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Heaven Hill: Three Generations, 85 Years

A tradition of quality, consistency and integrity

 

By Sarah Levitch  |  Photos Provided

 

President Max Shapira.

President Max Shapira

Is there a specific part of the history of Heaven Hill that you’d like to tell us about?

There are two dates that are most important: one was 85 years ago, 1935, and the other is 2020. In 1935, you had my dad, his four brothers, and a few others in the middle of the Depression, building a distillery knowing they had to wait for the product. They were as enthusiastic as you could imagine, with great faith and energy. Today, we have a similar unevenness in the middle of a pandemic with lots of unemployment, yet we attack the business with the same amount of enthusiasm as the five founding brothers did 85 years ago.

Max Shapira, Heaven Hill Historical Archive

How did there get to be so many brands under the Heaven Hill name?

From the late 1950s to the early 1980s, the bourbon industry went into a small decline due to consumer desires. The rise of vodka, gin cocktails and rum cocktails provided unbelievable competition to the American whiskey category. It made sense to expand beyond our whiskey. Beginning in the 1960s up until today, there’s been a broad range program of internal product development and brand acquisition that has expanded the portfolio to almost every distilled spirit category. Despite all that diversification, the core part of our DNA is American whiskey.

How has the distillery evolved since you took over as President?

There’s always pride in a new brand and expansion of facilities, and we’ve done all those kinds of things over the years. The most interesting thing is to look at the business as a family-owned and operated company, not just from a short, medium or long term view. We look at it from a generational view. Being able to have another generation of family involvement is a key piece of how we manage and will evolve in the years to come. We’ve developed a broad portfolio of American whiskeys. There are some of the most iconic and historical names. Evan Williams was a major builder of the city of Louisville dating back to the first commercial distillery in 1783. Elijah Craig, which most analysts consider the father of bourbon, created his whiskey in 1789 in Georgetown, KY.

How do you continue the legacy of your father and grandfather?

The best way is to always have a set of values. We’re passionately committed to excellence. Teamwork is unbelievably important. We are continuously improving, striving to be the best, highly customer focused and very nimble in what we do. We do everything with a sense of integrity. These are the same values that were unwritten, but guiding lights to the original founding brothers. When you talk about a legacy, that’s the core piece. That’s the reason why we’ve been able to endure and be successful. These are cornerstones and a tremendous foundation on which to build.

Historical photo of the five Shapira brothers.

Chief Marketing Officer Kate S. Latts

How long have you been at Heaven Hill?

Unofficially, I’d like to say my whole life. Heaven Hill is so much a part of my concept of family and who I’ve been, from how it often impacted family dinners and vacations, to summer jobs. Growing up in a family business is a unique paradigm. In my professional role, I’ve been with the company for 19 years on the marketing team. I oversee all of our brands, not just our bourbons, which are about 30% of our business.

How has the distillery evolved since you joined?

When I came to the company, I think in total we had seven people on the marketing team and now we have 50. We have an in-house agency, a PR and communications team, and an events team. None of those areas existed when I first came to the company. We’ve created more sophisticated ways that we train and develop our team. We’ve been able to lean in even more to being good community partners throughout Louisville, Bardstown and other places our employees live. The company has grown so much, we’ve tried to maintain our value of nimbleness and entrepreneurial, family culture.

How do you continue the legacy of your family?

First of all, I always make sure to reflect on the legacy that my grandfather and his four brothers left. I can’t imagine what they would think if they saw the company today. The whole notion of it being a family-owned company is really important to me and the rest of the family. We infuse those values into everything we do. There’s never a day that goes by, especially now, where I’m not interacting with my team members’ kids. I love that. They grow up feeling like they’re a part of this family, just like I did. We really try to treat our employees like extended family members.

 

Chief Operating Officer Allan Latts

How has Heaven Hill evolved since you joined 19 years ago?

From a company size, we’ve been able to grow faster than others and be a dominant player in the industry. From a branded business or consumer packaged goods standpoint, we’ve become much more focused on building brands to last years. We’ve accomplished this by launching brands such as Larceny and PAMA Pomegranate Liqueur. From an operation standpoint, one of the things I’m most proud of is being able to grow our infrastructure to meet the growth of the company, whether that’s expanding our distilleries or going from one bottling plant to many. From a financial basis, we’ve become much smarter about our business, like using data analytics to help inform decision making. One of the things I personally did was lead the implementation of the ERP, the financial and data infrastructure for our operations, which provided the basis for much expanded information.

Evan Williams Bourbon Experience.

How do you continue the legacy of the Shapira family?

By continuing to grow and being a successful player in the industry. Part of that is this focus on brand building. As an independent family-owned company, we have the luxury of taking this long term view. Another part of the secret sauce is making sure we maintain a great relationship with our distributors and retailers and the longevity of our sales forces. There’s a consistency there. All of our distributors are family-owned, family-lead businesses, like Southern Glazer Wine & Spirits and Republic National Distributing Company. Lastly, it’s maintaining nimbleness. This ability to both react quickly, but also reading the tea leaves of the world, so we can be proactive about what we do.

Do you have any goals or ideas for the future of Heaven Hill Distillery?

One goal is to continue to empower our employees. Our brands are really important, but our people are even more so to ensure our success. We are continuing to focus on being good citizens in the communities where our employees live and work, whether that’s programs in the West End of Louisville where our distillery is, or sponsorships with the Speed Art Museum or the Louisville Zoo. The number of family-owned companies that make it to the third generation is very little. It’s a huge accomplishment to be an 85-year-old company, yet 85 years is just another day in our company. We have the vision and intention of keeping this a multi-generational family business.

Master Distiller Conor O’Driscoll

Conor O’Driscoll, Master Distiller.

How do you balance legacy and innovation?

I’m the seventh Master Distiller. I look up specifically to Parker Beam, who held this position for 56 years, and meld his focus on quality and consistency with my knowledge. As knowledge of yeast and fermentation improves, my job is to take the legacy and build on it with more up to date microbiological methodology. I stand on the shoulders of giants, so I have to be careful not to step too far to one side or the other. It’s about being part of the continuum and being able to leverage those 85 years of experience and knowledge to direct where these brands might go. There’s an air of collaboration in this company. We focus on what makes Heaven Hill great, which is making high-quality, consistent whiskeys. The nimbleness, continuous improvement and innovation is our family DNA.

What are some special bourbons you’ve worked on that you are particularly proud of?

We have a grain to glass program. It’s kind of a farm to table style of whiskey where we grow specific strains of corn or wheat on the property. This year, we’re starting to use Kentucky rye. For the grain to glass, we’ve done a high-wheat bourbon, a high-rye whiskey and a high-rye bourbon, and tweaked those to bring out the character of the grains. The oldest one of those will be two-years-old in December, and we’ll do a tasting of it to see how it’s developing. Every fall, we bring out Parker’s Heritage Collection in honor and memory of Parker Beam, and we have a special whiskey to honor our 85th year.

How do ensure that the brands under Heaven Hill are distinct from each other? What makes each unique?

At the distillery, we have five mash bills. We have a bourbon with rye, a rye whiskey, a wheated bourbon, a wheat whiskey and a corn whiskey. When we make any or all of those, we’re not specifically making a brand. We focus on making super high quality, consistent whiskey. If you put bad whiskey in a good barrel, you’ll get bad whiskey out of the good barrel. We’re strategic about where we put different styles of whiskey, depending on what brand we might think it will become, but even at that point, we’re not entirely sure what brand it might be. It’s all about maturation at that point. We might lay some of the wheat bourbon down thinking it will become Larceny in six years, but there are no hard and fast rules. 

Heaven Hill Distillery
1064 Loretto Rd.
Bardstown, KY 40004
heavenhilldistillery.com
502.272.2623