Heaven Hill is a family owned distillery that opened in Bardstown, Kentucky at the end of Prohibition. The company had been found in 1935 by the five Shapira brothers who hired Joe L. Beam to be their first distiller. It is remarkable because the brothers had not been in the distilling business before that time having been known for their chain of Louisville Stores that sold clothing in many towns in Kentucky. The original name was to be the “Old Heavenhill Springs Distillery” named for William Heavenhill who had settled on the land where the distillery was built, but a mistake at the printers made Heavenhill into two words and the brothers decided to stay with that name instead. Their first brand was Bourbon Falls. In November 1996 a catastrophic fire burned the original distillery and they purchased the Bernheim distillery in Louisville from Diageo. Today they make their whiskey in Louisville but still age it in Bardstown and other sites in Nelson County.
One of the things that makes Heaven Hill so remarkable is that they survived starting up a distillery in midst of the great depression and not only survived, but thrived when many companies with established brands did not do so for various reasons. The Shapira brothers deserve a lot of credit for being not only great whiskey men but also excellent businessmen. In fact many of the companies with established brands ended up with those brands being preserved for the future because Heaven Hill acquired the brands and kept them alive and well. Brands like Henry McKenna, J.T.S. Brown, T.W. Samuels, Old Fitzgerald and others were well known brands that are only around today because Heaven Hill purchased them and continued to make whiskey for those brands. Many of their brands are very regional. Heaven Hill could very easily discontinue these brands but chooses not to do so. The result is people get to drink brands that would have disappeared without Heaven Hill.
These brands are not all just the same whiskey with different labels as some claim. The fact is that Heaven Hill owns several different warehousing sites and each create different flavor profiles in the aging. The result is that Heaven Hill can use different barrels from these sites to create these brands that may be similar, but are subtly different in flavor. They are one of the few distilleries that can do this as they have been acquiring these warehouses over the past five decades and have plenty of aging barrels to choose from for the brands.
The Shapira family still owns the company with Max Shapira at the helm, but they are grooming the next generation to take over. Max’s cousin, the late Harry Shapira was also a lover of Bourbon heritage and was instrumental in the designs for the Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown and the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in Louisville. Both places tell not only the history of Heaven Hill and their brands but also of distilling heritage in Nelson County in Bardstown and Louisville’s history at Evan Williams. They are more than just places to promote their brands. They also promote the communities where they are located.
Heaven Hill is truly one of Kentucky’s Great Distilleries. They create some very good products and at the same time do many things to keep the heritage of Kentucky Bourbon alive and well. They deserve recognition for these efforts and I hope that consumers will come to Kentucky and visit their facilities.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl and Michael Veach
September 11, 2017 at 3:59 pm
I’m confused. This piece seems to suggest that the aging barrels at each warehouse are re-used (“…have plenty of aging barrels to chhose from.”). I thought bourbon aging requires new barrels and once used are dismantled for overseas users
September 11, 2017 at 5:21 pm
I don’t think I have implied used cooperage. They have multiple warehouses on multiple locations for variation in aging.
September 11, 2017 at 8:11 pm
Thank you for responding to my question. I now understand.
I do have another question about distilleries acquiring multiple labels.
In your delightful book, The Bourbon Tasting Notebook (Reigler,Veach; Acclaim Press 2015), you identify 8 major producers owning 64 labels between them.
I know this is a general question with no definitive, easy, answer, but how well, generally speaking, are the original recipes of these acquired labels kept? Or, are they now just old labels with a new take on their recipes?
Thanks for your time.
September 11, 2017 at 8:32 pm
Gregg, That is a good question. It all depends upon the distillery and how they acquired the brand. If they managed to get the recipe and the yeast to make the whiskey they have done a decent job of keeping the taste profile similar but there will always be some flavor drift in the profile. Please check out my blog on Flavor Drift for more on that subject. However there are many brands sales that did not come with such benefits and the distillery will simply put whiskey in the barrel that is of a similar age and proof and hope for the best.
September 11, 2017 at 10:35 pm
Michael, I read your piece on flavor drift and it clarified quite a lot. Thanks.
As an enthusiastic newcomer to bourbon, with much to learn, that blog also generated another nagging question: water.
On my recent visit to beautiful Kentucky, and some of its distilleries, I learned about the use of reverse osmosis for water purification.
RO removes minerals. Is Kentucky’s limestone (a mineral) – infused water, so essential to the uniqueness of bourbon, now significantly reduced, or worse, lost to the bourbon-making process?
September 12, 2017 at 12:43 am
Read my blog on water. The base of the pillars is limestone water.
November 19, 2017 at 10:55 am
Hi Michael, Can you enlighten me on what the Heaven Hill mashbills are? I’m looking at their website and it seems to differ with most of the bourbon review blogs out there. Website says Henry McKenna bourbon 75 Corn/ 10 Rye/ 12 barley, Pikesville Rye 51 rye/ 35 corn/ 14 barley, Larceny 68% Corn/ 20 wheat, 12 barley, Mellow Corn 80 Corn/ 8 Rye/ 12 barley…? Are these correct? I thought they used one bourbon mashbill that was always the same? Is Evan Williams 75/10/12? Thanks for any light you might be able to shed on this.