Production

A Phoenix from the flames

It's nearly 10 years since a major fire all but destroyed a great part of Heaven Hill. But the distillery's now thriving and going from strength to strength. Charles Cowdery reports
By Charles K Cowdery
The flames could be seen for miles.The heat could be felt a half-mile away. Ablaze fuelled by alcohol and oak burns like nothing else; blue-white, clean, and very intense. The best firefighters could do was contain it.No one was seriously injured, but the property damage was catastrophic: 7.7 million gallons of aging bourbon, seven warehouses, a 60 year old distillery and three fully-loaded grain trucks, all destroyed.Executives at Heaven Hill prefer not to discuss The Fire. They do not intend to commemorate its 10th anniversary next November.“Yes, there was a fire, but it didn’t cause any major changes,” says Max Shapira, company president. “It’s not a factor in our decision-making today. The company did not miss a beat.” Well and good, but a fire from which rivers of blazing bourbon flow like molten lava, igniting two miles of nearby creek and making crackerjack video for the evening news; such an event forces itself into the story.Since The Fire appears not to have been transformative for the company, I’ll use it as a metaphor. Kentucky’s Heaven Hill Distillery has faced many challenges in its 70 years. It literally has been tested by fire, but buffeted even worse by a volatile industry in which brutal consolidation has caused many much larger organizations to crash and burn.Today, the industry of which it is part is enjoying a rare interlude of peace and prosperity, and Heaven Hill is thriving.Heaven Hill calls itself America’s largest independent family-owned spirits supplier.Its calling card is bourbons – Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Old Fitzgerald – but Heaven Hill also makes or imports virtually every type of distilled spirit known to man. It is the United States sales agent for Whyte and MacKay’s Isle of Jura line, and for Cooley Distillery’s Tyrconnell and Kilbeggan Irish whiskies.Heaven Hill’s corporate offices are in Bardstown, the heartland of Kentucky whiskey production and home to the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival. It is a town of 10,000 souls located 40 miles south of Louisville. Heaven Hill’s bottling house and most of its aging houses are here too. Its distillery is in Louisville.When it came to pass that Heaven Hill needed a new Kentucky distillery, Diageo had one to spare. It was barely used, not even 10 years old, with state-of-the-art process controls. Distilleries on that Louisville site had borne the name of Isaac Wolfe Bernheim, an industry pioneer since 1933.The distillery deal also bagged Old Fitzgerald bourbon and Christian Brothers brandy for Heaven Hill. Yes, Heaven Hill needed a distillery, but the brands acquired along with it made the deal work.The distillery destroyed in 1996 had been built in 1934 by the legendary whiskeymaker Joseph L. Beam for the Shapira brothers; David, Ed, Gary, George and Mose. Joe Beam was master distiller there until 1945, but the day-to-day distiller was his youngest son, Harry. The first label was Bourbon Falls.Harry Beam left a year after his father did and was replaced by his cousin, Earl Beam. Earl was the son of Jim Beam’s brother, Park. Earl’s brother, Carl “Shucks” Beam, was the Beam company’s master distiller. Earl’s son and grandson, Parker Beam and Craig Beam, make Heaven Hill’s whiskey today.The owners of Heaven Hill today are descendants of the founding Shapira brothers. The five brothers had no background in whiskey but they knew how to finance and run a modern business, a knack many of the old time whiskeymakers lacked.Their capital came from a chain of department stores. The stores are gone now, so are the five brothers, but Max, son of Ed, runs the company. His daughter, Kate, and her husband, Allan Latts, joined up in 2001 and represent the next generation.In 2004, Heaven Hill opened its Bourbon Heritage Center. One of the most extensive visitors centres in whiskey country, it is a full blown whiskey museum and also preserves the heritage of Heaven Hill and its whiskey brands.Heaven Hill is thriving today thanks to robust sales from its American Whiskey portfolio, other spirits segments, and new product innovations.“We probably have more new initiatives on our plate at Heaven Hill now than at any other time in the history of the company,” says Shapira. “They range from products with traditional, historical roots to products on the cutting edge of new flavours.” One initiative that may have both is Bernheim Original Straight Wheat Whiskey, the first new type of American whiskey made since anyone can remember.It is like bourbon except where a bourbon mash must be at least 51 percent corn, the mash for wheat whiskey must be at least 51 percent wheat (the rest is corn plus a little malted barley). Then it is aged like bourbon in new, charred oak barrels. ‘Straight wheat whiskey’ has long been recognized as a distinct type in the government regulations that control American whiskey terminology, but no one can remember the last time one was made.For anyone familiar with the taste difference between straight bourbon and straight rye, straight wheat won’t be too much of a shock. What is unexpected is that while bourbons seasoned with wheat usually taste sweeter than rye bourbons, straight wheat whiskey has a black tea bitterness that counters its honeyed sweetness and gives it a distinctive character. Bernheim Original Straight Wheat Whiskey is five years old and sold at 90 proof (45% abv).Perhaps propitiously, Bernheim is coming out at a time when other nonbourbon American whiskies are showing new signs of vigour. One of the best is Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond Straight Rye, made by Heaven Hill.Bernheim happened because of Old Fitzgerald. With that acquisition, Parker and Craig Beam found themselves mashing wheat as part of the Old Fitzgerald recipe.At the end of an Old Fitz run they had extra wheat and thought, “what the hell?” When their experimental wheat whiskey got old enough to give them an indication of what it would become, they made more.“There will be lots of confusion about what this is. It is a big challenge, introducing a new kind of whiskey,” says Larry Kass, the company’s director of corporate communications.“It remains to be seen, but we think the market is ready for it. There is more in the pipeline, it is not a limited edition, although we are holding a few barrels back to age out. They may be released as a limited edition someday.” Despite the Louisville location of its distillery, Heaven Hill continues to age all of its whiskey in Nelson County. The new whiskey is barrelled in Louisville and trucked south from there, but not for long.Heaven Hill is building a cistern room at the Bardstown plant so new make can be barrelled closer to the rackhouses. There is no plan to rebuild the Bardstown distillery.Heaven Hill sees a bright future for itself as part of a revitalized American whiskey business.”I don’t believe the industry has been any healthier in the last 25 years, domestically and internationally,” says Max Shapira.“Not too long ago, American whiskey was a dead category to the trade and to consumers. All of that has been totally reversed. Go to a bar in New York City and you will see people drinking Manhattans and Old Fashioneds. It’s all back in style.“On-premise we’re seeing drink menus with 10 to 12 American whiskies on them.Consumers are very interested in this product. On-premise establishments would not be devoting space and attention to American whiskey if consumers weren’t interested.” Bourbon has been growing around the world for the past 10 or 15 years. It just overtook gin as the number one spirits category in New Zealand. But now bourbon is growing at home too, and products such as Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams, Elijah Craig and Old Fitzgerald are among the leaders.