Editor’s Note: We were invited by the marketing team at Heaven Hill to visit them earlier this year. Though they covered our travel and lodging expenses, editorial control on of this article remains with The Whiskey Wash.
There is a major whiskey distillery in Kentucky from which you’ve likely tried one of their brands at one time or another, be it at home or at a bar or perhaps passed around at a party. Names like Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, Bernheim, Henry McKenna, Mellow Corn and Rittenhouse are among some of the most popular bargain, mid-shelf and premium American whiskeys out there, but unless you know your domestic spirits well, or at least take the time to read the back label, you don’t likely know all of these herald from Heaven Hill.
The Heaven Hill of today is a massive, sprawling operation with production and aging facilities spread across different parts of Kentucky. It has much more humble beginnings, however, having first been established in 1935 and more or less producing whiskey and other spirits since that time. Known these days as the largest independent, family-owned and operated distilled spirits supplier in the country, it is said to have bourbon aging inventory of at least 1,600,000 barrels.
To get a better sense of what is happening these days at Heaven Hill, we sat down earlier this year at the distillery with recently appointed master distiller Conor O’Driscoll. Note this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The Whiskey Wash (TWW): When you found out you were going to be the distiller of Heaven Hill, what was going on for you at that time, and how did you end up deciding this is the position you wanted to take?
Connor O’Driscoll: I was at Angel’s Envy, I had a good job there that I thoroughly enjoyed, and a lot of work. I loved being part of the team. Having Hill call when this position opened, and the more I thought about it, the more it just made sense. This was my call up for the majors, this was a once in a career opportunity to really step up to a big time role, big time company, big time distiller.
TWW: So you set your feet on the ground on day one and what’s going through your mind as you step into this mammoth distillery?
O’Driscoll: Probably the same thing that goes through everybody’s mind. Like, holy crap, this place is big. And then very shortly behind that, the whole legacy thing. I understand I’m only the seventh master distiller in Heaven Hill’s history, and Heaven Hill didn’t get here because they weren’t great at what they did. So I’m very much conscious of that legacy, and the fact that I basically stand on the shoulders of giants.
TWW: What does the term master distiller mean to you?
O’Driscoll: Well, it’s a little mind blowing to have that title. It’s gratifying, I won’t lie to you. But what they told me throughout the interview process is they wanted a distiller who knew how to distill, who had a long history of running a distillery and making good whiskey.
Obviously the most important legacy the distiller will leave behind is the whiskey they’ve made. We’re laying down whiskey today that might be bottled in 27 years, and I will probably be retired by then. So if it’s not any good, they’ll be speaking bad of me long after I’m gone. So I think being conscious of that and having the chops to fill that, this is what’s important.
TWW: So you guys have how many aging warehouses?
O’Driscoll: 58 in total. 1.6 million barrels aging right now, 20% of the bourbon that exists.
TWW: And to you, what’s a number like that?
O’Driscoll: It means I’ve got plenty of opportunities to learn. You look at the different styles, sizes, locations, what have you have, of the distilleries we have. Each and every one of those variables has an impact on how the whiskey ages, and that’s one of the [things] that gives us such a broad palette to use when we’re making this whiskey versus that whiskey.
TWW: We asked you earlier what it was like to step into the plant here. What was it like the first time you stepped into one of these warehouses?
O’Driscoll: It’s always cool to step into a warehouse, regardless of the size or location because they smell so good. That’s the thing that hits you. But some of them are older, some of them are newer. The older ones, they’re a little harder to work in. The crews that work in them bust their backs every day to get the barrels in and out, and the new ones are actually designed to make them more user friendly, if you will.
TWW: What does craft mean at this scale?
O’Driscoll: So we are crafting high quality spirits here, and that comes down to everything that everybody does here. The team here are cool because every single one of them is just into working here, being part of the team and making some of the greatest whiskey in the world at the biggest bourbon distillery in the world. So they’ve all got that passion. I don’t think we could be this good if people didn’t have that passion, and we’re all craftsmen, we’re making sure that we’re making very high quality, very consistent product and doing it safely.
TWW: Looking at all the equipment that’s in here, is there a favorite part of the process that you like to be the most hands on with? Or are you more like the overall process as a whole?
O’Driscoll: Probably 51% the fermentation and then 49% of the overall. I’ve always had this yearn for [fermentation] that I started my career with Pfizer in Ireland. We were fermenting citric acid, using a genetic engineered bacteria to make the enzyme used to make cheese. And then I got into this business and that whole fermentation thing just is kind of where the heart of my passion lies.
If you look at all the best foods, bread, cheese, beer, whiskey, they’re all fermented, and the best stuff comes from fermentation.
TWW: Talk a little bit about the differences in production between rye based bourbon and wheat based bourbon.
O’Driscoll: The actual production process is remarkably similar, it’s just the ingredients. So when you’re making whiskey, we take grain, you mill it, mash it, ferment it, distill it, put it in the barrel. From that point of view it doesn’t matter what the grain is, but then what is the type of whiskey are you making? So the big difference between a wheat bourbon and a rye bourbon is just the flavor complexity. Rye imparts a lot of complexity, you really want a kick out of that. The cell walls on the rye has a lot of building blocks that can become the cinnamon flavors or those big spice notes.
Wheat, on the other hand is kind of, for lack of a better word, more boring. It produces a whiskey that’s a lot softer. The flavor profile I guess is more rounded, smoother, softer, gentler, those types of adjectives.
TWW: There’s a huge length of brands that are under the Heaven Hill portfolio. What’s it like working with some of these brands which have quite a legacy to them?
O’Driscoll: Partly terrifying. I’m very aware that Heaven Hill was here long before I got here. The goal is to be here long after I’m gone. I plan on being here a while and to maintain that legacy. It’s going to be fun to see if we can do some new things as well, some innovative stuff, which everyone’s playing around with.
TWW: What goes through your mind when you think about Mellow Corn? Why do you think it’s so popular? What is it about it that people seem to love despite the fact that it’s pretty much the entry level back bar kind of product?
O’Driscoll: I think it’s because it’s one of the first American whiskies. The first spirit distilled in the US would have been brandy, then it would have been rye whiskey on the other side of the Appalachians, and then they come over here and corn grows better here than rye does, so they started making corn whiskey, which ultimately becomes bourbon. But corn whiskey has got that legacy.
We’re still the only big guy making corn whiskey, some of the others are playing around with it, but it’s ancient used barrels. It’s got a very mild but sweet character to it, it’s a good base for a cocktail. And I did read something long time ago that said, you can’t call yourself a connoisseur of American whiskey till you’ve learned to enjoy corn whiskey. Just makes sense from a historical point of view, [that] it’s got to be true to its roots. And I don’t think there’s anything more true to its roots than Mellow Corn.
TWW: Okay – on another sort of somewhat obscure level, also popular is the Green Label. Why do think that is, and what is it about it that people seem to love so much?
O’Driscoll: My colleague and good friend Bernie Lubbers has a great way of explaining it. Right now everybody’s out looking for the unicorns – they want the 27 year olds, they want the 23 year olds, they want the things they can’t get. They go into a liquor store and they are looking on the top shelf for the unicorns, trying to find that gold dust.
To get to the top shelf, you’ve got to climb on what he calls the gold bricks, and those are some of the things we make, the Heaven Hill Green Label, Rittenhouse Rye, Mellow Corn. These are all ready, well made, delicious whiskeys. Great to drink on their own, great in a cocktail are exactly what the whiskey connoisseur would, should, could enjoy. So don’t overlook those things while you’re trying to grab the unicorn off the top shelf in terms of that.
TWW: What Heaven Hill brands do you guys hoard here at Kentucky that the rest us can’t get as much of in the rest of the United States?
O’Driscoll: I would say probably the number one answer in that is McKenna. We all knew about it before it started winning awards. You used to be able to get it at any liquor store for $30, and then two years ago it won best bourbon in San Francisco, this year it won Best In Show, so by that measure it’s the best whiskey in the world. And now it’s very, very hard to get.
TWW: Heaven Hill has a long history of producing whiskey in that mid range, why is that? Why not turn distilling towards stuff that’s super premium and is like the unicorn kind of things we talked about a moment ago?
O’Driscoll: Because we make it to drink it, and we’ve been successful at that. Again, to quote Bernie, he likes to call us the Reno, Nevada of the bourbon industry. We’re the biggest little whiskey company out there, and we didn’t get here by being hyper exclusive. Obviously we’ve got unicorns, but it is mind boggling that, say for Evan Williams, it’s a great whiskey at a remarkably low price. I think we actually suffer from that because consumers see $12 and say I’m not buying it, it’s going to be no good.
TWW: Heaven Hill across this product lines is generally known for high quality and consistency. How do you maintain that?
O’Driscoll: Attention to detail. Like I said, the team here are all passionate, they want this place to succeed, they’re proud to be part of it. And just supporting that and ensuring that the guy on third shift is running the mash floor the same way as the person on second shift, day shift, they’re doing the same. They just do the same thing, do it right. They understand what can go wrong and they know how to make the right decisions to prevent it from going wrong.
TWW: You’re on a desert island and you have one Heaven Hill whiskey. Which is it and why?
O’Driscoll: Decisions, decisions. Let’s see. Probably Pikesville Rye, I think. And the reason that one would be is because it was the biggest surprise for me when I joined the company. First off because my neighborhood liquor store, when I walked by and I saw Pikesville Rye in the window, I said, who the hell is making rye whiskey in Pikesville, Kentucky? It can’t be any good.
And then I go and I find out that A, it’s Pikesville Maryland and B, it’s ours, and C, holy crap, it’s really good. So little things like that let me know that I’ve made the right decision in coming here. Every time I taste it, it’s like, damn, this is good.
TWW: You don’t feel overwhelmed with the whole scope of this? Given the number of barrels that are aging or the amount of whiskey that’s going through the stills on a daily basis?
O’Driscoll: Not overwhelmed per se, but impressed. I’m glad I’m in this for the long run. It’s not like I’m going to swoop in here and in six weeks fix everything or change anything. I’ve been here since the end of January, and I’m starting to really feel like I know my way around.
TWW: During the time you’ll be here, whatever that might be, what do you see is your contribution to the lasting legacy that is Heaven Hill?
O’Driscoll: I think maintaining that quality of consistency, maintaining and improving. We don’t sit on our laurels – continuing instead to ensure that what we’re doing today, in 27 years, somebody will say, wow, this is great whiskey.
Nino Kilgore-Marchetti is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Whiskey Wash, an award winning whiskey lifestyle website dedicated to informing and entertaining consumers about whisk(e)y on a global level. As a whisk(e)y journalist, expert and judge he has written about the subject extensively, been interviewed in various media outlets and...