Almost every kind of producer has been affected by the COVID-19 crisis, and craft distillers are no exception. With tasting rooms temporarily closed and other lines of distribution severed, many Missouri distilleries have been forced to rethink their business plan.
Steve Carter, founder and owner of Samuel Berton Distilling in Labadie, Missouri, is also connected to the state’s greater distilling community as vice president of the Missouri Craft Distillers Guild. Here, he shares his insights into craft distilling during and after COVID-19.
What kind of effect has the COVID-19 pandemic had on Samuel Berton Distilling in particular? We have done our best to figure out how to survive through this. We kept everyone going – but certainly not without an impact to the business. We did drive-up bottle sales when we could. Our revenues just went from good, good, good to almost zero.
Tasting rooms are an important part of distilleries, and they tend to be an intimate experience, especially at a small distillery such as yours. How has COVID-19 changed all that? It clearly feels different. We only let in one group at a time – I can technically let in more than that, but that’s how we’ve been controlling it. … It’s a little more mechanical. Historically, we have used nice, glass shot glasses, [which customers] take home with them, but for now, we’re doing all plastic cups. We’ve got a glass shield up; that glass shield, it’s amazing how impersonal that is, to try to talk through it. But, you know, I want to be right for people, and I want to be right for my people. I don’t want any of my people at risk either.
Amid COVID-19, have you seen any Missouri distilleries permanently close? Not yet. … Some of the bigger guys with a bunch of capital tied up in stuff, [they] could be fairly fragile, [but] I haven’t seen any yet. I’m hoping there is zero. I think [the push for distilleries to produce] hand sanitizer provided a little bit of revenue but not much.
What would help regional craft distilleries right now? [We’ve been] getting calls – and this happened at a lot of the distilleries – but getting calls with people asking us to ship products to them. … Distilleries can’t ship. If I’m a winery, I can ship. If I’m a brewery, I can ship. But for a distillery, I can’t. … It doesn’t logically make sense why you can’t do that. You can in other states; other states can ship to us. We just can’t ship, even within our state. I think from a product point of view, from a safety point of view and from just a business point of view, that would be a good thing, a good change to get that restriction out of our way.
Has the Missouri Craft Distillers Guild been able to make any progress in changing the laws that prohibit distilleries from shipping their products to customers? We’re working on it. … Don Gosen, our president, used to be a legislator. He knows it really well. But he says we’re done [trying] for this year.
How do you and others in the industry feel about the future of craft distilling? I think, in general, we’re optimistic about the future. We think we’ll come back from this equally strong, potentially stronger. Just anecdotally, I’ve noticed a significant shift in people – I think this will probably stay. Rather than big chains, big suppliers, [we’re] seeing more of a support of small businesses, which all of our distilleries in Missouri are technically small businesses. So, I believe that will be something that sticks around.
Samuel Berton Distilling, 108 Front St., Suite 102, Labadie, Missouri, 636.638.7564, sbdistilling.net
Missouri Craft Distillers Guild, missouricraftdistillersguild.com