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The Whiskies & History Of Heaven Hill

Updated: Mar 5


Heaven Hill distillery whisky brands

Image by Heaven Hill/ The Whisky Ardvark


The Heaven Hill Bernheim distillery in Louisville, Kentucky, is home to multiple whiskey brands and styles. In the hands of the Shapira family, the site is the second largest whiskey distillery in the US - second only to Jack Daniel's distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. At a rate of filling 1,000,000 barrels quadrennially, Heaven Hill is ramping up its game.


Heaven Hill Brands has been in the news lately with some big news. In 2018, the company announced its multi-year investment plan to dedicate $125 million to increase production capacity and drive tourism, including tasting rooms and a $19 million tourist centre. In April 2022, Heaven Hill announced another huge investment - the newly planned distillery in Bardstown, christened Heaven Hill Springs, worth $135 million, with hopes of starting production in 2024.


Heaven Hill is ramping up its game to meet the high demand for American whiskies and other spirits. In February 2022, the company also purchased Samson & Surrey and its brands Few Spirits, Widow Jane American Whiskey, Brenne French Whisky, Ocho Tequila, Mezcal Vago, and Bluecoat Gin for an undisclosed amount.


But that's not all. In late 2022, Heaven Hill announced a transfer of power to the 3rd generation Shapira - the wife-husband team Kate Shapira Latt and Allan Latt, who has been involved with the company since 2001.


We wanted to take a closer look at the Heaven Hill Bernheim distillery, its whiskies, and the history of Heaven Hill. A good place to start is always at the beginning.



 

'Old Heavenhill Springs' & The Five Brothers & The Beams


The 'Old Heavenhill Springs' distillery was cofounded in 1935 by five Shapira brothers, David, Ed, Gary, George, and Mose, in Bardstown, Kentucky, with the help of local investors. Their father had migrated from Russia in the late 1800s and settled in Kentucky to start a family and a successful retail store company.


Old Heaven Hill Springs distillery Bardstown

Image by Difford's Guide


After the US Prohibition, the interest in making whiskey rose, and Shapira's were approached with the investment opportunity in a newly planned distillery along with Joseph 'Joe' L. Beam and his son Harry Beam. The deal was struck with an investment of $17,500 ($381,000 today), which would be equally matched by the other investors who would run the distillery operations, including Joe Beam, who was the first master distiller.


Joe Beam was the cousin of the famous distiller Jim Beam and had previously worked at his distillery. Between ages 13 and 30, he gained experience as a distillery worker and distiller in four Bardstown distilleries before moving to Mexico at the beginning of Prohibition to run a tequila plant. He was soon lured back to Kentucky to work at the A. Ph. Stitzel distillery. After the repeal, he wanted to create something from scratch and joined the founding team of Heaven Hill. (He would go on to have nine sons, seven of whom would become master distillers in their own right.)


The Heaven Hill distillery was founded with no existing stills, brands, or inventory at the height of the Great Depression. But by 1938, they managed to bring out their first whiskey, Bourbon Falls, followed by Old Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond a year later. Even though the distillery was forced to cease whiskey production in 1942 to help the war effort, Heaven Hill whiskies soon became popular amongst its countrymen.


Old picture of Heaven Hill whiskey distillery

Image by Heaven Hill Brands


Did you know? The distillery was named after William Heavenhill who owned the land where the distillery was built. When the license and paperwork were filed for the new site, a typo accidentally divided the name in half to Heaven Hill. Correcting the name would have cost $10 ($215 today), so they decided to just leave it be.



Unfortunately, the times were hard. Unlike the Shapira brothers, other investors didn't have other forms of income, and waiting for the whiskey to mature became too long of a wait. 1937, the Shapira family bought out other investors for $20,000 ($412,000 today).


In 1946, another member of the Beam family took over the job of Master Distiller. Earl Beam was also one of Jim Beam's cousins and had learned his trade at the Jim Beam distillery. During his 29-year vacancy at Heaven Hill, Earl was the driving force behind the Evan Williams bourbon, which was launched in 1957.


In 1960, Earl's son Parker took over the distilling operation. Earl Beam would eventually retire in 1975. Parker would become the man behind the well-known Heaven Hill brand Elijah Craig (1986). Parker handed out his position of Master Distiller to his son Craig Beam in 1983.


Heaven Hill President and master distillers timeline

Owners and master distillers of Heaven Hill

Images by The Whisky Ardvark/ Heaven Hill



 

The Tragedy Strikes


On the 7th of November 1996, the distillery supervisor, Charlie Downs, was alerted to possible smoke coming out of Warehouse 1. Downs and Parker Beam rushed onto the scene only to see a flaming river of whiskey pouring out of the warehouse and heading towards the nearby rickhouses, the highway, and ultimately, the distillery itself. In six hours, the distillery grounds and half of the distillery were destroyed by what people speculated to have been a lightning strike caused by a storm.


The second generation Shapira - Max L. Shapira - took over the role of company president in 1996, just after the disaster. Even though the fire had destroyed 7 rickhouses that counter for ~15% (92,000 barrels) of the distillery's storage capacity and damages up to $30 million, Max stayed positive and hatched a new plan to get the company back up and running.


Heaven Hill Bernheim whiskey distillery

Image by Whiskey Jug - Heaven Hill Bernheim


With the help of other distillers in the area, Heaven Hill distillery managed to survive. By 1999, United Distillers reached out to offer their Bernheim distillery in Louisville for sale. Later that year, the deal was struck, almost tripling Heaven Hills' production capacity. The old site remained with the company and is still used as a bottling, ageing, and shipping plant.


Craig Beam resigned from his post in 2017 to take care of his father, Parker, who was dying from ALS. For the first time in Heaven Hill history, a non-Beam family member became the Master Distiller. But Denny Porter served only for a couple of years before the current Master Distiller, Conor O'Driscoll, was appointed to the role in 2019.


Kate Shapira Latt, Max Shapira, and Alan Latt - Heaven Hill Brands

Image by Heaven Hill Brands - Kate Shapira Latt, Max Shapira, and Alan Latt


Since September 1st, 2022, the company has been co-run by husband-wife team Alan Latt and Kate Shapira Latt. They joined the company in 2001 as first of the 3rd generation members of the Shapira family and will be overseeing the building of the new Heaven Hill Springs distillery which will bring the family distilling back to Bardstown where it all began.


Heaven Hill Brands - Plan for the new distillery in Bardstown

Image by Heaven Hill Brands - Plan for the new distillery in Bardstown



 

Who was...


Unlike Buffalo Trace distillery, Heaven Hill didn't name their whiskies to commemorate important figures in the distillery's past. They decided to dedicate their bourbons to important figures in the Kentucky bourbon industry, including the ones that follow:


Heaven Hill whiskey figures Evan Williams Elijah Craig Henry McKenna

Pictures by Heaven Hill


Evan Williams

Evan Williams was the first licensed distiller in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.


Elijah Craig

Elijah Craig is often referred to as 'the Father of Bourbon'. He was a preacher, educator, distiller, and entrepreneur credited for being the first to use charred new oak barrels to mature American-made whiskey in 1789. He also fought against slavery in the newly established State of Kentucky (1792).


Henry McKenna

Henry McKenna was an Irish immigrant, who founded a distillery in 1855 in Kentucky. His namesake whiskey became part of the Heaven Hill distillery portfolio in 1989.



 

Whiskies of Heaven Hill Bernheim Distillery


Heaven Hill Bernheim plant is the only distillery in the US that produces bourbon, wheated bourbon, rye, and corn whiskey (+ straight, bottled-in-bond, small batch, and single barrel expressions).


Details of Whiskies of Heaven Hill Bernheim Distillery

Timeline of Whiskies of Heaven Hill Bernheim Distillery

Images by The Whisky Ardvark

 

Other Heaven Hill Brands


To celebrate the company's 80th anniversary in 2014, Heaven Hill Distilleries, Inc. was renamed Heaven Hill Brands. The company portfolio has extended massively over the years to 40 brands, from whiskey and tequila to gins and liqueurs.

Heaven hill Brands portfolio of spirits

Image by The Whisky Ardvark/ Heaven Hill Brands

 

Thank you for reading!

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