Just like Bourbon, a homecoming is a longstanding American tradition. For many schools and universities, homecoming is annual tradition. It’s a time to come together, to pay tribute to those that came before and to honor tradition and local history. For Heaven Hill Distillery this week was a homecoming some 25 years in the making.
What we know today as Heaven Hill Distillery began life as the Old Heaven Hill Springs Distillery on Loretto Road at the bottom of a hill next to a creek in Bardstown, Nelson County, Kentucky. The year was 1935, just a couple years after the end of Prohibition that the five Shapira brothers took over the distillery. On December 13, 1935, they filled their first 31 barrels of whiskey under the distilling expertise of Joseph Lloyd “Mr. Joe” Beam and his son Harry. Master distillers of the Old Heaven Hill Springs Distillery over the years included Joe Beam, Harry Beam, Earl Beam, Parker Beam and Craig Beam.
The business carried on and continued to grow as a family run American whiskey company.
A 1996 Lightning Strike Set Old Heaven Hill Springs Distillery Ablaze
One of the things that makes Kentucky a great place for making and aging whiskey is its four seasons. The constant change of hot and cold helps to push the oxygen and liquid whiskey in and out of the barrel staves. The result is a continuous exchange of color and flavor that produces what the world knows as Kentucky Bourbon. The fall season in Kentucky can bring warm humid spells that occasionally bring violent thunderstorms with lighting and strong winds. Thus was the case at Heaven Hill in fall of ’96.
November 7, 1996, started out like any other day at the distillery. As the day went on a cold front came through that included high winds and lighting. According to Master Distiller Emeritus Charlie Downs (a distillery supervisor at the time) it was about 2pm in the afternoon that an employee reported smoke coming from Warehouse I. Within no time, that smoke turned into a full-blown fire at the warehouse filled with 53-gallon barrels of highly flammable 100+ proof whiskey. With 70 mph winds that fire quickly engulfed multiple whiskey barrel warehouses and eventually made its way to the distillery.
By about 8pm that evening the distillery and seven rickhouses containing approximately 90,000 barrels of whiskey were destroyed or still aflame. It was that day that the we lost about 2% of the world’s bourbon inventory.
Fortunately, there was no loss of life from this massive fire and amazingly, no injuries. The distillery was never rebuilt on that land.
Related Story – Watch Aerial Coverage of the Tragic 1996 Heaven Hill Fire
After the fire, Heaven Hill moved distilling to the historic Bernheim Distillery in Louisville. Bottling and aging of whiskey along with other functions continued uninterrupted in the Bardstown area.
Old Heaven Hill Springs Distillery
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25 Years Later Code Name ‘Project Phoenix’ is Ready to Rise from the Ashes
In April 2022 Heaven Hill Distillery announced plans to return home to its distilling roots with the construction of a new $135 million distillery in Bardstown, The Bourbon Capital of the World.
Watch the video below as Heaven Hill Distillery President Max Shapira officially announced the distilleries name and leads the groundbreaking ceremony at the 65-acre site in Bardstown on Monday, June 6.
“What a remarkable day this is and another historic milestone for Heaven Hill. One that’s been in the making for some 25 years, sounds impossible but it’s true,” remarked Shapira.
“What we are doing today is celebrating a homecoming with a return to distilling here in Bardstown. In 1935, our company was founded under the name Old Heaven Hill Springs Distillery, and we filled barrel No. 1 on December 13, that was a Friday the 13th by the way, 1935. And the Master Distiller at the time was Joe Beam. My dad and his brothers were all present… it must have been a very exciting day. No more exciting than today as we come back to Bardstown.
“At the time that original distillery was on the Loretto Road at the bottom of the hill on a creek. We produced 31 barrels that first day and we aged them in our one warehouse which held a magnificent sum of 7,000 barrels.
“Our master distillers over the years and our distilling teams, including Charlie Downs who is here with us today, built that initial foundation for Heaven Hills growth in the American whiskey category. In 1996 Heaven Hill produced 100,000 barrels of whiskey and we were aging about 850,000 barrels of throughout our warehousing system. We had just finished producing barrel number 3.5 million, with Parker Beam leading our Master Distiller operations at the time. And then, as most of you in the community know, a terrific storm came through the area on December 7 (1996) resulting in the catastrophic fire and loss of the original distillery along with seven warehouses and 100,000 barrels of whiskey.
“For several years thereafter, we turned to our friends in the industry who produced under our mash bills the requirements that we needed. Then in 1999 we were able to acquire the historic Bernheim Distillery in Louisville. Which now produces about 450,000 barrels per year and has brought Heaven Hills current inventory to more than 1.9 million barrels of whiskey stretching across Nelson and Jefferson counties.
“While we will continue to produce our award-winning brands at Bernheim, today’s focus is on our return here to Bardstown. As we announced last month, we are investing approximately $135 million to build a new distillery on the grounds where we are situated here today.
“Before I get too far involved in the details, there is one rather important component that we haven’t announced yet, what are we going to name the site? Over our 85-year history and especially since 1996 we’ve grown to understand the importance and appreciation of Old Heaven Hill Springs Distillery in both bourbon history and Bardstown history. Today, we honor that heritage by announcing that our new distillery be known as the Heaven Hill Springs Distillery.
“Slated for operation in 2024, initial production will be 150,000 barrels with capacity ramping up overtime to produce 450,000 barrels annually. If you are doing the math, between the facility here and the facility in Louisville, at capacity we will be producing approximately 900,000 barrels of whiskey per year.
We Are Bullish on Bourbon, Really Bullish – Making 900,000 Barrels Per Year
“I don’t have to state it but, we are bullish on bourbon. We are really bullish on bourbon, not just today, not just in the short term and not just in the medium term but in the long term.”
Groundbreaking for 'Heaven Hill Springs Distillery'
The new, state-of-the-art Heaven Hill Springs Distillery is being built in the heart of the “Bourbon Capital of the World” at 1015 Old Bloomfield Pike, off KY 245, and is expected to be operational by the end of 2024. Initial production is slated for 150,000 barrels a year, and over time will have capacity to ramp up to producing 450,000 barrels annually. This will be in addition to the company’s distilling that occurs at the historic Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, which will continue to operate at full capacity of 450,000 barrels annually.
As part of Heaven Hill’s 2030 Environmental Sustainability Strategy, the new distillery has been designed to create a more environmentally conscious distilled spirits industry and ensure a thriving environment for generations to come. Heaven Hill Springs Distillery has been engineered to minimize water use to below industry benchmarks and reuse certain water streams. The site will use native plants and natural systems to manage stormwater runoff and improve habitat on the property. The distillery will include a wastewater pretreatment system to ensure discharged water exceeds environmental standards and greatly reduces the load on the city’s treatment plant. Heaven Hill also will plan to utilize energy creation and recovery, lessening the distillery’s demand on the city’s electrical grid.
“This is a significant day for Heaven Hill and Kentucky. The return of distilling operations to Nelson County is a return to the company’s roots, and the investment highlights the continued growth of bourbon and spirits in the commonwealth,” Gov. Andy Beshear said. “I am incredibly happy for the residents of Bardstown and the surrounding area, and I want to thank the leaders at Heaven Hill for this commitment to create new job opportunities and build the company’s presence in our state.”
A Groundbreaking Toast from Heaven Hill Master Distiller Conor O’Driscoll
“This project was aptly named Phoenix out of respect for the catastrophic events of 1996,” said Master Distiller Conor O’Driscoll. “We toast this distillery not as a rising from the ashes, rather it is a return to our hometown and another part of the legacy that makes this industry and this region great. While we look toward the future, we must remember the significance of the generations that came before us to build this wonderful distillery. Let us raise a glass to the giants of the industry that came before us, to the preservation of the whiskey world for future generations to respect and to this historic Bourbon Capital homecoming, decades in the making.
The Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience and Tourism
In addition, in 2004, the company dedicated the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center—most recently expanded and renamed to the Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience—that has become an award-winning focal point for the region’s bourbon tourism and has greeted millions of visitors over the years.
According to Josh Hafer, Director of Corporate Communications the Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience will continue to be the main point of focus for distillery tourism now and in the future. Some tours may be shuttled over to the new Heaven Hill Springs Distillery but its main focus will be whiskey making operations.
The new distillery is expected to add a minimum 38 jobs to the company’s 381 people already working in Bardstown at Heaven Hill’s Loretto Road bottling, aging and tourism facilities.
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