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“It was probably the most ridiculous investment and speculation one could have made in the entire world of economic cycles in this country.” Though hardly a snappy slogan for a brochure or bottle label, this statement, like every other made by Heaven Hill President Max Shapira, was uttered with laughter, passion and boundless enthusiasm. Heaven Hill Brands lauds its distinction as America’s “sixth-largest supplier of distilled spirits” and “largest, independent family-owned and -operated producer and marketer” of the same, but it is the people of Heaven Hill, rather than the numbers, that set this company apart. This year marks the 80th anniversary of HHB’s inception and heralds the character of those people and the family who started it all.
“My grandfather came from Lithuania, through New Orleans,” said Max, “and settled in New Haven, Kentucky.” Peddling household wares from a sack on his back, the elder Shapira became so successful he was able to open a brick-and-mortar store in New Haven and soon brought each of his five sons into the business. One of those sons was Ed Shapira, Max’s father. “When the brothers came of age,” said Max, “they were sent to other communities to open a store selling clothing items. During the Depression, consumers needed clothing cheaply and the businesses did well.”
Following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Bardstown—the center of distilling prior to federal interference—once again hummed with the spirit for … well … spirits. “There was virtually no great quality whiskey,” said Max, “and people with knowledge of the distilling business wanted back in.” Ed Shapira was approached by some interested investors, and $18,000 and a few crossed fingers later, Old Heavenhill Springs distillery was born. “These were terrible economic times,” said Max, adding with a laugh: “There was no inventory, no distiller, no brand, and you had to wait years to see if it worked. Talk about speculative!” About a year into it, the initial investors had a change of heart and wanted out. Faced with the possibility of selling the business or shutting it down, Ed and his brothers bought the others out and established Heaven Hill as a Shapira family enterprise.
Recognizing the company’s need for revenue and consumer desire for the return of quality spirits, Heaven Hill introduced two-year Bourbon Falls while waiting for its traditional four-year bourbon to mature. “They hired people who were intelligent, conservative and careful,” said Max of his father and uncles. This approach led to the company securing the government’s “Bottled in Bond” seal on its product. “Our ‘Old Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond’ was 100 proof, and people wanted it,” Max said. “Most of the other stuff out there was lousy, and that seal meant something. The government was behind it, and it meant quality. ‘Bottled in Bond’ became the No. 1 seller in Kentucky in 1939.”
By 1941, the United States was involved in World War II, and the distillation of spirits was suspended as the production of alcohol for the war effort took priority. “There was a great shortage of whiskey after the war,” Max said, “and huge amounts were made for several years.” When the U.S. became involved in the Korean conflict, there was speculation that the industry would be shut down again, but this never occurred. A surplus of whiskey put supply way ahead of demand, and this, combined with the changing tastes of consumers, opened up a new frontier for Heaven Hill. The wildly popular Evan Williams Bourbon was launched in 1957, but market shifts then forced HHB to regroup and try a new approach.
“People’s palates were changing,” Max said. “There was more competition and a desire for the lighter stuff. Vodka became very popular, especially in the 1960s.” A lull in the sale of bourbon throughout the ’70s and ’80s and an increase in consumer desire for what Max refers to as “froufrou drinks” had some in the industry predicting an end to traditional whiskey-centered imbibing. “How did we survive all this?” Max mused. “We finally got it right and focused on the distinctive style and taste of all the whiskey we made.”
Getting it right was made easier by the exceptional talent at HHB. Earl Beam, of Jim Beam family and fame, joined the company as master distiller in 1946. His son, Parker, came to Heaven Hill in 1960 and took over the esteemed role from his father in 1975. Parker’s son, Craig, continued the tradition in 1983 and now serves as co-master distiller with his dad. Second-generation Shapiras—Max and his cousin, Harry—joined the family business in 1971 and 1973, respectively, followed in 2001 by Max’s daughter, Kate Shapira Latts, vice president of marketing, and her husband, Allan Latts, COO. Max’s son, Andy Shapira, director of corporate analysis, came aboard in 2006.
“We are a family-owned and -operated business,” Max said. “Privately owned means no Wall Street looking over our shoulder. Our third generation is solidly in place, all of whom are passionate and have a separate and distinct skill set.”
Those skills have enabled Heaven Hill to meet the ever-changing needs of consumers and expand into diverse markets. “Our thought,” said Max, “was ‘let’s do something unique.’ Bourbon is an iconic American brand and needs quality imagery. We wanted to give consumers this experience.”
Calling the industry changes of the late ’80s and the ’90s a “renaissance of the American whiskey industry,” Max shared the company’s role in the revival of classic cocktails. “Young consumers developed a ‘what’s old is new’ perspective, and we created better packaging and a signature look, which the consumer started to adopt.” The distinction “small batch” is quite common now, but when Heaven Hill created Elijah Craig 12 Year Old Bourbon in 1986, it was the first of its kind. The success of Elijah Craig, the birth of the small batch concept, and a resurgence of the quintessential bar experience reflected a cosmopolitan attitude among up-and-coming men and women. Froufrou was still a thing, but the trend toward old-school, hand-crafted spirits had begun. “The renaissance was due in part to female consumers,” Max said. “People were upwardly mobile, liked all-natural ingredients and authenticity.”
The past 35 years have been a whirlwind of change for Heaven Hill. A massive fire in 1996 destroyed several warehouses and half the distillery, and could have brought the business to a screeching halt. But in typical HHB fashion, employees returned to work the very next day and production was up and running at full capacity. Brand diversification begun in 1989 with the acquisition of Henry McKenna Bourbon, Harwood Canadian Whisky and Burnett’s Gin continues today with an ever-expanding inventory. “We pride ourselves on being nimble,” said Kate Shapira Latts. “We are always externally focused on flavors and trends, and constantly looking at what is going on around us. We have a diverse portfolio and are prepared as consumer needs change.”
The company rolled out Burnett’s Vodka in 1991, and 1993 saw the addition of varied spirits such as DuBouchett Cordials and Liqueurs, Philadelphia Blended Whisky, Coronet VSQ Brandy and Copa De Oro Coffee Liqueur. Capitalizing on the single barrel trend, Heaven Hill added three signature bourbons to its collection in 1995: Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage Bourbon, Elijah Craig 18 Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon and Henry McKenna Bottled-in-Bond Single Barrel Bourbon. The acquisition that same year of Two Fingers Tequila and the introduction of O’Mara’s Irish Country Cream continued Heaven Hill’s drive to stay on top of the market and provide consumers with exactly what they want. “Burnett’s is the No. 5 vodka in the country,” Kate said. “We pride ourselves on having the right products.”
A name change in 2014, from Heaven Hill Distilleries to Heaven Hill Brands, reflects the company’s diversity and ever-expanding product base. “It tells a bit more about who we are and what we do,” Max said. For the Shapiras, who they are is as important as what they sell. Beyond their products—which range from world-class bourbons to flavored whiskeys to brandy, vodkas, 100 percent agave tequila, rum and liqueurs—Heaven Hill Brands has a reputation for something more personal and clearly unique in the distillery business. “Family-owned” doesn’t merely describe the type of company Heaven Hill is; it defines how it is.
“Distributors value Heaven Hill because our focus is on relationships,” Kate said, “and the impact, the benefit that brings is important.” A March 25, article on beveragemedia.com entitled “A Family Distillate” highlights the importance of those relationships and the value Heaven Hill places on its employees: “David Sparrow, VP at RNDC in North Carolina/Virginia, has worked with a vast array of suppliers in his 40-plus years in the industry, and never met one that cared more for the people they work with. ‘The Shapira family treats everyone like family. They possess an unusual amount of character and integrity,’ says Sparrow. ‘For example, when they run sales incentive trips, the winning sales reps’ entire families are invited, including children. I have never seen any other supplier offer something like that.’ ”
For those with a love of all things bourbon, a penchant for history and an interest in the inner workings of one of America’s most successful distilleries, Heaven Hill offers two distinct and utterly delightful options to get up close and personal with your favorite spirit. Serving as Louisville’s first stop on the Bourbon Trail, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience combines history with state-of-the-art tech in its downtown artisanal distillery. Located near the river and across from the site of the original 18th-century Evan Williams distillery, this “Whiskey Row” establishment offers visitors guided tours, bourbon tastings and a chance to see the distillation process in action. Souvenirs, assorted products and personalized bottles of Evan Williams are available to commemorate the visit.
A hop, skip and a jump south, in Bardstown, the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center welcomes visitors to its historic facility nestled in heart of bourbon country. Here, guests can follow the history of the Shapira family and the evolution of Heaven Hill via photographs and educational materials, film and tours of various lengths. A stop in Rickhouse Y is a must, where the sight and scent of seemingly endless racks of aging oak barrels overwhelm and impress. Back in the Heritage Center, a barrel-shaped tasting room offers patrons an opportunity to sample several different bourbons, while the retail shop stocks everything from spirits to glassware, scented candles, books, apparel and mouthwatering bourbon chocolates.
There was likely little thought given to visitor centers or a bourbon “trail” by the five Shapira brothers in 1935. Their bold venture was tasked with the much less glamorous endeavor of survival in a Depression economy and the hopeful notion of at least a modest profit. This year marks the 80th anniversary of that endeavor and an economic achievement that could never be defined as modest. Heaven Hill Brands’ Evan Williams Bourbon is the second-largest-selling bourbon in America; Parker’s Heritage Collection Kentucky Straight Malt Whiskey and Bernheim Original Wheat Whisky top the American whiskey selections for their smoothness and depth; and HHB’s newest undertaking, Domaine de Canton French Ginger Liqueur, fits perfectly into the on-trend demand for rich, handcrafted cocktails.
As the 7-millionth barrel is filled and Heaven Hill Brands looks toward its next 80 years, Max Shapira recalls one of his fondest childhood memories. “When I was a kid, I used to sit in the guardhouse and open the gate for the trucks,” he said with a smile. “Working with the family is the best part—to see how the company continues to develop, all because of the next generation.” Q