January 9, 2018
CHARLIE DOWNS REFLECTS ON 39 YEARS WITH HEAVEN HILL
If current research is correct, and most people stay with a single employer for about four years, then Charlie Downs’ employment record at Heaven Hill Distillery surely wasn’t in the sample.
When the Artisanal Distiller at Louisville’s Evan Williams Bourbon Experience decided to retire, he’d logged 39 years with the company, working in nearly every role on the production side of the business under Master Distillers Earl, Parker and Craig Beam. Under their tutelage, Downs learned that products were either perfect or unacceptable, and there was no in between.
Downs calls Earl Beam “a legend,” and Earl’s son, Parker “a people person,” who, “was as much a perfectionist as his father.” Downs would later be asked to take Parker’s son, Craig, under his wing to help the third-generation Heaven Hill distiller learn the trade. “They put him with me… in 1983, and from that time on, we worked literally side by side.”
Downs characterized the Old Heaven Hill Springs Distillery in Bardstown as a place where staffers worked hard and played hard. Good-natured horseplay was more than common.
In Downs’ days, Heaven Hill used 12-foot-deep, flat-bottomed cypress fermenters that required workers to climb into and push cooked mash down their drains. To enter the vessel, a ladder was lowered inside it, and workers entered as the draining mash descended below a ladder rung marked with a piece of tape; the tape confirmed the mash was below boot-top level.
“Several times we changed where that piece of tape was on the ladder, and when the operator stepped off, the liquid would be waist deep,” Downs says. “It was safe, good fun. No one got mad, they got even.”
No one was laughing, however, when Warehouse I caught fire on Nov. 7, 1996, at Heaven Hill’s Bardstown campus. At around 2 p.m., Downs and Craig Beam learned of the fire and drove from the distillery to have a look. Seeing the situation was dire, Downs returned to the distillery to shut it down. But soon the fire raged out of control and spread to other warehouses. As each warehouse blazed, its flaming liquid contents flowed downhill and into the 61-year-old distillery. “It had no mercy; it consumed everything in its path,” Downs recalls.
The morning after, Downs, Parker and Craig Beam used a cherry picker to enter the distillery’s 5th floor, where Heaven Hill’s proprietary yeast was stored. Finding it unharmed, they took it to an undisclosed location for safekeeping.
In 1999, Heaven Hill bought the idled Bernheim Distillery in Louisville and began making whiskey again. Learning to operate the state-of-the-art distillery intimidated Downs, who was sent to Rochester, N.Y., for a two-week tutorial. “I compare that to sending someone to flight school to learn to fly a 747 in two weeks,” Downs says.
A NEW CHAPTER
He’d face another new lesson in distilling in 2013, when asked to become the Artisanal Distiller at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. The boutique distillery would use a pot still, a tool about which he knew little. Mastering it required many 12-hour days worked by Downs and Assistant Distiller, Jodie Filiatreau.
“We learned to produce a superior product off these pot stills,” Downs says proudly. “The Shapira family wanted us to produce a little bit different product here, and the pot still flavors are a little different.”
Asked for his favorite memory from four decades with the company, Downs pauses at length.
“How can one talk about their most vivid memories… when there are so many?” he says, pausing again. “You’ve worked with so many great people, done so many things… I guess it would be the day the Shapira family asked me to be the Artisanal Distiller at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. To be asked to be part of that, it stands out in my mind and always will.”
His words of wisdom for his successor?
“Just carry on the tradition-those things that were taught to me by the Beam and Shapira families,” ” Downs says. “Be proud of what you’re doing, be yourself, and enjoy what you’re doing.”