Heaven Hill will be familiar to many whisky enthusiasts who may have stumbled across newly arrived barrels awaiting being refilled in Scotland. It remains a major source of high quality casks for Scottish distillers who rely on this vital leftover product to mature their own whisky. The distillery itself has become a major player in the American market despite having only been established in 1935 by the 5 Shapira brothers and additional investors including distillery Joseph L. Beam. This was just a couple of years after the ending of Prohibition during which the market for legal whiskey was eradicated and left to bootleggers or imports from Scotland for medicinal purposes. The distillery remains in private hands today and is the last family owned example in Kentucky with decedents of the Shapira brothers at the helm.
When discussing Heaven Hill as a distillery, it’s important to note that 2 separate entities exist much like Scottish equivalents such as Caol Ila, where the new make spirit is put into tankers to be filled into casks at a central facility. The Heaven Hill distilling takes place in Louisville and is referred to as the Bernheim distillery. The actual maturation itself is at Heaven Hill’s Bardstown headquarters with warehouses 4 to 5 stories high and features the bottling plant and visitor centre. This arrangement came about following a dramatic fire in 1996 which completely destroyed the original distillery in Bardstown and warehouses. The fire started in the number 1 warehouse before spreading to several others, in total over 90,000 barrels of bourbon were lost (2% of the world’s whiskey in 1996) and the nightmare reality of a river of fire unfolded, but fortunately no one was injured or killed. Such events are rare but when they do occur they can have devastating consequences with Scotland’s most unfortunate distillery, Banff, enjoying similar notoriety.
Fortunately, a convenient solution was available as United Distillers had built a modern Bernheim distillery in Louisville in 1992, but with the formation of Diageo the distillery was deemed surplus to requirements. In 1999 Heaven Hill purchased the facility and was able to commence distilling once again at a new state of the art facility that met their requirements. Production wise Heaven Hill utilises two large column stills over 5 stories in height, which are then put through a second distillation via a doubler or thumper (due to the noise produced). Prior to this step the vapours from the continuous distillation are condensed back into liquid form before moving into the doubler, or at least it would be normally, as at Heaven Hill the step is skipped.
Heaven Hill recently acknowledged the fire with a 20th anniversary bottling consisting of whiskey from 4 pre-fire barrels and sold to the public on the anniversary itself. Prior to distilling once again and rebuilding for the future, the whiskey distilling community rallied around Heaven Hill and offered to provide contract distilling so that the company could survive the shortfall in stock and output. Interestingly, Heaven Hill recently opened a new warehouse at Bardstown that is capable of holding 56,000 barrels under one roof, which underlines how popular whiskey is today.
Although Heaven Hill might not be a recognisable name in itself, the range of brands that are produced at the distillery are a different matter. You have your standard bottling named after the distillery or the Old Fitzgerald bottling, but it also caters for the premium end of the market with more aged expressions such as Evan Williams, Parker’s and Elijah Craig that collectively are called the Heritage Collection. The list of whiskies produced at Bernheim is extensive considering that they can incorporate a rye or wheated mash to produce different styles or bourbon as well as malt, corn or wheat whiskey such as Bernheim original that was introduced in 2005.
It can be bewildering when entering the realm of American whiskies so much so it’s worth a blog article in its own right. A phrase worth looking out for is bottled in bond which is the definitive statement. This ensures the contents are from a single distiller and distillery, produced in one season and aged for a minimum of 4 years. Nothing else can be added other than water, with strict guidelines regarding labelling and consumer information. This statement features on Heaven Hill releases such as the Henry McKenna and the Rittenhouse rye, but given the huge range of choice there’s something for everyone.