Interview Issue 24 Phoebe Calver

Exclusive: Ken Lewis shares news of retirement

In this American Whiskey Magazine exclusive, the New Riff Distillery founder announces his retirement and celebrates the legacy that he has created, making way for the team that will follow in his footsteps

Written by Phoebe Calver

Conversation can be one of the greatest pleasures in life. As someone who has the joy of holding conversations for a living, there have certainly been some incredible ones that I’ve been privy to and this one was no exception.

In common with many whiskey lovers, I’ve carefully watched as New Riff Distillery in Kentucky has gone from strength to strength since its inception in 2014. The opportunity to delve into the mind of its founder, Ken Lewis, was one that was too good to miss – particularly when you consider that in this very article he is announcing his retirement from the business.

“Well, I think 50 years is enough,” laughs Lewis. “I like to think that my identity, personal identity, is not 100 per cent wrapped up in the work I do… So I hope that I’m diversified enough to find other things that are interesting and earn the right to maybe waste a little time.”

Ken Lewis, founder of New Riff Distilling

Although Lewis has crafted a career as a truly savvy businessman in the world of spirits, he has also taken his learnings over the years to ensure a people-first approach to both the front and back ends of his business, which it is no mean feat in such a competitive market.

Before looking at where New Riff is going, it’s important to understand where it’s been and celebrate Lewis’s achievements. His spirited story began back in 1972 when he operated a traditional small liquor store; it was there that he learned the basics of the business while also gaining what he deemed “a street degree in people studies”.

At the end of the 70s, laws on the sale of alcohol beverages in Kentucky were changed to allow for discounting and end restrictions on what other products could be sold in conjunction with alcohol. As Lewis mentions, “It was time for a new era in alcoholic beverage retailing, but none of my industry peers had a clue what to do about it.

“My ‘street degree’ and a keen appreciation of retailing trends in other industries, plus a natural desire to be entrepreneurial and disruptive – it would be several decades later when I learned the word ‘disruptive’ as it applied to business – led me to open a second beverage alcohol store (as opposed to ‘liquor store’) with a very different concept.”

Mimicking the style of the box stores of the time, Lewis opened Liquor Outlet in a different part of Louisville, Kentucky. He would try to buy only ‘on deal’ products and took approximately half the normal industry mark up, effectively creating Kentucky’s first discount liquor store.

Mollie and Ken looking to the future

“I did well with Liquor Outlet and had three successful such stores in Louisville, honing my concept and the support system for the same,” explains Lewis. “I saw an opportunity in Northern Kentucky immediately adjacent to Cincinnati since at that time Ohio still had state stores known for being high priced, [with] little selection, indifferent state employees, low service levels – a throwback to the bad ol’ days of lazy, unpleasant liquor retailing. I went all in, built a 50,000 square foot beautiful store on the border with Ohio at the first interstate exit, and maxed out my concept changing the name from Liquor Outlet to The Party Source.”

The Party Source completely changed the game for consumers and how they viewed the purchase of alcohol; it could be celebrated as opposed to hidden. It ushered in a new era, and not just for Kentucky, in alcoholic beverage retail sales.

But, of course, Lewis didn’t stop there with implementing change. In fact, he took it all the way up. “I always chafed against regulations and laws that seemed to me prejudicial against our industry,” he explains. “Change could come about through the court system or through the legislature. In the last handful of years, because of the impact of ‘bourbonism’ on the Kentucky tourism industry and the jobs and investments happening because of the bourbon boom, the KY legislature has become an ally to the alcohol industry. But for decades before that the courts were the most likely place to seek relief. That’s where I turned to effectuate change for our industry.

“The first court case I was able to win allowed alcohol retailers to accept credit cards as opposed to requiring cash. We won that case on the basis that, technically, functionally, credit cards with approvals WERE cash, at least to the retailer, and that the law as written could only regulate what the retailer accepted, not what the consumer tendered.

“The second court case I won allowed Sunday sales of alcohol on the basis that these old ‘blue laws’ had no constitutional basis (separation of church and state) and that by Kentucky law, communities could only regulate the hours of sale, not whether sales could be made on a particular day of the week. Change came hard but my consumers appreciated it.”

In the years that have followed, Lewis has continued to work through the legislature along with the Kentucky Distillers’ Association to modernize the laws that govern the industry and, in turn, improve bourbon tourism for everyone’s benefit.

When it comes to his leadership style at his latest venture, New Riff Distillery, this is something Lewis has honed into a fine craft over the years. He keeps it down to a few simple concepts: hire the best people, give them a clear mission, provide them with the best tools, then get out of their way.

Ken with the future of New Riff: Hannah Lowen, Mollie Lewis, and Denny Gorman

“All my employees are ‘career’ employees and are treated accordingly… since they are going to spend their entire careers here, we invest in them through training and sharing,” explains Lewis. “It’s natural to profit share with them; it’s our world-class whiskey, not mine. My preferred, proudly paternalisitic way to profit share is through a traditional pension plan – unheard of, crazy expensive, major liability. But it’s based on a simple old-fashioned concept: career employees give their best years to taking care of our company and in return we will take care of them in their retirement. And guess what? Respected, fairly treated, well-compensated, cared-for employees make, bottle, and sell world-class whiskey. Their craftsmanship and dedication at least partially pays for their pension, as expensive as it is.”

Lewis has rejected the drive for profits that is at the heart of stockholder-owned business, stating that he believes in “compassionate capitalism”.

So, what is in store for New Riff now he is stepping down?

“I think it’s time for new risks for our company, to go through a generational change… I think it’s appropriate to change,” he says. “I’m an entrepreneur… and I think there’s some different skill sets that need to take forward the next 20 years or so. My daughter is in the business… we have two other employees who are current and have been with us a long time. One of them is an original employee.”

Positive company culture, and retaining it, is clearly a driving factor for Lewis and the new leadership at New Riff. “Our culture, as you can gather, is so important to this company, this little company. And we want to preserve it at all costs,” he adds. “And it’s not just about making the maximum amount of money.”

Lewis left our call on a very poignant note when I asked him how he felt about stepping back. For him, it’s all about continuing the vision for the people and the whiskey. “When I look back… as the years go on, I hope I have many years to go, but I’ll be looking back at the people that are continuing to execute that vision.”

Meet New Riff’s New Leaders

Mollie Lewis, incoming President

Mollie Lewis was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky and is the sales director for New Riff Distilling. Mollie is the second generation of her family to work at New Riff; the distillery was established by her father, Ken Lewis, in 2014.

After receiving a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley,

California, Mollie moved to San Francisco where she worked her way through different channels of the wine and spirits business, from sommelier to distributor. Leaving the States, Mollie moved to Italy where she worked as an international export manager for more than seven years before returning home to Kentucky to join her father in launching New Riff.

Mollie is proud to lead the sales program at New Riff and her mission is to ensure its distribution is aligned with partners who understand and appreciate genuine, Kentucky-made whiskey.

Hannah Lowen, incoming Chief Executive Officer

Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Hannah Lowen spent a decade living and working on the West Coast and in New York before returning home to the Bluegrass State. She joined the team at New Riff in 2013 and jumped in with both feet, establishing its operating systems, branding and distillery programs. Shifting from roles in the political arena to managing the day-to-day operations of a growing bourbon distillery was an exciting change of pace.

Today, as vice president of operations, Hannah wears many hats at New Riff – working to shape the mission, optimize operations, and propel the company forward.

Denny Gorman, incoming Chief Operating Officer

Denny Gorman will take over as chief operating officer of New Riff Distilling. He joined the company in 2019 as the director of engineering and logistics where he spent five years leading an operations team as well as overseeing engineering, maintenance, and safety. As chief operating officer, he is responsible for all aspects of operations, supply chain, compliance, engineering, maintenance, and safety. Prior to joining New Riff, Gorman obtained more than 20 years of engineering experience, starting as a project engineer for Brown and Caldwell and Stantec. He spent 10 years at the Boston Beer Company, working in engineering and maintenance, before establishing Gorman Engineering, which provided consulting services and expertise to the beverage industry in the areas of engineering, design, operations, and safety. An Ohio native, Gorman received a Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Dayton and is a registered professional engineer.

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