For one seemingly so ubiquitous at times, it cannot and should not be downplayed how impressive it is that the name Heaven Hill is at the same time so synonymous with quality. The company has a vast arsenal of brands, some premium as well as many region-specific, and at the same time operates a huge contract distilling operation, providing whiskey for even more. Unpicking the mysteries of sourced bourbon brands is one of the greatest joys and frustrations for a whiskey collector, and while more often than not their hopes are pinned on Stitzel-Weller, there are few who express displeasure at discovering Heaven Hill behind the veil.
The distillery was the product of bourbon’s brave new world in the mid-1930s, opening in Bardstown, Kentucky just two years after repeal. It was founded by five brothers from the Shapira family, taking “brave” to a whole new level by investing in the whiskey industry with no former experience. The prior family business was a department store specialising in clothing, but the Shapira’s were shrewd businessmen and smartly bought up established brands from struggling or defunct pre-Prohibition distillers. This has seen the Heaven Hill portfolio function almost like a living museum of historic brands and today they produce Stitzel-Weller’s Old Fitzgerald, Seagram’s Henry McKenna, Schenley’s Golden Wedding and the former pride of Maryland, Pikesville Rye. Without Heaven Hill these brands may have been confined to the annals of history, and in many cases, they have been elevated far beyond their former status.
No mere necromancer however, the distillery is just as revered for its own creations. Its first ever label was Bourbon Falls, introduced in 1937 to bring in revenue for the fledgling distillery, and its eponymous Heaven Hill brand was launched two years later, a serendipitous printing error which had originally intended to read “Heavenhill.” The flagship Evan Williams label was introduced in 1957 and today is one of the best-selling bourbons in the world.
Great whiskey and classic brands aside, what is perhaps so impressive about Heaven Hill is their near omnipresence within the history of modern collectible bourbon. Whether it is the 1980s bourbon boom in Japan, the rekindling of the American love affair in the 1990s, or the emergence of super-premium labels in the early 2000s, Heaven Hill contributed to them all.
In Japan they satiated demand for previously unloved advanced age-statements, exporting 20+ year old bottles of Evan Williams, Martin Mills and Bourbon Valley. In the U.S. they pre-empted a similar shift in taste by launching the 12 year old Elijah Craig in 1986, and a trio of old single barrels for the budding connoisseurs in the early 1990s. Astute as ever, these were followed by collectible limited edition ranges in the early 2000s such as William Heavenhill and Parker’s Heritage Collection, both of which take pride of place on the shelves of collector’s alongside pioneering counterpart brands like the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and Pappy Van Winkle.
Guardians of the past through their ownership of historic brands and even distilleries having bought Bernheim in 1999, Heaven Hill should also be considered as custodians of the future of bourbon.
After a century of Prohibition, wars and corporate monopoly, the world of American whiskey is becoming vastly diverse since the turn of the millennium. More distilleries are opening or reopening than ever before, and Heaven Hill has supported a huge number of them through its contract distilling operation. Lux Row, Willett, Michter’s and Limestone Branch were all funded by their formerly “non-distiller producer” (NDP) owners bottling Heaven Hill bourbon for their brands at some point.
Quite simply, you cannot talk about the past, present or future of American whiskey without discussing Heaven Hill. A library of stories and a story in themselves, their bourbon commands a reverence replicated by few others, and certainly none so prevalent.