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