New Riff Distilling in Newport, Kentucky opened its door to the public in May of 2014. It’s Founder, Co-owner and Chief Executive Officer Ken Lewis has been involved in the distilled spirits business since the young age of 24. After half a century in the industry, Lewis has announced his succession plan with a retirement date set for Spring 2024.
Lewis’ career didn’t start out in spirits, but he did have a family history that led him along that path. At the age of 24, he was a high school English teacher. His father asked him to help turn around a small liquor store business in downtown Louisville for a year and then return to teaching. Lewis dove in to learn the industry from the bottom up and, more importantly, how to deal with and motivate people. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Lewis saw what others did not: beverage alcohol retailing was ripe for innovation. He created a store that looked like a bright and welcoming supermarket. He focused marketing on gatherings and parties and devoted half the floor space to non-alcoholic products and fun, festive offerings like party supplies and gourmet foods. Combined with unbeatable prices, the approach was wildly successful, and Liquor Outlet, eventually expanded to six stores and rebranded to what we know today as The Party Source.
The Leap from Liquor Store Owner to Distillery Owner
After building a successful liquor store business Lewis was looking to do something new and he turned his creative genius toward another famous state product – Kentucky bourbon. He didn’t necessarily want to get out of the liquor store business but because of our often archaic alcohol rules known as the 3-Tier System the only way he could start a distillery was if he no longer owned a liquor store. Lewis decided to divest himself of the store and go all in on distilling. In doing so, he decided to share his success with the employees who had helped him succeed so he sold The Party Source in a forward-thinking employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) to his employees.
New Riff Distilling Company was Born in 2014
Stay Informed: Sign up here for the Distillery Trail free email newsletter and be the first to get all the latest news, trends, job listings and events in your inbox.
Lewis didn’t go far, he only moved across the parking lot from The Party Source to start an urban distillery on the banks of the Ohio River in downtown Newport, Kentucky. Never one to follow a traditional path Lewis wanted to put a new riff on the distilled spirits world and launched New Riff Distilling Company.
Those values have driven Lewis throughout his career along with his passion for entrepreneurship. “I founded New Riff for the entrepreneurial challenge — and to create a world class brand, enrich my community through bourbon tourism, and make a huge difference in the lives of many employee families for decades to come,” he said.
Since opening in 2014, New Riff has seen continual, steady and intentional growth. The distillery is well-known for its commitment to Kentucky’s sour mash method and the bottled-in-bond standard, which are used to produce award-winning whiskeys that are new riffs on an old tradition. Production and storage facilities have expanded in recent years, with a new barrel warehouse added this year and a distillery expansion that increased production by 50% in 2021. New Riff has also increased its distribution, currently available at retail locations and via direct-to-consumer shipping in a total of 31 states.
The Newport distillery is undergoing additional renovations this year to improve the visitor experience, including a new gift shop and enlarging The Aquifer, the distillery’s cocktail and tasting bar.
New Riff to Celebrate 10th Anniversary, Ken’s Retirement and New Leadership Team in 2024
After 50 years in the beverage alcohol industry Lewis has announced his plans to retire in the Spring of 2024. In a similar fashion to the way he left The Party Source he is turning the reigns of New Riff Distilling over to long time New Riff leaders.
“Values and company culture are important to me,” Lewis said. “New Riff is a 100% family-owned business and will stay that way. It’s the only way we have the independence to eschew the exclusive drive for profits, share our success with our career employees, and live up to our values. Career employees give their best years to taking care of our company and in return we will take care of them in their retirement. My life has meaning because of these values — how hollow a life that is selfish and greedy.
“From the beginning, New Riff has been about innovation — about trying new things, about growing and exploring what we could do in the whiskey space,” said Lewis. “In that spirit, it is time for a new chapter at New Riff. Although it is hard for me to leave, I am excited to see what’s ahead and to celebrate the distillery’s successes in the future. I could not imagine a better group of people to take the helm and they are the reason I know it is the right time for me to step back.”
New Riff will be led by Hannah Lowen as Chief Executive Officer, Mollie Lewis (Ken’s daughter) as President and Denny Gorman as Chief Operating Officer. Lowen will transition from her role as Vice President of Operations. Currently the company’s Director of Sales, Mollie will become the second generation to be a part of the New Riff leadership team when she succeeds her father in his role as President. Gorman is transitioning from Director of Engineering and Logistics. And Co-Founder and Chief Whiskey Man Jay Erisman will continue in his role as Vice-President of Strategic Development.
Lowen has been a part of the team since before the distillery opened. She established New Riff’s operating systems, company branding and distillery programs as the company launched. For the past decade, she’s worked to shape the company’s mission, optimize operations, and propel the company forward.
Mollie Lewis has served as sales director since the company’s founding, a perfect fit following time spent as an international export manager in Italy. Prior to that, she attended the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley and worked in different channels of the wine and spirits business from sommelier to distributor.
Gorman, a professional engineer, joined the team in 2019 after more than a decade at The Boston Beer Company in Cincinnati, where he held roles in engineering, maintenance, and project management.
Lewis and Erisman started working on New Riff Distilling in 2010 and opened its doors in 2014. I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about New Riff’s plans for their 10thh Anniversary celebration over the next several months. We’ll keep you informed as those plans are released.
Who knows, perhaps we’ll see another “Guinness Book of World Records” historic crowd on the Purple People Bridge raising a toast to Ken in the Spring!
From filing lawsuits to being active in politics on behalf of his industry, Lewis’ work to modernize Kentucky laws regarding the spirits industry greatly impacted the state’s economy and his retailing innovations reverberated beyond the Bluegrass state and set the tone for spirits retailing. For five decades, Lewis has influenced the state’s beverage alcohol industry across every facet — certainly some of what has allowed Kentucky to capitalize on bourbon’s popularity would not be possible without his work. Now, he says, it is time for the next generation to take the torch.
New Riff Distilling Company is Kentucky born and urban bred. New Riff is an independently-owned distillery in Northern Kentucky — the gateway to bourbon country. The company has been distilling its own gin, bourbon and rye whiskies since 2014. Bourbon and rye are made with traditional sour mash methods and bottled-in-bond without chill filtration. Bourbon and rye are also available in single barrel selections, and the distillery boasts a popular private barrel selection program.