festival’s impact on health and transport services. As any decision we make does not prevent people from travelling to Islay at the time of the Festival, it is important that if Fèis Ìle 2020 is postponed or cancelled, we produce a clear and co-ordinated response from all parties. More advice on the Government gathering ban will be issued by Monday, and we will publish a statement as soon as we are able to offer definitive advice on events.”
The festival attracts whisky lovers from around the world to Islay, and attendance in recent years has been estimated at nearly 9,000 visitors – triple the island’s full-time population of around 3,000 people. That level of tourist traffic has strained Islay’s infrastructure, and the island has limited public health services available to care for patients in the event of a serious outbreak on Islay.
At least two of Islay’s nine distilleries will be closed to visitors because of the coronavirus outbreak following Beam Suntory’s decision to shut down visitor centers and tours at all of its distilleries starting Monday. Laphroaig and Bowmore distilleries are affected by that decision, but as of now, no other Islay distilleries have taken a similar step. Ardbeg has posted a notice on its web site asking visitors who may have traveled to China, Italy, Japan, or seven other countries in the past 14 days and may be suffering coronavirus symptoms to delay a visit to the distillery – a policy also in place at sister distillery Glenmorangie in the Highlands.
Next to actual whisky production, whisky-related tourism is one of the island’s major economic engines, and a cancellation of the Feis or lengthy closings of distillery visitors centers could cause significant economic issues for Islay businesses.
A more pressing concern is the fate of this year’s Spirit of Speyside Festival, which also brings an international crowd of whisky lovers to the Elgin area. That festival is just seven weeks away from its scheduled opening ceilidh on April 30, and thousands of tickets have already been sold for the more than 700 events sponsored by distilleries around the region. While only a handful of the festival’s events would be likely to have 500 or more people on hand, the potential for the coronavirus to spread among people moving between events presents a serious public health issue.
Spirit of Speyside Festival chairman James Campbell acknowledged the seriousness of what he called a “fast-moving issue” in an email, and says festival organizers will follow official Government advice to the letter:
“We still hope to be able to stage our Festival this year, but we are very conscious that we would not wish to put our visiting guests at risk. As further Government advice is forthcoming in the days and weeks ahead, we will be keeping this situation very much under review and will keep everyone updated as we progress,” Campbell said. According to the Spirit of Speyside web site, the festival will continue as planned for now.
This story will be updated as necessary.
By Mark Gillespie
March 12, 2020 – As professional sports and conference organizers worldwide cancel or postpone their event plans in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, whisky makers and event organizers are starting to feel the impact as well. A growing number of distilleries are closing their visitors center operations and banning visitors in an attempt to protect distillery workers against possible exposure to the COVID-19 novel coronavirus by guests who may have been unwittingly exposed.
In Ireland, where many St. Patrick’s Day celebrations for the next week have already been cancelled, Irish Distillers has now closed its Jameson Distillery Bow Street experience in Dublin and the Jameson Distillery Midleton visitors center in County Cork. The closings took effect at the end of business today and will last until at least March 30 or “when it is appropriate” to reopen after consultations with Irish health officials, according to a statement released by Irish Distillers.
Dublin’s Teeling Whiskey Company, the neighboring Dublin Liberties Distillery, and the Pearse Lyons Distillery have also now ended public tours and visits until at least March 29. Teeling Whiskey managing director Jack Teeling and his team made the decision at noon local time to shut down tours and the gift shop at the end of the day, though he fears the closings could be for much longer than the current March 29 guideline. In an email confirming the closing to WhiskyCast, Dublin Liberties Distillery manager Darryl McNally described Ireland as being “on lockdown” to comply with government directives on facilities with a capacity of 100 or more people. “It wasn’t something we took lightly but in the interests of safety we as a Management Team decided it was for the best. This is one of the biggest things to hit a generation…worrying times,” McNally said.
The closings come at the worst time of the year for Irish Whiskey makers, who now will not be able to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day next week. Jack Teeling said in an email that “it will be a large financial hit for us during a traditionally very busy time around St Patrick’s Day but hope it is the right decision for the safety of our staff and visitors.”
At the same time, the Irish Whiskey Association has been promoting its new “Irish Whiskey 360” tourism campaign during a series of events in the United States. A number of those events have been cancelled because of the coronavirus outbreak, but during Wednesday night’s event in Philadelphia, association president William Lavelle noted that visitors will eventually be able to travel to Ireland once again when the pandemic ends. “We don’t know for how long this crisis is going to continue, but Irish Whiskey 360 is a long-term campaign…long after the corona epidemic has passed, we’ll be here growing Irish Whiskey,” he said.
Kentucky could be equally hurt by a decline in whisky-related tourism. Brown-Forman announced late Thursday that it will suspend public tours at the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles and the Old Forester Distillery in Louisville starting Sunday. In addition, the company’s Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee will suspend its public tours starting on Monday. All three distilleries will honor existing tour reservations, but no walk-up tours will be allowed, and the closings will affect all visitor facilities including cafes and gift shops. The move will have no impact on production, and is designed to protect distillery workers and their families from exposure to the coronavirus. Alltech, which owns the Town Branch Distillery in Lexington along with the Pearse Lyons Distillery in Dublin, has stopped all tours and gift shop sales at its Kentucky facility until further notice.
Both moves follow an announcement earlier in the day from Beam Suntory, which issued a statement that it will close all of its distilleries and facilities worldwide to the public effective Monday, March 16.
“We understand that this may be disappointing to our fans and we apologize for any inconvenience. Please be assured that we are taking this action out of an abundance of caution because the health and wellbeing of our employees and loyal brand fans is paramount. We look forward to resuming tours in the future.”
That includes two of Kentucky’s most popular distillery attractions, the Jim Beam American Stillhouse in Clermont and the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, along with the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse in downtown Louisville. In addition, Laphroaig, Bowmore, and Glen Garioch distilleries in Scotland and the Kilbeggan Distillery Experience in Ireland will also be affected. The company had already closed the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries in Japan to visitors indefinitely.
Late this afternoon, Westland Distillery in Seattle announced that its tasting room and distillery shop will remain closed until at least March 27. Seattle has been one of the hardest-hit cities in the U.S., and the distillery had already been closed to visitors temporarily pending today’s decision. Westland spokesman Steve Hawley said the distillery’s entire staff has already been promised that they will be paid during the closing, and the new challenge will be “working on some creative ways to keep them busy.”
In Scotland, the list of closings includes Glenfiddich, one of Scotland’s largest distilleries and home to a large-scale tourism complex, along with the neighboring Balvenie distillery. Both are owned by William Grant & Sons, and while the company declined interview requests, a spokesperson provided a statement by email.
We are not aware of any confirmed cases of coronavirus at any William Grant & Sons locations. We have taken the precautionary measure to close The Balvenie and Glenfiddich Visitor Centres in Dufftown as we welcome visitors from all over the world. Our visitor centres are closed until further notice, but distilleries remain operational. As this is a fast moving situation, we will not be offering further comment at this time.
Whyte & Mackay has extended the cancellation of public tours at its Jura and Dalmore distilleries until at least May 1, though gift shops at both distilleries remain open. The company’s Fettercairn Distillery has been closed for tours all winter long, and is not scheduled to reopen until at least May 1 as well.
However, Edrington is keeping The Macallan and Highland Park distilleries open for now. Edrington spokesman Marc Bromfeld told WhiskyCast in an email that the decision was made “in line with current UK government advice…with appropriate health and hygiene measures in place. We have official advice under close and regular review.”
On the festival front, after planning to hold Whiskey and Barrel Nite festival in New York City on March 19 as early as mid-day Thursday, promoter Dave Sweet announced on the event’s web site Thursday night that the festival will be postponed until a June date to be determined.
“In 16 years and 100 shows, we have never had to delay an event. This is an incredibly difficult decision, but we feel it is in the best interest of you – the consumer we serve, our exhibitors, industry partners, colleagues, and all staff involved in running the event.”
The NAV Centre in Cornwall, Ontario announced today that its Wonderful World of Whisky Show scheduled for March 26-28 has now been cancelled under pressure from provincial and federal government officials. The Centre’s Ian Bentley told exhibitors and media on a conference call that plans to move ahead with the event were in place until this morning, when officials tightened restrictions on event attendance from 1,000 to just 250, and he worried that the coming days might see that restriction made even tighter. According to Bentley, the NAVCentre will honor all tickets for next year’s event to be held the weekend of March 25-27, 2021, and will offer refunds through Eventbrite to ticket holders.
The NAVCentre was also the primary quarantine site for Canadian citizens evacuated from cruise ships because of the coronavirus outbreak. While there are currently no patients being quarantined at the conference center and hotel complex, the Canadian government holds a contract to be able to use the entire facility on demand through April 19.
In Europe, the Whisky Festival Noord Nederland scheduled for March 27-29 was cancelled Thursday on orders from Dutch health officials. Organizers are looking for an alternative date at this time.
In addition, the organizers of Whiskies of the World have cancelled all of their scheduled U.S. events for March and April with the exception of Friday night’s Whiskies of the World in Denver. That includes events scheduled for March 27 in San Jose and March 29 in San Francisco, where local health officials have imposed bans on large events. Organizers plan to reschedule the cancelled events, and will honor tickets either at the rescheduled event or the 2021 event. Late Thursday, the promoters of the American Whiskey Convention scheduled for April 3 in Philadelphia announced plans to postpone their event after city officials banned gatherings of more than 1,000 people for the next 30 days. These changes are in addition to the New Orleans Bourbon Festival, which was scheduled for this weekend until it was postponed Tuesday until a date to be determined.
Whisky Live London will also be held as scheduled for now March 27-28 with extensive health and safety precautions in place.
The pandemic is also affecting both of the U.S. distilling industry’s major conferences. Thursday, the American Craft Spirits Association postponed its annual conference and trade show planned for Portland, Oregon March 29-31. No new date has been announced. Friday, the American Distilling Institute announced plans to postpone its annual conference in New Orleans April 6-8 following an order from Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards banning gatherings of more than 250 people through April 13. A new date for that conference could be announced in the next week.
Organizers of Scotland’s two major whisky festivals scheduled for later this spring are looking at their options following the Scottish Government’s decision to ban gatherings of more than 500 people starting this Monday. Directors of the Islay Festival of Malt & Music are calling an emergency meeting of local leaders, distillery representatives, and other affected parties, while Spirit of Speyside Festival chairman James Campbell told WhiskyCast he and his colleagues will follow government recommendations “to the letter.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional postponements and closings. We have also reached out to executives at many major distilleries and festival organizers for their status, and will update this story as necessary.
Links: Jameson | Teeling Whiskey Company | Dublin Liberties Distillery | Pearse Lyons Distillery | Irish Whiskey 360 | Beam Suntory | Town Branch Distillery | Westland Distillery | Glenfiddich | The Balvenie | Jura | The Dalmore | The Macallan | Highland Park | NAVCentre | Whiskies of the World | American Whiskey Convention | New Orleans Bourbon Festival | Whiskey & Barrel Nite | WhiskyFest Chicago | Whisky Live London | American Craft Spirits Association | American Distilling Institute | Islay Festival of Malt & Music | Spirit of Speyside Festival
March 10, 2020 – Longtime Bruichaddich manager and Ileach Duncan McGillivray has died at the age of 68. McGillivray died last night after several years of failing health, according to Simon Coughlin of Rémy Cointreau, which owns the distillery on Islay.
McGillivray retired from Bruichaddich in 2014 after 40 years at the distillery, where he started out as an apprentice in 1974 and worked his way up to distillery manager when Bruichladdich’s owners closed it in 1994. He stayed on to oversee the site and its inventory of maturing whisky as leader of a skeleton crew until 2001, when Mark Reynier and his investors acquired Bruichladdich and entrusted Duncan with returning it to life.
While Jim McEwan served as Production Director, overseeing Bruichladdich’s whiskies and traveling the world to promote the distillery, his “running buddy” Duncan worked tirelessly to keep the aging plant operating using a lot of second-hand equipment and parts. When McGillivray retired, Simon Coughlin praised him for “his ability to innovate and improvise in the face of seemingly impossible engineering challenges.” In confirming his death, Coughlin described him in an email as “a true gent and a one-off.”
Reynier, who left Bruichladdich following its sale to Rémy Cointreau, credits McGillivray’s inspiration for his decision to found Waterford Distillery in Ireland. Waterford is scheduled to release its first whiskey next month, and in an email today, Reynier noted that he had just completed the label copy for “Pilgrimage” and “name-checked” Duncan McGillivray on the back label for that whiskey. It will go on sale at Waterford’s first open day on April 25.
McGillivray is survived by his wife Susan, daughters Donna, Jenny, and Helen, his grandchildren – and a legion of friends on Islay and around the world. His family has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Residents Fund at Gortanvogie Home in Bowmore.
March 1, 2020 – The founders of Calgary-based Secret Spirits are in an Idaho jail after being arrested on charges of illegally selling Scotch Whisky to undercover state liquor agents. Jonathan and Cindy Bray were arrested by Idaho State Police last Monday and face felony charges of criminal conspiracy and selling liquor without a license. They are being held in the Kootenai County Jail in Coeur d’Alene on $100,000 bond each, according to the jail’s current list of inmates as of this morning. Both are scheduled to appear in District Court for a hearing this coming Friday (March 6).
According to the Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press, the Brays told the agents they were trying to get rid of more than 100 bottles of whisky from a storage unit because of “trade disagreements” that kept them from getting it into Canada. They had the whisky shipped to Idaho, and told the agents it would be easier to sell the whisky there than try to transport it to Calgary. Agents seized more than 100 bottles of Scotch from the storage unit following the arrests. Secret Spirits does not hold the federal licenses required to operate legally as an importer or distributor in the United States, and it is illegal to sell alcoholic beverages in Idaho without the proper state licenses.
The Brays have been fixtures in Canada’s whisky industry for at least a decade. Prior to founding Secret Spirits, they were partners in Purple Valley Imports, and have been regular exhibitors at many Canadian whisky festivals. Their company has also distributed whiskey and spirits brands from Ireland and Japan within Canada, according to the Secret Spirits web site.
Secret Spirits is best known for its annual Whisky Advent calendars, which the Brays produced using whisky imported from Scotland. Court records indicate the Brays have shipped 154 boxes of whisky from their Idaho storage unit to U.S. customers since last November, and that they had told the private postal franchise handling their shipments that the packages contained “blown glass from Scotland” instead of whisky. It is illegal to ship alcoholic beverages through the United States Postal Service.
Prosecutors originally asked for bail of $250,000 each and for both suspects to turn over their passports, based on the potential sentence of up to 10 years in prison. While neither of the Brays have criminal records in the U.S., prosecutor Jed Whitaker told the newspaper that the potential penalties are severe enough to make them flight risks. A magistrate set bail at $100,000 each and ordered the Brays to forfeit their passports until the case is resolved.
As previously noted, the Brays remain in custody and have not been available for comment. It is not known whether they have retained legal counsel to speak on their behalf.
Editor’s note: As with all criminal cases in the U.S., defendants are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty at trial. Since the Brays remain in custody, we have not been able to get their side of the story. This story will be updated with additional details as needed. This story was edited to clarify the extent of the Secret Spirits distribution business within Canada.
February 29, 2020 – The University of Kentucky’s main campus in Lexington will be getting a new 600-bed “dormitory,” of sorts. It’ll house undergraduate whisky barrels instead of students, though.
Construction will begin in the next few weeks on a new microdistillery and maturation warehouse as part of the UK College of Agriculture’s James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits. Independent Stave Company CEO Brad Boswell announced during the Institute’s first industry conference Thursday that his family will donate $1 million to fund construction of the warehouse. It’ll be used to mature whiskey and other spirits distilled by students as part of their studies, along with testing new ideas in whisky maturation.
“Hopefully, we’ll have lots of good liquids going into barrels, different types of barrels for different amounts of time and see how they perform,” Boswell said during a news briefing at the conference. “We’ll have a common goal of making better and better Bourbons and whiskies that the public enjoys responsibly,” he said.
The Beam Institute was established last year with a $5 million endowment from Beam Suntory with a goal of creating degree programs for students seeking careers in distilling, along with funding scientific research. The Institute has already started work with colleagues at other universities and the U.S. Forest Service on a long-term project to map the genome of the American White Oak tree. That research will help determine the best ways to ensure the survival of the species, which is a critical element of the whisky-making process for distillers around the world.
“I’m so honored that the Boswell family felt comfortable with us to build that facility and make this the world-class facility that it can be,” UK professor and Beam Institute director Seth DeBolt said. “That is the final piece where (students) can engage in not only the distilling, the grains piece, and all the operations, but then take that into the maturation piece…that’s an amazing opportunity even though the aging period may extend beyond when they’re actually in the classroom, that will be something they can come back, visit, think about, and learn from,” he said in an interview following the announcement.
The warehouse will be named the “Independent Stave Company Boswell Family Barrel Warehouse,” with construction of the distillery and warehouse expected to take about 18 months. It will be the first distillery and maturation warehouse on a college campus in Kentucky, and one of the first in the nation.
DeBolt doesn’t see any potential issues with having hundreds of barrels of whiskey maturing in the middle of a thirsty college campus. He noted that it’s hard to move a 500-pound barrel of whiskey without being noticed, but allowed that there will be security measures in place at the dormitory, er, warehouse.
By Mark Gillespie
February 14, 2020 – There’s no love lost on this Valentine’s Day between the Trump Administration and European Union leaders, and that means continued tariff trouble for whisky companies. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative announced Friday evening that the U.S. will maintain its 25% import tariff on single malt whiskies from Scotland and Northern Ireland, along with liqueurs and cordials from the UK, Ireland, Germany, Spain, and Italy.
The tariffs are part of a $7.5 billion package of U.S. countermeasures imposed October 18 following a World Trade Organization ruling that the European Union has provided unfair subsidies to aircraft maker Airbus for more than a decade. U.S officials had threatened to raise those tariffs to as high as 100% in December and expand the list of goods subject to tariffs after EU officials initially rejected demands to implement recommendations in the WTO ruling.
While those changes have not yet been made, there have been negotiations between the two sides following recent changes in European leadership. In a statement announcing the decision, the USTR indicated that the United States remains open to a negotiated settlement that addresses the Airbus subsides. However, the Trump Administration decided to put additional pressure on Europe by targeting Airbus specifically. The 10% tariff imposed in October on imports of large commercial aircraft imported from Europe is being raised to 15% effective March 18.
The single malt whisky tariff has only been in effect for nearly four months now, but has already had a significant impact of its own on Scotch Whisky producers. The Scotch Whisky Association reported this week that UK Customs data showed a 25% drop in Scotch Whisky exports to the U.S. during the final three months of 2019 and a year-over-year decline of 7% compared to 2018. SWA chief executive Karen Betts blasted the decision in a Twitter post Saturday morning.
Spirits industry leaders have been lobbying both the White House and EU officials over the last month to negotiate an end to their ongoing trade dispute. The tariff crisis began in June of 2018 when the European Union imposed a 25% tariff on imports of Bourbon and other American whiskies as a response to Trump Administration tariffs on European aluminum and steel. Since then, exports of American whiskies to Europe have fallen significantly. Wednesday, the Distilled Spirits Council released its annual economic report citing government statistics showing a 27% year-over-year decline in exports during 2019.
In a statement released after the USTR announcement, the trade association repeated its call for both sides to de-escalate the conflict.
“It has become abundantly clear that tariffs on distilled spirits products are causing rough seas on both sides of the Atlantic. We are gravely concerned that if these disputes are not resolved soon, these U.S. tariffs on EU spirits imports will cause a similar drag on the U.S. economy, jeopardizing American companies and jobs.”
DISCUS CEO Chris Swonger remains optimistic that the two sides can resolve their differences. “Six months ago, they weren’t talking, and if they were talking, they were talking past each other…so now they’re talking and they’re talking in earnest, so we’ll see where it goes,” he said in an interview following the briefing Wednesday in New York City.
There may not be a resolution for several months, since both sides are awaiting a World Trade Organization ruling on the EU’s complaint over what it calls illegal U.S. subsidies to Boeing. European leaders have already released their own list of American goods to be targeted for tariffs if they win that case, including rum, vodka, and brandy. In addition, the existing 25% tariff on Bourbon and other American whiskies is scheduled to go up to 50% in the spring of 2021.
In its announcement, the Trump Administration also indicated that it would consider immediate action if the European Union imposes any additional tariffs on American exports in connection with either the WTO Airbus ruling or the upcoming ruling in the Boeing case.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include reaction from the Scotch Whisky Association.