Practicing the time-honored techniques of making quality Bourbon

In the world of American Whiskey making, craft has a variety of connotations. For some, craft has become identified only with small operations, producing expressions of exclusivity and limited supply. But that’s only part of the full, rich story of American Whiskey. For us, craft is about the people and the traditions of the Bourbon-making process: skilled experts who practice their techniques with care and consideration, exercising attention to detail across the entire journey to produce impeccable final results.

Joe Heron, co-founder of Copper & Kings American Brandy in Louisville, KY describes how the concept “craft” in distilling has been borrowed from the world of beer, where craft beer became a descriptor for American start-up breweries in the 1980s and 90s. Eager to distinguish themselves from the homogeneity and lack of flavor of big beer, small independent breweries took the bold approach of portraying their beer as “craft” to highlight the uniqueness and diversity in their lineups.

“These new breweries were saying, ‘Our beers are crafted to taste better than big breweries’,’” Heron said. “And if you were drinking those beers back then, you knew there was truth in that claim.”

But, Heron added, that distinction can’t be as easily applied in spirits. In the world of American Whiskey today, established distilleries continue to use the same methods they have been employing for decades. Growth and “The Bourbon Boom” has not led to compromises in flavor, quality, or ingredients, but actually made the American Whiskey industry better than ever. Bourbon is made from the same local corn, grains, and Kentucky’s famed limestone-rich water. It is fermented by the same yeast strains used for generations. The freshly distilled whiskey is placed in barrels that are constructed by skilled workers who assemble them by hand. And most age those barrels in traditional, open-air rickhouses of the style that have been used for centuries.

The difference in Bourbon, unlike beer, is that distillery leaders learned to scale that labor-intense, hands-on work while keeping their whiskeys the same.

In fact, coming out of Prohibition, it was heritage distilleries like Heaven Hill and Jim Beam who helped preserve the traditional craft of American Whiskey-making practices and helped usher in the current “Bourbon Boom” by insisting on quality ingredients and careful attention to detail.

“People are confused with the term craft because it’s become less [connected] to the word craftsmanship over time,” Heron said. “So many historic distilleries like Heaven Hill have spent decades accumulating the skills and competence that make their brands well worthy of the word craftsmanship. To create whiskeys that age 4, 6, or 12 years or more, and then carefully blend them to a certain taste profile takes real craftsmanship.”

Heaven Hill master distiller Conor O’Driscoll echoed Heron’s sentiments.

“Craft to us means high, reputable quality that extends not just bottle to bottle, but from decade to decade,” O’Driscoll said. “You don’t get whiskey as good as Heaven Hill’s by taking half-measures and shortcuts. We just happen to do what we do on a scale that helps us meet consumer demand across the country.”

Skill, Not Size

There are terms that mean a lot on a Bourbon bottle. Regulated phrases like Straight, Kentucky, Bottled-in-Bond, and even Bourbon itself intimate the provenance of the spirit inside.

And then there are the others; unregulated terms that appear on labels but actually don’t signify anything about the liquid itself: reserve, fine, special, very old, artisan and… craft.

[Learn more about how to decipher a whiskey label]

Often, craft is a cognate to denote a small producer, making fewer than a certain number of barrels per year. When Wilderness Trail Distillery (WTD) launched in Danville, KY in 2013, co-founder Pat Heist said he accepted its “craft distillery” designation readily. “We were small,” he recalls. But as WTD’s rapid growth pushed its capacity to 220 barrels a day, its designation on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail’s Craft Tour was changed. Its new listing among the state’s largest distilleries opened Heist’s eyes to the confusion of craft.

“As we made the transition from small to large, I thought, ‘If craft is dependent on the size of the distillery, then we’re not.’” Heist said. “Craft is about the craft of making whiskey, so a [distillery of any size] can absolutely be dedicated to craft and so much more. [A producer like] Kentucky Owl doesn’t even have their own distillery, but that whiskey was expertly made by people who have a mastery of blending. That’s craft in my book.”

Heist’s business partner, Wilderness Trail Master Distiller Shane Baker, offers another observation. Among many Bourbon fans, the notion of a “craft distillery” can create negative connotations that describe newer or small distilleries unfairly. They are early in their journey, and therefore their whiskey doesn’t taste as good.

“The issue with craft in the spirit world … is that the distillery is tagged with ‘young, inexperienced producers who aren’t ready for the majors,’” said Baker. “That’s sad. Because there are a lot of small producers making excellent whiskey.”

Caleb Kilburn, master distiller at Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. in Louisville, agreed that measuring notions of craft by a distillery’s size is inaccurate and unhelpful. Looking at the number of years in business or the size of an operation is foolish, he believes.

“There’s this idea that if your distillery is new and doesn’t have any heritage, then it can’t be good. Or, the opposite, if yours is a big distillery, it must not make a quality product. I don’t agree with that either.”

Drew Kulsveen, master distiller at Willett Distillery, makes no secret of his feelings about the term craft: “I don’t like being categorized as a craft distiller. Of course we’re smaller than most other distilleries, but in terms of operations, we’ve got the same tools, motors, pumps, processes, and controls like everyone else. We’re not stirring a mash tub with a paddle, you know… .”

Kulsveen, like any master distiller, understands the importance of craft as exercising care and technique. “Distilling requires skill and knowledge to create a great product, and size doesn’t make it better or worse.” The process of mashing, fermentation, and distillation in whiskey-making is exceedingly hands-on. This includes details like taking moisture readings on corn, pulling samples and quality checks at every step of the process, and monitoring equipment readings every hour.

Sometimes, this means operations need to be paused in order to create the best tasting distillate. “You can’t put mediocre spirits in a barrel and expect it to taste amazing after aging,” says Conor O’Driscoll. “You have to have that consistency on the front end. No funky smells, or off-tastes. Everything that goes into the barrel has to be exceptionally consistent. Then, after careful maturation in our open-air rickhouses, our barrel selection process takes things from there.”

When Craft Means Much More

For Heaven Hill president Max Shapira, the notion of craft means goods produced with consideration, practice, or ingenuity, but should also include the big picture: skill in planning and long-term execution.

“To me craft says dedication, focus, attention to detail, caring, quality, having the long view, not rushing things and doing them right,” said Shapira, whose father and four uncles co-founded Heaven Hill in 1935. As the distillery celebrates its 85th year in operation, he recalls the words of his father, Ed Shapira: “Patience and perseverance. He said those often, and that meant he and my uncles waited for something of unbelievable quality before releasing our first Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon. The ability to wait is really important to craft in whiskey.”

Another facet of craft that Shapira highlights is Heaven Hill’s sixty rickhouses, spread over six Kentucky campuses, and how all influence its Bourbon portfolio profoundly. From its one rye Bourbon recipe come the brands Henry McKenna, Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond, Elijah Craig, and Evan Williams. Though born of the same DNA, all taste completely unique.

“Our expert tasting team knows a particular group of warehouses, and, say on the third floor, that’s the spot where they’ll find a particular kind of Bourbon,” Shapira said. “It’s a lot like terroir in wines. In those unique locations, there are so many things that make those whiskeys taste as they do.” Recognizing the nuances of these different locations, hand-selecting barrels, and knowing which flavors will blend well together requires a tremendous amount of practice and skill. “Understanding all of those factors is remarkably difficult. I’d definitely call that craft.”

[Learn more about how open-air rickhouses help produce diversity of flavor in our barrels and consistency in our products]

In addition to Heaven Hill’s main production operations at Bernheim Distillery, which produces more than 1,300 barrels of whiskey daily, there is an artisanal distillery at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in downtown Louisville. It fills one barrel of Bourbon each day. Still, the same principle of patience Shapira’s father taught him reigns supreme, and when he asks artisanal distiller Jodie Filiatreau when they will be able to bottle the whiskey from the first barrel filled there in 2013, the answer is always the same: just wait.

“He says to me that we’re not going to bring the whiskey out until we get the exact taste we want,” Shapira said. “Just like my dad. He’s telling me, ‘We just need to let it sit and be patient. Whether in our larger distillery or our small one, we do everything to the same standard, using the same time-honored methods. That, to me, is craft.”

Crafting the Future of American Whiskey

Heritage and expertise also help distillers embrace innovation and push the industry forward. Here at Heaven Hill, our vast inventory of all ages and styles of whiskey means we can craft a diversity of flavor combinations from our existing barrels. With Bernheim Wheat Whiskey, Heaven Hill introduced the first style of American Whiskey since Prohibition. New products like Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel can be available to consumers because Heaven Hill has the aged inventory to try different processes like specialty barrel finishing and create entire new flavor profiles.

But more than anything, Heaven Hill Distillery’s independent and family-owned status mean that we can make the right decisions for our products, and keep operations at a scale that results in the best possible results while meeting the desire for well-made Bourbon across the country.

We make choices that are good for the whiskeys and good for our consumers, not for shareholders. And each of those decisions are based in experience, informed by both technique and artistry. So, here at Heaven Hill, we call that craftsmanship, and we are proud to craft our Bourbons and American Whiskey every single day.

A note from Heaven Hill Distillery:
The realities of the COVID-19 pandemic have hit small businesses especially hard, including our brewery, winery, and distillery friends. We recognize that these operations, who put craft into everything they do, have an important impact to our industry. We support their interests in developing the next generation of distillery operators, expanding consumer interest, and innovation in the craft.

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