The 2020 ADI Virtual Craft Spirits Conference & Vendor Expo kicked off Tuesday morning with that familiar shutdown mix of awkwardness and community spirit. Attendees at Monday’s pre-conference tours or Tuesday’s keynote and concurrent sessions patiently abided technical hiccups and politely prompted moderators to make adjustments.

While it wasn’t the same as being together in person, the atmosphere has been positive and attendees got the kind of substantive content they come for as well as some of the camaraderie.

Chris Swonger, president and CEO of DISCUS, gave the keynote address, describing trends in the industry’s response to COVID-19 shutdown orders. From production of hand sanitizers and ready-to-drink cocktails to creative staffing solutions, he sees signs of resilience throughout the industry but also the need for corporate action to protect the most vulnerable businesses.

He encouraged everyone to join Spirits United (, the grassroots organizing tool created by ADI, DISCUS, and TIPS to mobilize industry stakeholders to engage consumers and affect legislative change.

ADI president Erik Owens presented the 2020 Bubble Cap Award to Spirit Works Distillery of Sebastopol, CA. The Bubble Cup Award honors an outstanding ADI member distillery who shows leadership in the creation of first-rate spirits and in developing the distilling industry.

Owens said Spirit Works co-owners and husband-and-wife team Timo and Ashby Marshall are leading the way in converting American consumers to the traditionally British spirit known as sloe gin. Timo Marshall served as president of the California Artisanal Distillers Guild and led the effort to pass legislation allowing direct-to-consumer sales.

“In the past few years, our local community has been threatened by floods, wildfires, and now this weird pandemic,” Timo said. “We’ve managed not to lose sight of why we built Spirit Works. This award and the recognition that comes with it is humbling beyond measure.”

Ashby added, “Timo and I can’t begin to tell you how proud we are of the team here,” and then turned the camera to show their crew, masks on, gathered in the background.

Other highlights of the day included research presented on fermentation in new make whiskey and agave nectar and sessions on how to gather market research on the cheap and ways to succeed with your distributor.

Carlo Catucci of White Dog Distilling, Pawtucket, RI, showed how they opened a “true microdistillery” with $20,000 of equipment in a 300 sq. ft. space.

Given the pressures of shutdowns, the ready-to-drink cocktail panel of writers, judges, and suppliers was quite timely. Rosie Milsom of Atom Brands and Virginia Miller of The Perfect Spot agreed that people love the convenience and portability of RTDs. Aaron Polsky of LiveWire added that they can be a great way for consumers to access the work of bartenders in other markets and for bars to capitalize on creative bartenders to expand their brands.

Keli Rivers noted that men and Millennials are choosing RTDs at higher levels than anticipated. Virginia Miller called herself a reluctant convert to the category but said now she thinks we need much more variety as restaurants and bars are increasingly serving to-go cocktails.

Wednesday’s schedule includes sessions on microbiology, building a gin recipe, packaging trends and virtual tastings.

Attendees are encouraged to visit the virtual exhibit floor and communicate with exhibitors through the website or app. You can also find and connect with other attendees with the same online tools.

Finally, each day ends with a trivia session add-on where participants can have a little fun with fellow distillers around the world.