As Heaven Hill turns 85, we join it in reflecting on the past and climbing up to the next step
Written by Phoebe Calver
There aren’t many things in life that are certain, but one of them is that with every passing day, every minute in fact, we are getting older. Oh yes, as someone who recently found their first grey – thanks for that Covid – I have been reminded that there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. However, unexpected greys aside, I have to say that ageing is one of my favourite things about life. With age comes experience, perspective, understanding and most importantly some damn fine whiskey.
This year Kentucky’s own Heaven Hill has reached the milestone of its 85th birthday, an accolade that is not sending the brand towards a warm fire and an early night. No, instead the family-owned distiller is taking a moment to reflect, grow and go forth into the next 85 years with quality and assurance in ‘who’ it is.
You’d be hard-pushed to come across a whiskey lover that hasn’t heard of Heaven Hill and with that, most will have a story or memory. One man with mental albums full of memories is Max Shapira, president of Heaven Hill, who talks about the celebration with beautiful poignance. “Perseverance is a hallmark of Heaven Hill’s history… In 1935, we were formed in the most uneasy of economic times during the Great Depression, have faced unanticipated challenges as well, but have persevered to be the thriving, diverse company we are today.
“As a family-owned and operated company Heaven Hill can make the necessary changes to continue our trajectory of success throughout the years. This has allowed us to persevere through other national crises and changes to the industry resulting in some really tremendous growth throughout our 85-year history.”
It’s a well-known fact that due to the hours (normally) spent in the office/place of work, those that you work with often become your second family. This is no more apparent than at Heaven Hill, where the ‘family business’ fact has become an ethos; when speaking to Tawnie Gootee, quality assurance bottling specialist at Heaven Hill, this is clear to see.
Tawnie explains, “Here I am talking about my 30-plus years at Heaven Hill and gosh it seems like yesterday… My prayers were answered. I’m like a sponge – I will soak up everything. In my 30 years at Heaven Hill, my life has been a marriage of up and downs, worries and concerns, happiness and growth, Bourbon and spirits.
“I feel like I’m that new, green whiskey put in a new charred oak barrel 30 years ago that has gone through the seasons of time, and when the day comes for my release it will be an aged product of all that I’ve become through this journey at Heaven Hill. From climbing fences (to the family cemetery) with the last living relative of Mr. William Hill, to female master taster, but I think that all-in-all I am just Tawnie.”
But don’t just take Tawnie’s word for it. I also caught up with Frankie Clark, barrel warehouse supervisor at Heaven Hill, who began working for the brand in 1993 believes that it stands out because, “they are family owned and operated, a business that has remained in and been operated by the same family for 85 years.
“I think we will only continue to grow. I see more warehouses being built and maybe even
night shifts put in at the warehouses. Heck, you just never know with how quickly we’ve grown over the last 85 years.”
Unlike the family you’re born in to, this dynamic hasn’t happened by chance; when looking for employees Max looks for “those qualities that truly define a family-owned company: nimble, hard work, and passion”.
The passion found within the team at Heaven Hill is clear for all to see; from the length of time employees work there to the dedication they show in their role, it’s understandable that making it to this ripe age was never in question. Tawnie discusses her thoughts on her supported development at the distillery, “Well, starting out at a young age not even knowing half of what Heaven Hill bottled was, it was my boss Mike Sonne who said ‘get going, start tasting and learning’, so I did just that.
“As time went on, working with Mike and Chris Briney, they learned from triangle tests that I would pick out the different one. A triangle test is where you have two samples that are the same and one different and I would pick the one different. When you think about it, I only know Heaven Hill’s products, no other. Day in and day out for 30 years I have grown to know what the products are and aren’t supposed to taste like. When something new comes along, I just put it in my brain and after a little time it’s registered as what we call ‘the standard’.”
Although to look at it now you wouldn’t think it, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the brand, which is perhaps to be expected over the course of 85 years in the business. Both Tawnie and Frankie recall the night of the horror that was the Heaven Hill fire in 1996, with the former recounting, “Watching warehouse after warehouse catch fire and then the distillery burn down was devastating. It was on national news, the loss of all that Bourbon, it was where I worked, I worried about Max and my Heaven Hill family, so many emotions and just an eerie day. I couldn’t believe my eyes. But, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. We didn’t skip a beat. Heaven Hill has had plenty of curve balls, and high balls, and it always works out.”
Frankie adds, “I remember not being able to get to work and only being able to watch it on TV. The whole time I was watching I was thinking my dream job was gone. But everyone was back to work the very next day.”
Making a comeback from such a life… or should I say distillery-changing moment was no mean feat and part of the reason Heaven Hill has become a true success story in the heart of Kentucky. After surviving so much in the first eight and a half decades of its existence, you won’t be alone in wondering what more could possibly be on the horizon for the brand. Thanks to its resilience and ingenuity over the years, the world really is Heaven Hill’s oyster.
Max explains, “With more than 1.8 million barrels of ageing inventory we have the capacity for thoughtful, premium innovation through our limited releases with flavors, finishes, ageing, and many other aspects of American whiskey. Innovation provides an opportunity to invite the consumer to explore another side of American whiskey brand or perhaps a distillery.
“Current trends in innovation, like the Bottled-in-Bond category, showcase how our legacy of nurturing and supporting historic brands has put us at the forefront of this particular consumer interest. With around 30 labels on the market, Heaven Hill owns around a dozen.”
Heaven Hill is famed for its collections that include Elijah Craig, Larceny and Parker’s Heritage Collection. Max goes into a little more detail on the future potential of these brands, “With the scope of inventory at Heaven Hill Distillery, we can innovate in this premium space through line extensions and limited releases. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, and now Larceny Barrel Proof, are a great example of a more widely available product.
“Consumer affinity for the brand as they learn more across marketing programs, tasting experiences, and other opportunities have provided a launch pad for innovation across the Elijah Craig portfolio. We have been able to take Elijah Craig’s personal history as an innovator and translate that into new extensions across the portfolio with the Elijah Craig Straight Rye Whiskey, and we just recently launched Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel. Of course, we also honor the legacy of Parker Beam through the annual release of the Parker’s Heritage Collection.”
In the short-term future plans, there’s a lot to be excited about, with Max adding, “We continue to move forward with the expansion on the Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown, Kentucky with anticipated completion early spring 2021. Phase one completed renovations to the existing space in November 2019, then kicking off phase two of expansion.
“The new visitor centre renovation and expansion, a $17.5 million project first announced in November 2018, is part of a multi-year, multi-million-dollar investment plan to expand production capacity and modernize facilities in Bardstown. Heaven Hill has been adding production capacity with new barrel warehousing, bottling line and equipment upgrades, and increased holdings of ageing Bourbon Whiskey, amounting to a total of $47.5 million. Our Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, Ky. has expanded to become the largest single-site Bourbon distillery, producing 1,300 barrels per day.”
We’ve seen the numbers, we’ve tasted the whiskey and we know the legacy of this well-loved brand, but to round out our thoughts on this celebration, I can’t help but wonder exactly what keeps the magic alive for the team? Tawnie explains, “The spirits industry is a tree of delightful products, a new branch or an old branch or a branch that falls off, there’s nothing boring about what can be brought to the customer’s attention. Back in my day, I would watch family members be less expressive about their enjoyment of Bourbon. Now, it’s very social, it’s advertised, it’s collectable, and just consumable for enjoyment. I really feel like I was meant to be here! And that’s a good feeling. What is it about Heaven Hill that makes it so special? All of it. Drink Wisely.”