Bernie Lubbers Heaven Hill Interview In Conversation With: Bernie Lubbers, Heaven Hill

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Could you please introduce yourself explaining your role at Heaven Hill including a brief overview of how you got involved in the whiskey industry?

My Dad worked at the Falls City Brewery in our hometown of Louisville, Kentucky for his entire career (45 years) and my grandfather was one of 13 German saloon owners that started the brewery in 1905. Both my mother and father drank beer, and bourbon. So beer and bourbon was a natural for me. Then as my first career as a stand-up comedian traveling the U.S. I always ended my show with a routine about my father who lived to be 94 years old, and with a full day to fill, drank a quart of bourbon a day.

That led to a job with Jim Beam who needed a face for their brands running events and promotions in Kentucky, which led me to a great interest in learning more about bourbon history, production and all things bourbon. I wanted to learn even more about bourbon, so I wrote a book on bourbon (Bourbon Whiskey – Our Native Spirit) and that just made me more hungry to learn more about it. I was then recruited by Heaven Hill distillery and have been their whiskey ambassador since 2012 and here I have every style of American Whiskey to talk about, learn more about, and of course enjoy.


How has the whiskey industry in the U.S. evolved since you started?

When I started in the industry in 2005 there were 10 distilleries in Kentucky. Today there are 69! And throughout the country there are around 1,800 craft distilleries that did not exist then.


A wide portfolio of brands are produced at Heaven Hill today, could you describe a signature character of whiskey produced from Heaven Hill distillery? If so, how would you say this may have changed over the last 75 years?

I simply describe Heaven Hill’s house style as “Longer-Stronger”. Across the board in the 5 different styles of American Whiskey, we keep our whiskeys in the barrel a little bit longer than our competitors, and/or put our whiskeys in the bottle a little stronger than our competitors. That lends a little more flavour to our whiskeys. Heaven Hill helped to create the category of extra aged whiskeys in 1986 when they released 12 year old Elijah Craig, and then 5 years later an 18 year old Elijah Craig. Today these extra aged bourbons and whiskeys are the most coveted around the world.


Heaven Hill is famed for its great fire of 1996, what is your opinion on the conversation of pre-fire Heaven Hill vs. today’s liquid? Was there a great difference in production prior to this?

It depends on what years you are talking about. I wasn’t working there then, but I do have an opinion on whiskeys I have tasted, but also know a couple facts. Back in the 1970’s and 1980’s the entry proof of our whiskeys was 107 proof. Today that entry proof is 125. So there would be a difference in that. Because we use the same type of column stills produced by Vendome, I don’t see that big of a difference in production. Parker Beam told me that whiskeys from “pre-fire” also had corn from that era, which would be slightly different too, so you have to factor that in. But the short answer is I do not buy in to that whiskeys made in 1996 was a lot different than what we make at Bernheim today.


In 1999 Heaven Hill acquired the Bernheim distillery. Can you give us an overview of the scale of this distillery today?

We only have the one distillery that we acquired in 1999 that is the Bernheim Distillery. The distillery that burned in 1996 was totally demolished. We have increased capacity over the years since and now Bernheim Distillery is the world’s largest single site bourbon distillery producing 1,400 barrels daily with annual production of around 410,000 barrels.


Heaven Hill is recognised for their Bottled in Bond whiskeys. How has the Bottled in Bond designation changed over the years and what do you think of its importance within the market today?

Bottled In Bond is my favourite topic to talk about. The laws were initially written and passed in 1897, and dealt with a bonding period of delaying taxes due, as well as defining aging requirements and other restrictions. Of course during Prohibition from 1920 to 1934 those laws were non-existent. After Prohibition those laws were put back on the books with a couple changes, and then again in 1964 when the standards were updated when Bourbon was named the “Distinctive Product of the U.S.” Those laws have been in place since.

I’m honoured that Fred Minnick has given Heaven Hill full credit for keeping the sub-category alive with all the brands of BIB that we produce, and he gives me credit for as he says, “Single-handedly bringing Bottled In Bond back to the forefront”. It takes a village, so I don’t know if I agree with him on that bold statement, but I am proud he has said that in print and his broadcasts. With 10 major distilleries in Kentucky, and 1,800 craft distilleries in the U.S. that means there are a few thousand brands of American Whiskeys in the landscape today. Because of the strict regulations, there are less than 40 Bottled In Bond whiskeys available in the world! That’s why I and Heaven Hill feel we have something special with Heaven Hill producing ten Bottled In Bond expressions!


Can you tell us about the portfolio of brands produced at Heaven Hill?

Heaven Hill is unique in that we produce 5 different styles of American Whiskey. Bourbon Rye, Bourbon Wheat, Corn Whiskey, Rye Whiskey, and Wheat Whiskey. With those 5 distinctively different mash bills, we produce dozens of brands of Bourbon and American Whiskey. Some of those brands are available nationally and internationally like Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Larceny, Rittenhouse, and Mellow Corn. Other brands are more regional like J.W. Dant, J.T.S. Brown, Virgin Bourbon, and others. Because we are family owned, and not stock holder owned, we can keep the history and heritage of these smaller regional brands alive, and have the most rounded portfolio in the American Whiskey world.


Old Fitzgerald is a historic brand with an impressive distilling pedigree. Can you tell us about the history of this brand in particular?

The brand was started by the S.C. Herbst Distillery in Wisconsin in 1870, and there are several stories on who the brand was named after. It could have been a boilerman at the distillery, or it could have been a distiller in Kentucky. Julian “Pappy’ Van Winkle bought the brand during Prohibition for $10,000, and then made up a flowery story of how John E. Fitzgerald was a Treasury Agent with a great palate for whiskey. No matter who it was named after, we do know that Pappy Van Winkle did nurture and grow Old Fitzgerald to one of the most heralded and successful brands after Prohibition. After the company sold in the 1970’s Old Fitzgerald as well as other brands of bourbon declined. Heaven Hill acquired the brand in 1999, and has resurrected the brand since.


What do you think makes Old Fitzgerald one of the most sought-after brands of bourbon?

Old Fitzgerald is an iconic brand or bourbon that was made famous by one of the P.T. Barnum’s of the whiskey world, Julian “Pappy Van Winkle” Every expression of Old Fitzgerlad from the Stitzel-Weller distillery was always Bottled In Bond. The brand almost went away, but when Heaven Hill acquired it with the purchase of the Bernheim Distillery in 1999, they have nurtured it and brought it back to the forefront with the launch of the small batch expression of Old Fitzgerald in Larceny Bourbon, and with the successful launch of the recent historic Bottled In Bond Diamond Decanter releases with extra aged bourbon that so far has spanned 9 to 16 years of aging.


Heaven Hill has a spectacular range of whiskeys. If you had to pick, which would be your favourite and why?

Henry McKenna Single Barrel was my favourite bourbon when I tasted bourbons blind when I first came to Heaven Hill in 2012. I was delighted when I discovered that it was Bottled In Bond. It has become harder to find it since it has won all the awards, and I too believe it is some of the best whiskey in the world.


Other than Heaven Hill, what else would we find in your drinks cabinet?

I carry several other bourbons on my bar at home. When I see other distillers that are signing bottles at a retail store, I will buy a bottle and have them sign it. I respect all the distillers in Kentucky and do my best to promote the entire category of bourbon, not just Heaven Hill. I drink far more Heaven Hill products of course, but I respect and enjoy others. I also enjoy Cognac and Tequila. I was responsible for helping to launch the only Bottled In Bond California grape brandy in Christian Brother’s Sacred Bond, so I enjoy Brandy as well.


Can you give us any insight into future releases from Heaven Hill or upcoming projects we can look forward to?

We just launched Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel which is being very well received. We also have Elijah Craig Rye in the pipeline, and taking Heaven Hill 7 Year Bottled In Bond nationally.


Can you share with us a few reasons as to why bourbon is the heart and soul of your life?

Bourbon has been a part of the culture growing up in Kentucky. When I was traveling the country as a stand-up comedian, it was a part of my act talking about my father who drank a quart of bourbon every day!. That led to my career representing some of the worlds most recognized brands of bourbon since 2005 to today. I’ve written songs about bourbon, and written a book about bourbon, “Bourbon Whiskey Our Native Spirit”. I have been working to bring back Bottled In Bond back to the forefront since 2006. So bourbon is truly the heart and soul of my life, and I love it.