Each year, the West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Administration (WVABCA) hosts a distilled spirits industry trade show for the state’s liquor retailers. WVABCA Commissioner Ronald Moats describes the show as “the perfect opportunity for buyers to connect with distillery representatives who are showcasing exciting new products, packaging, promotions, and offering outstanding savings.”
The trade show is strongly supported by the WV Retailers Association and well attended by liquor store buyers and owners. This year’s event took place at the Charleston Civic Center, September 14-15.
At the show, displays from scores of distilleries large and small lined the floor of the Civic Center’s South Hall. Liquor store owners, managers, and buyers filled the aisles.
Small distilleries build markets
Sure, all the big guys were there with their colorful displays, trinkets, and classy marketing materials—but so were the little guys. This trade show allows small distillers equal footing with the big distilleries, including equal access to the attending liquor retailers. That’s a great thing for the little guys.
Setting up tables and promotional displays this year were representatives from the many of West Virginia’s 14 small distilleries. All of them were seeking to expand their markets.
A good example is the two-year-old Black Draft Distillery of Martinsburg, WV. Owner/distiller Glen Price recently announced a major expansion project at his distillery and will soon be producing a lot more product that will need retail shelf space. He finds the trade show to be an excellent venue to introduce retailers to his product line.
“One thing is that you get to meet retailers that a lot of times you wouldn’t be able to meet during the rest of the year,” said Price, “It’s a good thing to actually get to meet your retailers face-to-face, because there’s normally a distributor between you and them.”
Smooth Ambler Spirit’s Randi Smith expressed similar goals, saying she hopes to strengthen relationships with existing retailers and build relationships with new ones.
“There are still plenty of folks in West Virginia that don’t realize that we are a small craft distiller located in the state,” she said. “There is certainly still ground to be gained.”
Eric Deal of Forks of Cheat Distillery in Morgantown was there to gain visibility for some new products like his barrel-aged rum made with West Virginia sorghum molasses.
“We’ll hopefully meet some new customers, shake hands and do some new business,” he said. “I need to sell it to keep making it.”
Gearing up for the fall & holiday sales seasons
Michael Heston of Pinchgut Hollow Distillery in Fairmont was there to gear up for the busy fall and holiday sales seasons. He wants to be sure to Pinchgut Hollow gets its share.
“Fall is a big season with a lot of tourists coming into the state,” he said. “We’re in about 40 stores in the state and would love to be in more.”
Rob Losey, co-owner and sales manager of Bloomery Plantation Distillery, Charles Town, WV, had his fall seasonal products front and center.
“We are launching our fall seasonal, Pumpkin Spice SweetShine,” Losey said. “It has gathered some great awards. It was a Good Food Award winner with Whole Foods and Williams-Sonoma last year. In September, Tasting Panel Magazine reviewed it at 92 points, which is excellent.
“Another great fall product is our Black Walnut liqueur. It is the world’s number-one rated nut liqueur. This year it took double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.”
Losey said he was also at trade show to touch base with the liquor control agency people and to enjoy the fraternity of the growing number of distilleries in the state.
A place to promote new products, line extensions
Chad Bishop, distiller and co-owner of Hatfield & McCoy Moonshine Distillery, in Gilbert, WV, was there to introduce retailers to his new line of all-natural mixers designed for the consumer to blend with his straight moonshine. At the show he was sampling Apple Pie, Blackberry, and Georgia Peach.
“They’re all 100% fruit,” he said. “We’re taking a different avenue with the mixers. Instead of us offering a pre-mixed flavored moonshine product, you can add a little or a lot of fruit flavor. Have it your way.”
Dwayne Freeman, of Appalachian Distillery in Ripley, WV, introduced the new distillery’s first set of Appalachian Moonshine products at last year’s WVABCA trade show. This time, he was back with more.
“Since last year’s trade show, we have five new flavors — a peach, a blackberry, caramel apple, strawberry lemonade, and strawberry,” Freeman said. “We’re hoping to pick up some more customers and get the word out about our moonshine.”
The distillery has been a great new tourist attraction along I-77, attracting many tourists off the highway while traveling between Michigan, Ohio and many points south.
A place to launch new distilleries
Mountain Mama Moonshine of Man, WV, only received its distillery license back in the summer. Owner Chris Trent brought his crew to the show as part of the distillery’s public launch.
“This is our first trade show, and we brought our first batches here that just came out of the still last week,” Trent said.
Mountain Mama makes a straight moonshine and four flavored ones, including apple pie, cinnamon, peach, and coal-black cherry, which is a tribute to coal miners. Trent said he’s at the show to learn some of the tricks of the trade.
“We’re new and there’s a steep learning curve,” he said.
A new distillery in the works
Flying Buck Distillery is in line to become the 15th distillery licensed in the state. Owner Calvin Riggleman of Romney attended the trade show to introduce his upcoming brand to retailers. He will raise most of the distillery’s feed stocks on his own Hampshire County farm.
Talking with all the state’s small distillers at the show, one cannot help but be impressed with the enthusiasm and drive these folks have for their industry. While still in its infancy, this industry is showing itself ready to take a big step up.
Overall, three points stood out among the West Virginia distillers.
- Craft distillery tourism is growing fast in WV and beginning to make a significant impact.
- The reduction of state fees on sales at distillery tasting rooms, that was adopted at the 2015 legislative session, is really helping the distilleries grow and has led to several new or planned investments.
- Rather than seeing each other as competitors, West Virginia’s small distilleries enjoy coming together to share ideas on building markets.
These WV small distillers are well on their way toward joining forces, getting organized, and acting more in unison as an industry. When they do, it will be very interesting to watch their progress. They have a great upside and are not yet anywhere near their potential.