July 9, 2021
HARRY SHAPIRA’S VISION LIVES ON IN NEW HEAVEN HILL BOURBON EXPERIENCE
Around the year 2000, Heaven Hill’s owners knew the company needed a bona fide tourism experience. They knew the American Whiskey boom was coming, and impressive tourism experiences unfolding at other Kentucky distilleries far exceeded the company’s informal, “Just show up and we’ll show you around” tours. If its visitor center were to gain attention on the brand new Kentucky Bourbon Trail, it had to be attractive and engaging, a place that whiskey lovers would visit intentionally, and a destination that closed the loop between the Heaven Hill story and the brands its customers loved.
As president of Heaven Hill, Max Shapira’s vision for its tourism efforts was humble. Think along the lines of a walking tour through the Bardstown, Ky., bottling plant ending at a gift shop selling logoed hats, shirts, jackets and whiskey-related memorabilia. But his cousin, Executive Vice President Harry Shapira, had bigger ideas. Harry imagined a dedicated space telling the history of American Whiskey, detailed explanations of how Bourbon is made and an entertaining dive into the stories of those who made it. Guests also could buy some of their favorite and hard-to-find Heaven Hill products and taste others in intimate classes.
“Well, I have to admit that my vision for it was never that big,” said Max Shapira. “But Harry was so focused on giving people information about Bourbon and its role in Kentucky history. He understood that what we needed was a complete experience, which was much more than I’d dreamed of.”
When the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center (BHC) opened in 2004, its success was immediate and significant enough for Harry to envision another tourism draw—the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience (EWBE). According to Max Shapira, if you’ve enjoyed either, you have Harry to thank for it.
“We built the first one from nothing in a greenfield because he envisioned what was possible,” he said. “His passion and creativity for the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience really shows in what you see today.”
“JUST ASK FOR A TOUR”
Dixie Hibbs, a past Bardstown mayor and local historian, recalls when “the Bourbon industry” simply meant factories where locals worked and made whiskey. In the 1980s, when Bourbon tourism was largely nascent, distillery visits usually meant little more than a peek inside others’ workplaces.
“Back then if you visited a distillery, it was probably because you were going to see somebody you knew,” Hibbs said. With a laugh, she added, “Remember, these were factories, and insurance companies really didn’t want to cover the risk of having people inside who didn’t know a whiskey thief from a straw.”
When Larry Kass, retired director of trade relations, joined Heaven Hill in 1998, tours were infrequent and unpolished.
“In the employee cafeteria, there was a sign on the wall that basically read, ‘Tours Begin Here,’” said Kass, who retired from Heaven Hill in 2019. “People would come in and stand up against the wall and wait as the workers ate around them.”
Max Shapira’s recollection of company tours is equally unglamorous.
“People would just stop by and say, ‘Could you give me a tour?’ And we’d try to find somebody to do it,” he said. “It was an informal presence at best.”
Slowly but steadily, the trickle of whiskey fans grew. Heaven Hill even began to sponsor a “Tourmobile,” so a stop at the distillery was guaranteed on every lap around town.
“Even before Bourbon tourism was a thing, we had some of it going on,” Kass said. “We just didn’t prioritize it the way we should have because, well, almost nobody did at that time. And that’s where Harry came in.”
GENEROUS, KINDHEARTED, VISIONARY
Harry Shapira was the son of David Shapira, one of five brothers who founded Heaven Hill in 1935. Born in 1947, Harry couldn’t help becoming fluent in the family language of the whiskey business.
Following graduation from the University of Louisville’s College of Business, he served in the U.S. Army at the Pentagon during the Vietnam War. When that commitment ended in 1973, Harry entered the executive training program at Lazarus, then a prominent Columbus, Ohio, department store chain. The experience would be invaluable to his role as overseer of the Shapira family’s retail chain, The Louisville Store. It also helped deepen the retail marketing knowledge he’d need to create the BHC.
“Marketing was in that family’s genes,” Hibbs said. “Harry had a lot of valuable experience to add to that visitor center.”
A love of work was also a trait woven into the Shapira DNA. While overseeing The Louisville Store, Harry also assumed executive duties at Heaven Hill. Deeply involved in two companies meant he and Max “talked business” often.
“My office was in Bardstown and his was on Main Street in Louisville, so we called each other every single day to discuss what was happening in those businesses,” Max Shapira said. And even though Harry worked hard, he insisted Harry’s priority was “his family and then the business—always in that order.”
By multiple accounts, Harry was a people person whose concern for others was primary. You might beat Harry to a “hello,” several said, but he was usually the first to ask, “How are you doing? Is everything going OK?”
When Jeff Crowe met Harry for a job interview in 2013, his future boss offered to share his lunch.
“He was eating a sandwich and said, ‘I got half a sandwich, you want half?’” said Crowe, who Harry hired as director of Kentucky visitor experiences at Heaven Hill. “I remember laughing a lot in the interview and thinking, ‘I could really work for him.’ He made me want to work for him and for the company.”
Cynthia Torp, owner and CEO of Louisville-based design firm, Solid Light, called Harry “self-effacing and demurring.” Torp worked closely with Harry on the design of the visitor centers’ experiences and the reimagining of the HHBE. She also insisted his humility didn’t weaken his resolve to help manifest Heaven Hill’s Bourbon tourism potential. “That vision was big, and it made him fun to work with. He was always game to try new things—things you see evidence of today, especially in the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience.”
Decades before the Kentucky Bourbon Trail existed, Maker’s Mark welcomed visitors to its Loretto, Ky., campus and homeplace, but the guest experience was only a shadow of what it would become. With the 1996 launch of Woodford Reserve Bourbon, the brand also opened its homeplace in Versailles, Ky. When Harry heard about it, he and Kass drove there to see it.
“We’d gone there and were like, ‘Wow! This is such an incredible earth-shattering thing, a game changer,’” Kass said. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Boy this is something we should do! Bardstown’s a bigger town than Versailles, and we’ve got room to grow.’”
Torp said Harry found further inspiration on visits to California’s wine country. “In pursuit of making the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center first rate, he wanted to get an understanding of what others were doing.”
A VISION NOT FULLY REALIZED
The BHC opened in 2004, and as crowds started to pour in, Harry focused his sights on creating a second visitor experience in the downtown Louisville building that housed The Louisville Store’s headquarters. He believed out-of-town visitors might prefer a Bourbon tourism experience in the city they were in rather than driving to Bardstown. However, that didn’t mean just copying the BHC. Harry sought something completely unique and narrowed his focus to the history of distiller Evan Williams, who made whiskey just a stone’s throw from the EWBE’s current location in the late 1700s.
“He was such a fun partner to work with,” Torp said, “particularly on that project.”
While working on the EWBE, Harry learned he had cancer, and his doctor’s prognosis wasn’t promising. Yet even while enduring the negative side effects of chemotherapy, friends say he remained positive, upbeat, engaged in his work, and focused on family and the multiple charitable organizations he served.
“Even near the end of his life, when it was tough sledding for him, he never let on that he felt bad,” Kass said. “He was such a warm person, and the hospitality experiences [at EWBE and BHC] were an extension of his personality.”
Just shy of the 2013 EWBE opening, Harry passed away, leaving behind his wife, Judy, and sons Adam and Ian.
Though Torp has visited the EWBE many times since, she can’t take the tour without remembering her old friend.
“I’ve been on that tour a million times, and every time we go to Max and Harry’s Bar, tears come to my eyes when I think about Harry not being there for the final unveiling,” she said. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the EWBE hosted 100,000 visitors each year. “He would have loved seeing it full of people.”
THE HEAVEN HILL BOURBON EXPERIENCE
In 2018, Heaven Hill announced it would invest $19 million to expand, renovate and rebrand the BHC. And after much anticipation, the newly named Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience (HHBE) officially opened its doors on June 14, 2021. Some of its one-of-a-kind visitor experiences include:
- A multi-sensory showcase of stories centered on the Shapira family history and the evolution of Kentucky Bourbon
- A “You Do Bourbon” immersive experience in which guests participate in laboratory-style whiskey making experiences and even bottle their own Bourbon
- A rooftop cocktail and Bourbon tasting bar that overlooks Heaven Hill’s Bardstown rickhouses
When asked what area of the HHBE Harry would visit first if he could see the finished product, Max Shapira answered quickly, “He would be bolting toward the area that gets into the history of our business, our family and the roots of it all. But he’d also love the ‘You Do Bourbon’ experience. He really liked things that were interactive.”
In helping create the HHBE, Crowe said he and others asked themselves often, “How would Harry handle this or that?” After seeing the result, he’s confident the man who hired him would approve. “When you see the Shapira family gallery, and the video about the 1996 fire—see and hear the fire crackling and Max’s son [Andy Shapira] talking about it—it puts a lump in your throat because it suddenly becomes real. Harry would have loved that.”
Though 2 million people visited Kentucky’s 73 distilleries in 2019, Max Shapira believes that Bourbon tourism is a long way from peaking. He said he hates to think of what Heaven Hill would have missed out on had Harry not created venues to attract tourists to Heaven Hill.
“Harry’s thought process about tourism was based on expansiveness, on its potential,” Shapira said. “It sure would have been great for him to get to see all that’s happening now.”