Featuring Founder and Whiskey Maker of Rabbit Hole Distillery, Kaveh Zamanian
By Joe Daily
Photos by Kathryn Harrington
Welcome everyone, and thanks for joining us here at Daily Libations. This month we have a fantastic guest that made a splash in Louisville in the biggest way possible. I was extremely fortunate to sit down with the Founder and Whiskey Maker of Rabbit Hole, Kaveh Zamanian. It is incredible how quickly this brand has captured its audience. Kaveh and I took a little time to sip cocktails and try neat pours as we breezed through the distillery, talking all things whiskey. Without further adieu, let’s go down the Rabbit Hole.
So Kaveh, let’s jump into the brand history. What is the story of Rabbit Hole?
I’ll start by saying that “rabbit hole” is about transformation. All good things require passion and commitment, love and work. Rabbit Hole was born nearly ten years ago out of love for bourbon and a desire to elevate it to its rightful place, along with other great spirits from around the world. As a young man, I cut my teeth in the hospitality business and had a long-standing passion for spirits with a desire to start my own brand. I approached making whiskey as a consumer, invigorated about the beauty of bourbon, and tried to reimagine what it could be.
In the early days, just like Alice (of Alice in Wonderland), I was bored with what seemed to be a sea of sameness on the back shelf; The identical mash bills in a different bottle. This conjured up images of Alice, who shed her world of monotony the moment she dared to take a chance following an anthropomorphic rabbit down a hole. Unlike Alice, the more I explored the world of bourbon, the more I saw little differentiation between the bourbon brands on the market. I also saw tremendous potential in bourbon as a spirit and dared to leap down the “rabbit hole” to create something more authentic and nuanced.
That was the risk, not knowing how my recipes would turn out but stubbornly staying committed to one-of-a-kind whiskey mash bills even though I could’ve bought sourced whiskey from across the river to blend and bottle. At the time, married with three young children, leaving a 20+ year career as a psychologist and a comfortable future required a quantum leap, jumping down the rabbit hole not knowing where I was going to end up. I put everything on the line to start this life-altering journey, but all creatives understand that you have to go down a personal rabbit hole if you want to create something extraordinary.
Your team seems to be breaking the mold towards innovation. Anything you would like to bring to light? The future is looking pretty bright from what I gather looking down the rabbit hole.
Rabbit Hole is about reimagining what bourbon and American whiskey can be, so there is an element of innovation in everything we do. In addition to our core lineup, our Founder’s Collection captures an even more profound expression of our creativity as a brand, giving my team and me the ability to produce limited-edition spirits made with originality and our unique approach to making spirits.
This facility is fascinating. Architecturally, there is no doubt that this is a work of art in manufacturing or, should I say, creating. Was this a realized concept from the beginning?
From the beginning, my vision for the distillery was to create a sense of awe. I was intimately involved in every step of the process, guiding the design elements from beginning to end. My goal was to create a fully transparent space, giving our guests a truly unique experience.
Transparency and innovation are fundamental to Rabbit Hole; it’s part of our DNA. The distillery is built to show our approach to whiskey-making openly. Rabbit Hole has turned the industry on its head, first concerning what we do from a liquid standpoint creating our own mash bills, making whiskey according to proprietary methods. From a distillery perspective, we showcase the entire process from grain to bottle. Our packaging is sophisticated, stylish and contemporary, a departure from what you see in the category. We are reimaging and reinterpreting what American whiskey can be. As a result, we are standing apart as a unique player in the bourbon category.
Let’s talk about whiskey. To start, I love the fact that your lowest proof sits at 46.5% ABV. To me, this is a sign of not sacrificing quality, and it does not go unnoticed. Was this the intended purpose?
We don’t take any shortcuts. In the end, it’s all about making the best whiskey in the world. The liquid right off the still goes in the barrel at 110 proof even though we’re allowed to take it up to 125. We choose the lower entry proof to maximize flavor even though it yields less at harvest. We place our whiskey in the bottle at a higher proof because we want the flavor of our whiskey to come through not only neat or on the rocks but also in cocktails. For me, it’s all about quality and flavor.
As we cruise back towards the facility, I can’t help but stare at the bar area. Is this open to the public all the time, or is it specific to tours?
Overlook is our tasting room and bar, and it has sweeping panoramic views that “overlook” the skyline of Louisville and the Ohio River. It is the only bar that “overlooks” the entire distillation process, giving visitors the chance to have a cocktail steps away from our copper column still.
We designed Overlook to look like an upscale cocktail lounge or restaurant, allowing our guests to experience Rabbit Hole in a beautiful setting. At Overlook, Rabbit Hole has a cocktail program curated by the brand’s resident mixologists to highlight the rich, complex spirits Rabbit Hole produces and celebrate the creativity at the core of everything Rabbit Hole does. The team utilizes ingredients from all over the world to represent the coming together of different cultures. Overlook is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:30 AM to 4:30 PM and is available for private events.
The cocktails are superb, and it’s obvious this is not a run-of-the-mill program. Solid thought and technique are being expressed through cocktails here. It seems Rabbit Hole Whiskey took cocktail culture seriously before it ever hit the market. For instance, the proof to me again of the whiskey is a sign your team was paying attention. Was the cocktail renaissance a factor at play with the fruition of Rabbit Hole?
No – I started thinking about Rabbit Hole in the early 2000s, which was before the cocktail renaissance was a thing. When I began to develop my own spirits brand, bourbon still had not captured wide national consumer attention. I got into the bourbon business as a way to spread the word about bourbon and bring “America’s native spirit” into prominence. Cocktails are simply a natural way of achieving that goal. With that said, forward-thinking, talented bartenders and cocktail bars around the country genuinely put a spotlight on bourbon and American whiskey, and now, there’s no going back.
Let’s discuss a bit more about cocktails. I was lucky enough to enjoy a Rabbit Hole cocktail crafted by the Beverage Director, Ashley Angel. Any recommended cocktail or neat pour pairings you would suggest for our readers?
When I have a skirt steak or a filet mignon, I love to pair it with Cavehill because the honey and sweet notes complement a steak. I generally have our Boxergrail rye in a Manhattan, and I also enjoy Boxergrail with seafood such as tuna or crab cakes. The spice and floral, herbaceous notes of the Boxergrail pair beautifully with seafood. I most often drink Heigold with one large ice cube, and if I’m pairing, it’s with a salad. It’s a wonderful unexpected pairing with a niçoise salad or an apple-pear salad. I highly recommend it. Lately, I have been enjoying Dareringer in cocktails. I recently enjoyed a Black Manhattan using Dareringer, and it was really sweet, and it was great!
Kaveh, it has been wonderful to sit down with you, my friend, and I love the pairings. I am looking forward to your recommendations. Thank you again to you and the team for taking the time to sit down with us. I know to schedule this time a year is tough on us all in the spirits industry. If you’re reading this, cheers, my friend! Thank you.
To my readers, I always include a drink recipe, and it just so happens that Ashley Angel of Rabbit Hole put together a quick and easy cocktail for us to reproduce at home for the holiday season. If you want to try the complex cocktail builds, I suggest swinging by Rabbit Hole for a tour, cocktail and a high-five. Tell Ashley I sent you.
Until next time everyone.
Cheers and Best Regards,
“If you drink it. I Study it.”
Rabbit Hole Distillery
711 E Jefferson St.
Louisville, KY 40202
Maple on the Hill, Ashley Angel
Tools required to tipple your senses:
1oz and 2oz Jigger (A bartender’s instrument to measure)
Yarai Mixing Glass (This is 90% of the time a glass vessel, but there are some metal versions as well)
Stirring Spoon (This is a spoon designed to stir cocktails)
Hawthorne Strainer or Julep Strainer (I prefer Hawthorne strainers for all applications)
Old Fashioned Glass
Y-Peeler (This is for peeling the garnish)
Ice Scoop (The tool everyone forgets, including me)
Where the magic happens:
2oz Allspice-Infused Rabbit Hole Cavehill Four Grain Bourbon
.5oz Maple Honey Syrup (3 Maple: 1 Honey)
3 Dashes Angostura Bitters
1 Dash Walnut Bitters (Fee Brothers)
Ice: Large Format Ice (You can buy larger 2×2” ice molds, or you can purchase clear premium ice)
Garnish: Large Swath of Orange Peel (Option ¼ Orange Wheel with walnut bitters and whole clove)
• In the mixing glass, add Rabbit Hole Cavehill Bourbon and Maple Honey Syrup together.
• Add 3 dashes of Angostura bitters.
• Add 1 Dash of Walnut Bitters (Fee Brothers).
• Fill with ice above the fluid line (I usually fill almost ¾ up in the mixing glass).
• Stir the cocktail, moving the spoon to the outside wall of the mixing glass 37-50 times. We want smooth laminar flow. (What that means- Laminar flow, we have layers of liquid moving in the same direction in return, supercooling the beverage) Your ice should swirl seamlessly quietly. Requires a little practice!
• Strain ingredients using your Hawthorne strainer over fresh large format ice into an Old-Fashioned glass.
• Peel your garnish and “express” oils over the cocktail, which can be done by twisting the peel over the c cocktail or by the pinch method. Lean in, and you can see the oils being released into the cocktail.
• Take your orange peel and use the orange skin side of the peel. Rub it around the rim of the glass to add oils and aroma to the rim. Discard peel.