On Tuesday in Bardstown, Heaven Hill will fill its 7 millionth barrel of Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey. The milestone comes as the distillery, which is owned by the Shapira family, marks its 80th year in business.
The company, which is well known today for its Evan Williams bourbon, almost didn't live to see the amazing renaissance that American whiskey is undergoing. But thanks to the determination of the Shapiras the company is riding a wave of success on several fronts.
Max Shapira, president of Heaven Hill Brands, said that his family didn't mean to get into distilling but in the 1930s, when it became clear that Prohibition would be repealed, people around Bardstown saw opportunity.
"Companies had been out of business for 17-18 years," Shapira said. There was no whiskey, all the brands were long forgotten and that void drew people to get back in the business, he said.
The Shapiras, Lithuanian Jewish immigrants who ran several five and dime stores around state, were approached about investing. This was no sure thing: the economy was terrible, there was no distillery, no brand, no inventory, no warehouses or distribution network, and it might be four years before they had anything to sell.
But the five Shapira brothers and their parents, Max Sr. and Annie, put $17,500 into Old Heavenhill Springs distillery.
"That was a lot of money in 1935," Shapira said. His father, Ed, who ran the Bardstown store, was put in charge.
"Friday, Dec. 13, 1935, was the first time we barreled whiskey," he said. But soon their partners ran into financial troubles and sold out to the Shapiras for another $17,500.
In 1937, the company released a 2-year-old bourbon called Bourbon Falls. "I don't know if anybody was really bragging or was too happy about it," Max Shapira said. "But it got some revenue coming in."
Two years later, they brought out "a bottled in bond 100-proof Kentucky bourbon whiskey under the name Old Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond 100-proof whiskey and that became very quickly the number 1 selling bourbon in Kentucky," Shapira said.
But you might not notice it in stores outside Kentucky because today Heaven Hill is much more well-known for Evan Williams, which is the second or third best-selling American whiskey behind Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey and Jim Beam.
But Evan Williams almost didn't happen either, Shapira said.
One of the company managers read that Evan Williams had been the first commercial distiller in Louisville and thought that it would make a great name for a whiskey. Heaven Hill agreed and trademarked the name in the early 1960s, Shapira said.
"They started planning for the brand," he said. "And decided there would be a special bottle, that was to be 'revolutionary in its presence' ... and the best thing I can say about it was it was total flop."
Heaven Hill decided to discontinue the label but a few customers asked them to keep it going. So they dropped the fancy label and used a standard bottle, and gradually the Evan Williams brand began to gain traction in the 1970s and 1980s, he said.
About that time the company decided to look beyond bourbon, which was still in a deep slump. Heaven Hill began acquiring brands and quietly building a portfolio that stretched across every major category.
First came Burnett's Gin from Seagram, then they launched Burnett's Vodka, said Kate Latts, vice president of marketing for Heaven Hill and Max Shapira's daughter. Then Christian Brothers Brandy, Admiral Nelson's Spiced Rum, Hpnotiq Liqueur, and many more.
Now Heaven Hill is the largest family owned and operated spirits supplier in the U.S. It's the sixth biggest overall in the U.S. and has the second-biggest selling spiced rum, the third-biggest selling domestic brandy, and the fourth-biggest selling domestic vodka, according to the company.
Latts said they've been careful to analyze trends in the industry and stay on point, in part because they are still family owned and therefore nimble.
For instance, they have released 36 flavors for Burnett's Vodka, but were strategic in what they launched, Latts said.
"We launched citrus, orange and raspberry ... then we launched vanilla," she said. "It was doing great. Then sour apple and coconut ... and it just kept going. ... We would launch one flavor after another, each selling out faster than the one before. It was skyrocketing."
Their biggest selling flavors are cherry, citrus and pink lemonade, she said.
And now they have begun tinkering with new flavors for whiskey too, to add to the Evan Williams Honey, along with cinnamon and cherry variations.
Where does she think it will go next?
"Two bets: Peach, because it's a traditional southern flavor and pairs nicely with the sweetness of bourbon, and there is some thinking that maybe apple could be another emerging concept," Latts said.
Has she ever been wrong about the next big thing?
Yes, Latts said. "Cachaça," she said. "It's Brazilian rum ... I thought this was going to be the next big thing."
Instead, the next big thing is likely to be bourbon again, which is now the fastest growing category of American spirits, said Max Shapira.
Although Heaven Hill has been rebranded as Heaven Hill Brands to reflect its diversification, the company's portfolio is ripe with premium whiskies like Parker's Heritage, Larceny and Elijah Craig.
What will become of the 7 millionth barrel filled on Tuesday?
"I'm not sure what it will be," Shapira said. "It may be special bottling. I don't know if we'll wait six, eight or 10 years. Can't hurry that along. ... Regardless of what we do with the whiskey, it will be a very special day."