Bourbon Focus Drives Sales Strategy at Bavarian Inn
The Michigan hotel positions itself as a bourbon destination for the region.
About 90 minutes north of Detroit is the town of Frankenmuth, Michigan, known for decades as the home of the Bavarian Inn Lodge and its many retail and dining destinations. While it’s one of the most popular tourist spots in the Great Lakes State, it hasn’t been known as base for bourbon—until now.
“I want us to be a bourbon destination for the region,” says Mark Brooks, purchasing manager at the Bavarian Inn Lodge. “I told our marketing team, if somebody is in town and they type ‘bourbon bar’ into their phone or computer, I want the Bavarian Inn Lodge and our Lorelei Lounge to be right up there at the top.”
Bourbon continues to trend among the hottest beverages in the States. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, bourbon and American whiskey accounted for $3.4 billion in 2017 sales, with more than 23 million cases (nine liters each) sold in the U.S. Since 2012, sales of bourbon and American whiskey have increased by 37% and raised revenues for distillers by more than 51%. Revenues for super-premium bourbon and American whiskey in particular have risen a whopping 148% during that time.
It’s those connoisseur customers along with bourbon beginners that the Bavarian Inn Lodge aims to capture. Here, Brooks, Assistant Director of F&B Matt Salem, and Fun Center Manager Greg Mitchell detail their dive into bourbon education, training, and increased inventory, which has resulted in a 75% bump in bourbon sales at the Lodge.
Class in a Glass
“One of the driving factors to elevate our bourbon program is the spirit’s continued popularity,” says Mitchell. “It increases year after year and reminds me of when craft beer took off a few years ago. We have a great opportunity in our Lorelei Lounge, through education and training, to upsell bourbon and increase our sales dramatically.”
Brooks, Salem, and Mitchell pitched their bourbon ambitions to the hotel’s ownership, and “they said we needed to become certified with a legitimate credential, similar to a sommelier or cicerone, so I found a place called Moonshine University in Louisville, Kentucky,” says Brooks.
The three travelled to Louisville to take Moonshine’s Stave & Thief Society one-day course, which yields certification as an Executive Bourbon Steward (EBS). “The curriculum was developed in conjunction with the Kentucky Distillers Association, so it’s approved by the industry. It was very educational, and they took us through the whole gamut,” says Brooks.
The course ranged from classroom work to hands-on education in the onsite micro-distillery, where attendees learned about the history of bourbon as well as how to identify the heads, hearts, and tails of bourbon during the distillation process (the hearts go into the bottle). They also mixed and tasted grain mash, sampled at different proofs, and identified key sensory notes unique to different bourbons, ending with a test on the day’s information.
“I enjoyed identifying all the different flavor notes,” remembers Mitchell. “Different bourbons can have an earthy flavor, a smokiness, or hints of banana, tobacco, leather, spice, and grass, depending on how they’re made. There’s all these different elements you can pick up when you concentrate.”
Brooks, Salem, and Mitchell left Moonshine University with EBS certifications and immediately put their newfound knowledge to use at the Lodge’s Lorelei Lounge.
“We learned how to put flights together properly, where you compare up to three different bourbons from the same distillery, or three bourbons from different distilleries with similar proofs. We also learned a lot of bourbon history that we can transfer directly to the customer. When someone asks, ‘What does bottled-in-bond mean on the label?’ We can tell them without hesitating.”
Salem adds that the EBS certification and training “is a great sales tool for us, and we plan to have some of our Lorelei Lounge staff certified as well. We can enhance the guest experience by explaining tasting notes, distiller history, and more while they’re enjoying their bourbon, and we pass that knowledge to our employees so they can do the same.”
Lorelei Lounge serves their higher-end bourbons neat in a Glencairn glass, and for bourbon on the rocks, the Lodge purchased a mold to make ice balls, creating the stylish presentation in a rocks glass that many aficionados appreciate. “Sniffing, or ‘nosing’ is an important element when you drink higher-quality bourbons, so the glasses we use are made for serious nosing as well as drinking,” Mitchell says.
Before Brooks, Salem, and Mitchell were EBS-certified, Lorelei Lounge carried two ryes and 12 bourbons. After certification, they made a menu featuring nearly 30 bourbons. “For where we’re located in Michigan, that’s a good selection,” Brooks observes. “We have partnerships with a few distilleries, so we can secure hard-to-find bottles, and our maintenance team built a couple shelving units in Lorelei Lounge to display our additional labels.”
Among the new arrivals is a bottle of Orphan Barrel Rhetoric 23-Year—aged in wood for 23 years at the historic Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville—and a bottle of Parker’s Heritage Collection, each priced at $30 for a two-ounce pour.
“We were fortunate to get a bottle of Parker’s Heritage,” Brooks says. “Parker Beam was the master distiller at Heaven Hill Distilleries who was diagnosed with ALS several years ago (Beam died in 2017) and since 2007, Heaven Hill has released a bottle of Parker’s Heritage once a year, and they donate a portion of the proceeds to ALS research. Until this year, Parker made each edition himself. The bottle we have was released in 2017, and it’s an 11-year-old single-barrel bourbon, with barrel strength at 122 proof. It’s extremely hard to get, and that’s probably our rarest bottle.”
Of course, nobody will know Lorelei Lounge has a bottle of Parker’s Heritage, or any other new bourbons on their expanded menu, unless the Lodge advertises it. The hotel developed a comprehensive marketing campaign with posters and flyers to notify onsite guests and sent emails to the Bavarian Inn’s Perks Club members. For the public, they detailed their broadened bourbon selection on social media and through radio spots.
“We acquired some inexpensive radio time on a few local stations, so we ran ads for a couple of weeks, and it was surprising how effective those radio spots were for us,” remembers Brooks.
The Bavarian Inn also owns a food truck called the Cheese Trap, and on the menu “we created a popular bourbon barbecue sauce made with Elijah Craig bourbon, so that’s another way we extend our bourbon program. We incorporate that sauce into dishes for the Cheese Trap, and our Ratskeller restaurant at the Lodge,” says Mitchell.
Bourbon now makes up 20% of all spirits sales at the Lodge, and there are plans to further increase its exposure, with bourbon-themed dinners, tasting events, and weekend packages where guests can earn a bourbon certification.
“We’re also planning to purchase our own barrel from one of the distilleries in Kentucky and have exclusive labels made to let customers know they can only get it at the Bavarian Inn Lodge,” Brooks says. “A barrel yields about 200 bottles, so we have to come up with a plan to sell those before we move forward with the idea, but that will definitely help raise our profile as a regional destination for bourbon."