On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” Zach Geballe sits down with whiskey experts Conor O’Driscoll and Bernie Lubbers from Heaven Hill Distillery. They discuss the history of Heaven Hill Distillery and what it means for whiskey to be bottled-in-bond and how this distinction translates to the high quality of the whiskey from Heaven Hill. Tune in to learn more.
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Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Gebelle and this is the “VinePair Podcast.” And today I have the privilege of being joined by two whiskey experts. First, Conor O’Driscoll, who’s the master distiller at Heaven Hill Distillery. Conor, thanks so much for your time.
Conor O’Driscoll: Hey, Zach, great to be here. Thank you.
Z: Yeah, my pleasure. And second of all, but certainly not least of all, Bernie Lubbers, who’s the brand ambassador for Heaven Hill Distillery. Bernie, thank you so much for your time.
Bernie Lubbers: Thanks for having me, Zach. Appreciate it.
Z: Yeah. And so Bernie, let’s actually start out with you. What’s a little bit of your background in the whiskey industry? How did you come to this current role and what do you do as the brand ambassador for Heaven Hill?
B: Well, my boss has been trying to figure that out for a long time.
Z: I’m sure they’re not listening. You’re good.
B: So I came to the industry in 2005, and at that time it was not the darling of the spirits world that it is today. And so, basically, the industry needed somebody to be able to stand up in front of people and talk a little bit about the products. And that was my background. So my background before I got into this industry was I was a touring national standup comedian, so I was able to stand up in front of people and talk and tell a story. And so that was my bona fides, I guess you will, for having that. And of course, I wanted to learn more. I was born and raised here in Kentucky. My parents both drank bourbon. Everybody has a little Kentucky bourbon knowledge, whether it’s right or wrong — it’s what your parents told you. And then I realized that it was… who wouldn’t want to talk about bourbon? And the stories are fascinating, and the more people you meet and the families you meet — the distilling families, the personalities — it’s endless. And you can never learn enough. You can never say, “Hey, I’m the total expert” because you’re not. You’re an expert on certain things and it’s just a great industry. So I’ve been in it since 2005 and at Heaven Hill now for 10 years as their whiskey ambassador, and it’s just a wonderful ride.
Z: Fantastic. Now, Conor, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you perhaps were not born in Kentucky.
Z: But can you tell us a little bit about your background in whiskey and distilling?
C: Sure. Yeah, so you’re right. I grew up a little further east. Born and raised in Dublin, went to school there, started out as a chemical engineer, and it’s a long, twisty road that brought me to bourbon. But I got in the business in 2004, right before Bernie did. The short version is I thought it would be fun. I was tired of petro-chem and things like that. And this bourbon thing — I’d started to drink bourbon and enjoyed it. And I was like, well, this seems more fun. And it turns out, I was right. Almost 19 years in the business now and it continues to be fun just about every day.
Z: And I have to ask because we occasionally on this podcast have the chance to talk to people who have this job, but if you can just maybe in a minute or so summarize — what does a master distiller do? Because obviously at a distiller like Heaven Hill, you’ve got a lot of people who are working on distillation. But what is it that’s specifically your job?
C: So my full title is distillery manager/master distiller. So my first job, my day job, is to run the distillery. And I’m sitting now at the Bernheim Distillery in downtown Louisville. It is one of the world’s largest single-site bourbon distilleries. We produce over 1,500 barrels a day, and we can go into all the numbers, but to do that, the one that blows most people’s minds once they get past the 1,500 barrels is that we mill over 1.1 million pounds of grain every single day.
C: Yeah, it’s pretty mind-boggling. The semis of grain you see going up the highway— up to 25 of those a day. So the job is to run the distillery efficiently and safely and to make high-quality, consistent distillate. And again, that’s job one. And then the master distiller part, I guess I get that because I’ve been in the business 19 years, making whiskey. But that part of the job is what we’re doing here. It’s podcasts, it’s doing tastings and education, and just spreading the gospel.
Z: Absolutely. So Bernie, let’s talk a little bit about the history of Heaven Hill. What is some of the history here and what is Heaven Hill’s legacy?
B: Yeah. Well, Heaven Hill started in 1935, and if you go back into your way back machine with Mr. Peabody and Sherman, you’ll know that that’s right at the end of Prohibition. And so we had this family of five brothers, the Shapira family, and they owned department stores in smaller little cities in Kentucky, like Bardstown and Lebanon. Different little cities, Springfield. They had these department stores. And so their business was not affected by Prohibition whatsoever. Now, they still were in the depths of the Depression, but department stores, people needed a shirt, they needed a pair of pants, and needed shoes. So they managed their business very well. And there were some folks that wanted to get into the distilling business because they had been forced out of the business with Prohibition for 14 years. So they went around looking for investors to start a new distillery in Bardstown, Ky. So this group came to the five Shapira brothers, and as Max Shapira, the second-generation owner, and now executive chief said, “I don’t know why my dad and four uncles did it, because it didn’t make any sense.” But they were young. This was an exciting proposition. This was a bet, a gamble, if you will, but something they were willing to do. And they invested. They’ve got 20 plus thousand dollars, which is a lot of money to me today. And imagine in 1935, they took a deep breath and they were excited and they got into the business. So we made our first barrel on Dec. 13, 1935, and that was a Friday. So Friday the 13th is very lucky for us. And now we’ve grown the business over the decades through the good times and the bad. And there’ve been a lot of bad times in American whiskey, in the bourbon world, not because the bourbon was bad, but just because of the market and what was going on. And here we are one of the leaders and the industry today under the same leadership of the family that still owns and operates the business to this very day.
Z: That’s a very beautiful thing, that consistent heritage, I suppose, of ownership and connection to the founding. So Conor, I’ve got a bottle of the seven-year bottled-in-bond, Heaven Hill Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey in front of me. What is this?
C: So it’s made from our traditional HH Reg mash bill, Heaven Hill regular mash bill, 78 percent corn, 10 percent rye, 12 percent malted barley. So a very traditional bourbon mash bill. It is one of our newer products, but it pays great homage to our history as a bourbon distiller, not just for regular bourbons, but also the bottled-in-bond sub-category at seven years old and a hundred proof. It is a big, rich, delicious whiskey full of complexity, delicious to drink. Neat, on the rocks, makes a great cocktail if that’s the way you choose. But just a perfect sip and whiskey.
Z: Conor, let’s talk a little bit about what bottled-in-bond means because I will confess an embarrassing oversight in my general knowledge of bourbon — I’ve never been super clear on what that means. You see that on a label sometimes, but it’s hard to know sometimes whether what that signifies, what it might mean about the production and the product inside. So can you talk a little bit through what bottled-in-bond even means?
C: Sure. Yeah. Well, so all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. We all know that. So bourbon is a subset of whiskey. And then bottled-in-bond is a subset of, well, distilled spirits. So obviously, specifically we’re talking about bourbon today. So there’s a number of rules that you have to follow to call your whiskey bourbon. And then there’s a whole separate set of rules that you have to follow to call it bottled-in-bond. And the whole bottled-in-bond thing started in 1897 with the Bottled-in-Bond Act, and it was the first consumer safety legislation that the government brought out. And prior to it, there were no rules defining what whiskey was. And you had these rectifiers and blenders and whatever they call themselves, mixing who knows what poison and selling it as whiskey. So people were getting sick, people were dying, and the government said we need to do something about this. And came up with the Bottled-in-Bond Act that defined a very clear set of rules that distillers had to follow to call their whiskey bottled-in-bond and had to be made by a single distiller in a single distilling season, which is either the first half or the second half of the year. The only thing you can add to it as you’re bottling it is pure water. It has to be bottled at exactly a hundred proof. It’s got to be at least four years old, and it’s got to have the name of the distillery and the license number of the distillery clearly on it. So you’re a consumer in 1897. You’d go to the liquor store, if they had them those days, and you see shelf after shelf of rotgut and then you see bottled-in-bond and then you know it’s going to be good whiskey. So right from the get-go, it was a signifier of super high quality, the best of the best. And obviously, food safety laws, liquor safety laws, etc., etc., have caught up with the Bottled-in-Bond Act over the last almost a hundred years now or over a hundred years. But it still has that cache of being the best of the best.
Z: So knowing that Heaven Hill as a distillery produces a fair number of bottled-in-bond products, does that give you more experience, more comfort level in producing this specific bourbon? What is the bottled-in-bond program like at Heaven Hill?
C: And you’re right, we are the industry leader, I think. Nationally there are probably 20 maybe, bottled-in-bonds available in every state. There’s probably some local ones that would bump that number up, but let’s say 20 nationwide and we produce 12 or 13 of them. So just by sheer volume, we’re leaders. And again, our reputation for high-quality, reasonably priced whiskeys speaks to that as well. So every part about this job, my role in this job is just standing on the shoulders of giants and being part of this wonderful 87-year history. And yet those legacy brands that we have in our bottled-in-bond portfolio and that have led to this current one, the Heaven Hill Seven Year Old, it’s just being part of that stream and just continuing to get better and improve every day with what we do and produce just stellar whiskeys. I talked about it being fun. That’s a huge part of the fun right there.
Z: And as the distillery and as the distiller, I want to ask you, how do you feel, like you get to a point where you go, hey, this is a distillate, whether it’s maybe not at the moment, it’s coming off the still, but at some point in the maturation process, this really is the best of the best. What does that look like in the process?
C: Got it. So I mentioned earlier how my job is to make high-quality, consistent distillate. I don’t actually make brands of whiskey here. But the distills coming off the still today, none of us know if it will be Seven Year Old Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond or if it’ll be any one of our other brands. We let the maturation do its thing and then we let the whiskey tell us what it’s going to be. Now, we’re strategic about where we put our barrels. We have 1.9 million barrels aging right now. Yes, it’s a lot of whiskey. About 20 percent of all the bourbon in the world is ours. And we have 60-something warehouses that are, they’re big, they’re small, they’re new, they’re old, they’re in the city, they’re in the country, they’re made of brick and concrete, they’re made of wood and tin.
So they’ve all these different configurations and as we put our barrels away, obviously we’re strategic about where we put them, knowing that this distillate might become this product. But mostly we wait and we let the whiskey tell us what it wants to be. If it’s ready at four years old, then it might become Evan Williams. If it’s spectacularly good at seven years old, then we’re going to say, all right, this is spectacularly good. We’re going to make sure that when we build a batch of Heaven Hill’s Seven Year Old Bottled-in-Bond, we’re going to make sure it meets all the rules. So it’s at least four years old, so this is seven years old, it checks that box. It’s from a single distillery. Bingo, we got that one. And then the first half or the second half of the year. And when you have as many barrels in inventories as we do, it’s easier for us to do that than maybe some small startup. But as it’s maturing, then obviously we’re checking it. And we have a team called the Organoleptic Testing Team, or the sensory team. Your listeners probably would refer to that as a day-drinking team. And we have some spectacularly good tasters on staff. Tony Gotti is probably the best of the best of them and the sensory team, we build these batches, we select barrels. And I don’t taste every barrel and I’m not sure anybody does, but we’ve got some people whose job it is to help build these batches. And if it’s good enough to be Heaven Hill Seven Year Old, it’s good enough to be Heaven Hill Seven Year Old.
Z: That’s very cool. Bernie, I want to ask you a question about the bottled-in-bond category because I think Conor gave us a great overview of the history. And he mentioned that perhaps now 120 plus years later, people are not going to get a batch of whiskey that is unhealthy in an additive sense. But what is this relevance, maybe not in terms of meeting technical definitions, but in a world of bourbon that is, there’s a lot of brands out there, there’s a lot out there, and I think it’s no big secret that a lot of bourbons and a lot of whiskeys generally, is produced one place and then maybe aged another place, bottle another place, blend another place. What do you see the relevance to consumers and people in the industry of that bottled-in-bond label beyond the basics of production?
B: Sure. So as Conor alluded to in his response on bottled-in-bond, in 1897 it was important to know if it was pure because he could only add pure water only to get it down to exactly 100 degrees of proof. So right there you’re guaranteed a purity and a good strength and then the good age of at least four years old. So the purity was important because as he said, there were some safe and unsafe ingredients being added to just neutral grain spirits. And then they would put maybe strong coffee or tea into it for color and flavor. They might be adding juices, but they also might be adding battery acid and tobacco spit, and different things which they necessarily don’t want. So you were guaranteed that purity and that was important in 1897. And purity, strength, and authenticity is important today. So, let’s just give you a reference, Zach.
When I started in 2005, there were 12 distilleries in total in Kentucky in the United States. 10 distilleries in Kentucky, one in Indiana, and one in Virginia. Today there are 70 distilleries in Kentucky and over 2,300 around the country. So that’s explosive growth. Of those 2,300 distilleries, not all of them make and produce and age and sell their own whiskeys. A lot of them source it. There’s nothing wrong with that. But when you have bottled-in-bond, it’s all right there. And you know who made it. You know where it was made. You know how long it was aged and how pure it is. And in a time where the consumer’s tastes have changed and now they want older and stronger products in their whiskeys, in American whiskeys, in bourbon, and ryes, this delivers.
Z: And on that note, you mentioned, Bernie, the desire for older and stronger whiskey and obviously a Seven Year Bottled-in-Bond is going to be delivered presumably on both of those counts. But I’m also curious, the Bottled-in-Bond Heaven Hill bottle has existed before. What makes this special and why does it bear the distillery’s name?
B: Well, this was the original name of the distillery. It was the Old Heavenhill Springs distillery. And so having that name, it was the William Heavenhill Farm and that’s why it was called Heavenhill. Now the words “Heaven Hill” have been split off and there’s even lore, if you will, or story, of the family of how that happened. But we ended up with the two words “Heaven Hill,” and William Heavenhill’s farm, which they sent off for the distillery license in Frankfurt, Ky., our state capital. And it came back and somebody had mistakenly put a space between “heaven” and “hill.” And as the family’s story goes, they looked at it and said, “Oh, we need to change this.” They called Frankfurt and they said, “We’ll change it but it’s going to be a $25 refiling fee.” And they said, “Well, we’ll stay with this”.
And they laugh about it because it is funny. But they knew they were going to make bottled-in-bond bourbons that were going to take four years. So it wasn’t a burning plate issue to get this name switched. They could of – had four years to do it. Bottled-in-Bond, because it came out in 1897, the bourbons that were sold before Prohibition, became known as the good stuff. It was under government supervision. It wasn’t going to make you sick. It had these regulations. It was the first consumer protection legislation in the history of the United States. So that’s what the consumer knew as the good stuff.
All during Prohibition, the only way to get a legal bottle of bourbon was through a doctor’s prescription with the same rigid standards. And so after Prohibition, that’s what the consumer was looking for, this was in the distiller’s mind, that was the goal to come out with bottled-in-bond. So over those four years, they got the name Heaven Hill and they said, “Well, that sounds like a place, it’s doesn’t sound like a person then, it sounds like a heavenly place”. Who wouldn’t want bourbon from Heaven Hill distillery? Well, that stuck. And so that was their first bottled-in-bond offering out of that distillery in 1939. So this hearkens back to that. We have many brands now that we make in the market from our distillery, but none with the name of the distillery on it.
Z: And as Bernie mentioned, there’s this evolving and developing of a broad consumer palate, what people are looking for in whiskey and in bourbon specifically. And I wonder, too, Conor, is there some benefit of being a distillery with a lot of experience in producing products like this, that you can, and obviously with, as you mentioned, the capacity that you have, that you can produce a product at this quality level, at this price point and make sure that it’s not a one-off. This is something that is a portion of the production and my understanding is perhaps will continue to grow in production over time.
C: For sure. Again, the fact that we have 1.9 million barrels aging and produce another 1,500 every day, it gives us so much room to maneuver in the marketplace. And again, Heaven Hill has a long, long history of producing great whiskeys. And one of Bernie’s lines, and sorry for stealing your thunder, Bernie, is our products tend to be longer, stronger, better value. So compared to their competitive set, they’re older — there’s the longer, stronger — bottled at higher proof and better value. So some of our products we could, if we were to pitch them at the same price point that some of our competitors do, none of us would be able to afford them. But again, our consumers have stuck with us for 87 years because they know that they’re going to get great whiskey at a reasonable price. Now, of course, we’re in the business of bourbon. We’re not going to give it away, especially seven-year-old hundred proof, you’re going to pay what it’s worth. But again, compared to the competitive set, it’s a really reasonable price. And again, the whiskey speaks for itself. It’s so delicious.
Z: Yeah, I actually want to ask about that too, for both of you and Conor, we’ll just start with you. What is your preferred way to enjoy this specific bourbon?
C: Generally speaking, with just a little bit of ice. On the rocks. I’ve got one of those gizmos that makes clear cubes. It’s fun to drink it that way, but also I like it that way because the ice melts very, very slowly and very gently dilutes the whiskey as you drink it and you can really get into the layers and the nuance of the whiskey that way.
Z: Yeah. How about you Bernie? Is that your preferred method as well? Or do you drink your Seven Year Bottled-in-Bond a little differently?
B: Well, I like it. I like to taste it neat. I also like it with either two small little cubes so it doesn’t get too chilled down or, like Conor said, one very large sphere or cube so that it melts slowly. This is a great bourbon to enjoy. That’s seven years. You don’t want it to… I’ve tasted it in cocktails and it does make good cocktails and if you decide it makes a great Manhattan or other drink at home, great. Or if you see it out and it’s in a feature drink, it will add a lot to that cocktail. But there’s a reason you might want to consider drinking older aged bourbons like this by itself or just with a little water or a cube, to enjoy what the warehouse team and the distilling team there with Conor have done over seven years. You don’t want to just cover all that up.
Z: Well, now I feel bad for having mixed it into a cocktail or two, the bottle that I was given.
B: No. Not at all. I’ve had many that way.
Z: And I will say that actually from my perspective as someone who has, I think, a lot of bartending experience, one thing that I love about bottled-in-bond products and I think the Seven Year Bottled-in-Bond is no exception, is because of that combination of age and the higher proof, the hundred proof, you really do carry the flavors of the whiskey through to the cocktail. I mean you can, of course, create a cocktail that doesn’t have very much whiskey in it and then you might bury it under other things but in not just a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned, but even other cocktails that might use a number of different ingredients. I felt like because I get a bottle, I like to play around with it. I’ve been really impressed at how clearly the flavor and the intensity of the bourbon comes through in those cocktails. And I think yes, a $50 bottle of bourbon for some people is going to be a sipper only. But it’s nice to make yourself a treat of a cocktail from time to time too.
C: That’s for sure. And when I drink a cocktail, I want the whiskey to show up. If an Old Fashioned… it’s got too much simple syrup, then it’s too sweet. If it’s got too much vermouth in the Manhattan, then you can’t taste the whiskey. But yeah, that’s why a big seven-year-old, 100-proof whiskey is going to stand up for its rights.
Z: Yeah. Let’s talk a little bit too, Bernie, about availability. So for some of our listeners, finding a bottle might take a little bit of work, but can you talk a little bit about the availability and maybe how people who might be interested in trying out the Seven Year Bottled-in-Bond might be able to do so?
B: Yeah, well we’re in 13 markets right now. We’re looking to expand those as our inventory of Seven Year Old barrels come to us and we’re able to do that. That’s something you just can’t go back in a time machine and make today what you need. This could be in 51 markets across the United States with, of course, with the District of Columbia there. But right now, we are concentrating on those and it is something that you can ask your local retailer: Do you have this product? It’s always great to do that. It’s my favorite way. You can research it and see where it is. But, if you ask your retailer, then you’re right, retail is going to ask their distributor partners and sales force. And then you say, when you get that, I want to be on the list to get it when you get it into your store.
So it’s sometimes best to shoot in the dark and be that person to raise your hand to show your interest because this is something that we do not anticipate this being an allocated product. We want this to be an everyday, super-premium product that’s available from this time forward. So that’s why we’re being selective. Our Max Shapira and Kate and Allen are the owners and chief executive and presence of the company. They want this to be an ongoing thing, but they say slow and sustainable growth. We don’t have, because we’re a family-owned, we don’t have to hit that number on Wall Street. So we want to make this make sense and not be frustrating for our consumers. We want to make it something that it might be a little hard to get because right now it’s the thing, but we want this to be something that’s ongoing [and] that you can get all the time.
Z: Well, and I will say that I appreciate the sentiment of not immediately creating something that people might get a taste of and never be able to find again. I think that’s a really noble and admirable idea behind what is a really delicious bourbon that, like you said, could easily be pushed into that very unreachable, both in terms of price and availability market, which we know exists for bourbon. But I do think that it’s cool to see something that is being put out there at this quality level that people can have a reasonable hope of getting to not just try but put on their bar cart, liquor shelf, whatever, with some regularity. Because I agree there’s nothing worse. I think all of us who love bourbon have experienced it over the years. You find a product, you like it, and then all of a sudden you can never get another bottle. That is a bummer.
Z: Well, gentlemen, I really want to thank you for your time and of course for making this bourbon a reality, obviously. Not just the two of you, I assume, but the whole team there at Heaven Hill. It’s been fun to taste, fun to talk about, and I really appreciate getting to learn a lot more about how this product came to be. So Conor, Bernie, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
C: Zach, this is great. Thank you very much.
B: Thanks, Zach, really appreciate it.
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Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.