The new rules of tasting rooms

A top 10 list on how to be a great guest on a distillery tour or tasting-room visit

It pays to remember that a distillery isn’t a bar, it’s a working space with a bar, like this one at Wolfhead Distillery in Ontario. Photo courtesy of Wolfhead Distillery

Distillery tasting rooms are hotspots in any city’s drinking scene. Author Janet Gyenes naturally included some in Vancouver Cocktails (new in October from Cider Mill Press; a Toronto edition is forthcoming). Distillery bars are a different breed: “You’re basically in someone’s workshop… Respect the skill and craft that goes into distilling,” Gyenes says. “Let’s face it: most people don’t know if you’re supposed to swirl spirits like you would with wine, if you should sniff or spit or do something else altogether.”

The new book Vancouver Cocktails by Janet Gyenes rounds up the best tasting rooms in the city.

Read her book for some of my tips (hint: no to swirling, but yes to adding some water to your spirit), but here are some tasting-room rules that come from distillers themselves.

Good customers show common courtesy by arriving for tours on time, dropping nice online reviews and social media tags/follows, and buying something (especially if tastings are free). Along with an enthusiastic “do” list (“Do bring your dogs along for us to pet!” says Jenna Diubaldo, co-owner/distiller at Sons of Vancouver in North Vancouver; “Do book a tour with your family and relatives,” says Danielle Moldovan, marketing and events director at Wolfhead Distillery in Amherstburg, Ontario), distillers offered these constructive don’ts.

Don’t be tipsy. Eat something and drink water before your tasting tour. Your palate will be sharper, and so will you. Samples might come in tiny glasses, but they’re not shooters. You don’t have to finish them, either.

Adjust your expectations to the type of establishment you’re vsiting, advises Scott Thompson of Vancouver’s MadLab Distilling. Photo courtesy of MadLab Dstilling

Don’t arrive outside tasting-room hours. “We’re busy making the alcohol!” says one distiller.

At Vancouver’s MadLab Distilling, owner/distiller Scott Thompson offers tours and tastings by appointment. “I am happy to show people around, but know the type of establishment you’re going to, and adjust your expectations.”

Don’t step outside the lines. A distillery is a manufacturing plant: “Watch your step and surroundings,” says James Greig of Nickel 9 Distillery in Toronto. Miriam Karp, general manager of Odd Society Spirits in Vancouver, counsels: “We get a lot of stag/hen parties and high heels are not recommended.”

Don’t forget to mention allergies or sensitivities. For instance, grapefruit can interfere with some medications. “We had a guest who did not reveal this info and fainted after sampling our grapefruit vodka,” says Wolfhead’s Moldovan.

At North Vancouver’s tiny Sons of Vancouver, dogs are welcome. Bad behaviour, not so much. Photo courtesy of Sons of Vancouver

Don’t overshadow the distillery team. “During specific parts of the tour, when the guide is explaining and demonstrating what to do, it’s best to stay attentive and quiet,” says Nickel 9’s Greig. Polite, curious queries are encouraged, but his colleague and the distillery’s director, Chris Jack, warns against humblebrags: “Don’t sneakily ask questions that you want to answer … or answer questions your fellow guests ask. Trust that we know more than you.”

Don’t be a critic. “‘I don’t like your label’ will get you instantly and permanently disliked,” half-jokes one distiller. If something is not to your taste, cultivate an open mind.

Don’t boast that you know the distillery owner. “If you have to say it then it’s probably not true,” quips one distillery owner.

Don’t ask for free stuff or discounts. Those samples, bottles and swag represent the blood, sweat and tears of entrepreneurs. Good, handmade juice should cost.

Don’t call out a rat!

A distillery-tour cautionary tale

Seth Stevenson photo courtesy of Odd Society Distilling

Gordon Glanz, co-founder/distiller at Odd Society Spirits, recalls, “I was giving a tour to a large group. We were at the back of the distillery talking about mashing when suddenly someone screamed: ‘Rat!’ Sure enough, above our heads, was a giant rat running along the ceiling pipes. It disappeared up into a hole in the ceiling. Needless to say, I was at a bit of a loss. I pointed to the Port of Vancouver as our backyard …. I also mentioned that we had a contract with a pest-control company! Things settled down and we continued the tour. We haven’t seen any rats for probably five years? (We do catch the occasional mouse: I think we need a distillery cat!) I didn’t get any bad reviews as a result of the rat.”

—by Charlene Rooke

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