This weekend, thousands of people will race 200 miles for more than 24 hours along Kentucky's Bourbon Trail, from distillery to distillery, with nary a drop of the stuff to drink (at least while they're running).
Such is the appeal of the "bourbon lifestyle" that they not only will run an overnight relay called the Bourbon Chase, they will pay $1,200 per team to do it.
The bourbon image — rusticity and romance — is one the public can buy into even if people aren't into bar hopping. That translates into tourism dollars that bourbon makers and tourism officials are eager to tap into.
According to the Distilled Spirits Council, bourbon and Tennessee whiskey revenues topped $1.8 billion in 2008, up 5.3 percent from the previous year. But as of March, year-to-date exports, a key area of growth in sales, were down more than 9 percent, or $14 million, a sign the worldwide economic recession might be taking a toll.
So Jim Beam, Maker's Mark and the other distilleries and towns along the meandering Bourbon Trail are promoting the image as much as the alcohol. And people are buying.
The inaugural Bourbon Chase's 150 team spots sold out months ago, pretty much through word of mouth and ads on Facebook.
Mike Kuntz, organizer of the relay, said runners got the concept right away, but bourbon makers were a little more skeptical.
"Now they are starting to appreciate how profitable it could be," Kuntz said. "I would be shocked if, as runners show up, they will not be purchasing 'commemorative' bottles to put on their mantels back home and tap into. I think it does build brand loyalty."
To pique their interest, Maker's Mark in Loretto will offer bottles with special Bourbon Chase tags that say, "We are all about the run."
Woodford Reserve in Woodford County already has received about 235 orders for bottles engraved with runners' names, "Bourbon Chase" and the race's date.
Woodford Reserve opened its visitors center in 1996 and now welcomes more than 80,000 people a year, many of whom buy bottles afterward.
"I would say the majority do. ... And that's also 80,000 people who are becoming brand enthusiasts," said Marnie Walters, manager of the center. "The Bourbon Trail has been a huge asset to us. They really like going to each one. You get a different experience at every distillery."
Now the distilleries and tourism officials are toasting their successful splash into the lucrative travel market with a new marketing initiative, which was to be announced Thursday night, patterned on the branding of California's Sonoma-Napa Valley wine country and Scotland's Whisky Trail.
The Kentucky Distillers Association and a coalition of 10 tourism groups are forming "Team Bourbon" to "market the bourbon lifestyle and its unique place in the commonwealth's history and hospitality," said Eric Gregory, KDA president.
The Bourbon Trail was formed 10 years ago, but in the past few years, it has really caught fire, Gregory said.
Kentucky's eight distilleries last year counted 350,000 "visits" (individual visitors might have gone to more than one distillery). All those visits are leading to opportunities to sell more than just bourbon.
"You really can't find an industry that's recession-proof, but the bourbon industry has proved to be recession-resilient," Gregory said.
Jim Beam, the world's best-selling bourbon, is in the midst a $70 million expansion that includes a new visitors center in Clermont to handle a projected 200,000 visitors a year.
The first phase, the preservation of the historic T. Jeremiah Beam House and an updated American Outpost retail space (formerly the gift shop) with a new tasting bar, was unveiled in September, said spokeswoman Deanna Killackey. The second phase will include an interactive distillery tour.
"It's really driven by the amount of tourism, by the consumer demand," Killackey said.
Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg and Maker's Mark also upgraded their visitors facilities in recent expansions.
Heaven Hill Distilleries, which bottles Evan Williams and Elijah Craig bourbons in Bardstown, has set the new standard, with its Bourbon Heritage Center and "Taste of Heaven" tasting room. The facility, which has more than 50,000 visitors a year, outdrawing nearby My Old Kentucky Home State Park, in February was named Whisky Magazine's "Visitor Attraction of the Year," beating out Ard beg Distillery and Dewar's World of Whisky, both in Scotland.
"There is tremendous interest right now in bourbon in general but particularly in the provenance, tradition and heritage behind bourbon," said Larry Kass, a Heaven Hill spokesman. A good example of that, he said, is the Bourbon Trail "passport." Visitors who go to all eight of the state's distilleries and get their passports stamped can mail them in for a commemorative T-shirt.
The T-shirt isn't particularly valuable, but the experience is.
"We have given away thousands of T-shirts," Kass said. "People are not just doing this because they happen to be in the area. It's a bit of a quest."