Extending the family

Extending the family

Bourbon producer Heaven Hill is a family business that's branching out. Kate Ennis joined the extended family in Kentucky for a preview of their new vintage.

Production | 28 Dec 2003 | Issue 36 | By Kate Portman (nee Ennis)

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It might well be the case that Heaven Hill president Max Shapira likes to keep it in the family when it comes to his business - but that family seems to be growing by the month.There are three generations of Shapiras directly tied to the Heaven Hill story so far - four if you include baby Lindsey who at three months old already comes in to the office and has her own Heaven Hill email address - as well as two generations of the world-famous Beam dynasty.Beyond the immediate relations, though, Heaven Hill is attracting an extended family that has started reaching out beyond Kentucky, beyond America's borders, and across the world.Max believes this close-knit family structure is the key to success of Heaven Hill, which is the only independent bourbon producer with all its major operations based in Kentucky. And who can argue with popular bourbon brands such as Evan Williams, Elijah Craig and Old Fitzgerald to its name?Over in Bardstown bourbon fans are revelling in the growth of single barrel and small release whiskeys.To put it in context, Heaven Hill's own club the Bardstown Bourbon Society has grown so much that it now has 12,000 members across the world. Its sole intent is to enjoy the best the company can produce.Invitations to join are enclosed in all boxes of Heaven Hill bourbon and the free membership includes a newsletter, certificate, tasting guide and the opportunity to attend events.One of the company's biggest successes has been the Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage, the first and only vintage dated single barrel bourbon, which has something of a cult following. The last four vintages have received critical acclaim.So the chance to join 200 Society members of the new and long awaited 1994 vintage at the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville was too good to miss.It was in fact, the first event to be staged for society members, so when invitations were sent, there was some concern as to whether anyone would want to come.They needn't have worried. Response was tremendous, with the places filling up in less than a week. More amazingly, people came from as far as Texas, Georgia and Mississippi to meet for this special evening.The venue was fitting with racing, like whisky, such a key element in the heritage of Kentucky. Guests mingled among the racing memorabilia while chatting to fellow bourbon lovers.The evening culminated with the much anticipated toast and tasting, wonderfully signalled by a fanfare - delivered by a trumpeter in full horse-riding gear. The real celebrities of the evening, Parker and Craig Beam - the father and son team of master distillers - drew samples of their creation from the cask.But what made it great was that everyone at Heaven Hill joined them on stage to share the first sips with the guests.Unsurprisingly the latest vintage, with its own distinct flavour profile, went down a storm just like its predecessors.After such a successful inaugural event for society members, next year's vintage preview is already being planned. The consensus is that Heaven Hill's new visitors' centre, due to open early summer 2004, will make the perfect venue.The new centre will use bourbon related materials such as copper, limestone and white oak. The centrepiece will be a barrel shaped tasting room.Heaven Hill hopes the centre will introduce new people to its whiskies, ideally situated on the tourist trail in Bardstown. For this and other future projects, the new generations are in place to carry on the family tradition of success.As for the next master distiller, Craig has two daughters so will the company have its first female distiller in the future?If so, their dad will certainly be able to teach them the craft of making a great vintage bourbon.Evan Williams Single Barrel 1994 Vintage is released in January. Dave Broom's and Michael Jackson's tasting notes will feature next issue.
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