A Q&A with Conor O’Driscoll

When Conor O’Driscoll stepped into the role of Master Distiller at Heaven Hill earlier this year, he became the seventh Master Distiller in the company’s 84-year history. A native of Ireland, Conor arrived in the U.S. in 1990 as a chemical engineer with a focus on yeast and fermentation. By the early 2000s, he and his family had made their home in the Louisville area, and he leveraged his background in fermentation to carve a path for himself in the distilling industry.

Conor began his career in American Whiskey at Brown-Forman in 2004, and in the years that followed, he managed distillery operations for Brown-Forman Distillery, Woodford Reserve, and Angel’s Envy. When the Heaven Hill Distillery opportunity came calling, it was a natural fit, and Conor was appointed in January 2019.

Read on as he talks about “stepping up to the big leagues.”

Was it inspiring or terrifying to come to a distillery like Heaven Hill, which has such incredible heritage?
I’m keenly aware of the legacy I’ve inherited, but, honestly, it’s not so terrifying. The goal, as I say often here, is simply to not screw it up.

What’s it like following in the footsteps of prior Heaven Hill Master Distillers like Parker Beam?
I think I’m confident enough in my own abilities at 15 years in. I look at it as standing on the shoulders of giants, and what a great vantage point I have. Following them is more inspiring than intimidating.

What about Heaven Hill’s Bernheim Distillery stands out as different from any other distillery you’ve worked in?
The size. It’s one of the largest Bourbon distilleries in the world. We have 17 fermenters which hold 124,000 gallons each. We empty and refill many of those in a day and distill them through three, 70-foot-tall column stills that are 6 feet in diameter. That scale is mind-boggling.

In the 15 years you’ve been in Kentucky distilleries, describe how the business has changed?
Let’s see. Umm, “dramatically” would be one word! “Exponentially” works as well. When I started at Brown-Forman Distillery, it was 2004, long before the Bourbon boom. The most recent person hired there was my boss, who had started 26 years prior.

So, you were specifically seeking a job in whiskey distilling?
Yes. I actually knocked on doors and pounded the pavement for two years before that door opened. I thought it would be cool to be in this industry, and with my chemical engineering degree, I wanted to do something interesting and fun.

I’d been a consultant engineer for four years and was basically bored to tears. I didn’t want to make widgets or paint, I wanted to do something that was interesting. The Bourbon scene aligned with my passion for fermentation.

What did the industry look like when you began?
At that point, the industry was in maintenance mode. But in the first six months of being there, we saw the first hints of what would become the Bourbon boom, but we still didn’t have any idea that it would happen this big or this fast.

Parker Beam distilled whiskey for 30 years before becoming a face of the brand. Today, facing the public is part of the job for any Master Distiller. Do you enjoy engaging with the public?
I’m pretty used to it, and at least hope people agree, halfway decent at it. I’ve led tours from time to time, and I like telling the story. I’m Irish. We tell stories.

Is having Master Distillers in the spotlight a good thing for the industry?
That’s a tough question, actually, because of the use of the title, “Master Distiller.” There’s no qualification or exam to pass to become one, so there’s a certain risk of brand dilution when people can just give themselves that title. Master Distiller should actually mean something.

I never sought to become a Master Distiller, but I kind of like the way I came to it. My title here is “Distillery Manager, Master Distiller” which means my first job is to run the distillery and make the whiskey. That’s good, because I like production. I was told that when this position opened that Heaven Hill prides itself on having Master Distillers that know how to distill. I can do that… because I’ve done it.

Easy question: How do you drink your whiskey?
Generally speaking, on the rocks. Over the last few years, I’ve gotten into Manhattans and Old Fashioneds. I had a really, really good Pikesville Rye Manhattan at a bar the other night. I don’t generally like them sweet, so 110 proof Pikesville was what I chose.

In your home liquor cabinet, do you have mostly old dusties or contemporary bottles?
It’s a healthy mix of the two. According to my wife, I have way too much whiskey. Some are gifts that I might never drink. Others are new ones that I’m learning about as I drink them.

Let’s say you have guests in your home and you learn they’re not Bourbon drinkers. What do you serve them?
When I talk to people who try Scotch, they’ll say it’s too this or too that because the different regions of Scotland are so specific. I’ll say—somewhere there’s a Scotch whiskey that you’ll love, but you have to find it.

The best thing about Bourbon in general is you don’t have to go looking for the exact one that will appeal to you. Good Bourbon is easy to drink. Out of our portfolio, I’d pour them an Evan Williams because it’s a great entry-level whiskey and mixes well.

Imagine that, overnight, you’re saddled with public relations at Heaven Hill. You get the mic to say anything you want. What’s the message?
I’d talk about the legacy… the breadth and depth of the portfolio, which is what sets us apart from everybody else. Our brand ambassador, Bernie Lubbers, uses the phrase, “house style” and describes our whiskeys as longer and stronger. We age them longer than most and bottle them at a higher proof.

The perfect example of that is the Henry McKenna Single Barrel. It just won Best in Show at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. It’s 10 years old, 100 proof brand and it sells for a lot less than other Bourbons with that much age. If you’re a consumer, you’re getting a fantastic whiskey at a really reasonable price.

What do you make of whiskey fanaticism in America. Is it good for the industry?
The best part is seeing the genuine enthusiasm many fans have. At WhiskyFest in March, at the beginning of the VIP event, there were whiskey clubs lining up outside wearing matching outfits with different insignias on their matching jackets. As soon as the doors opened, it was like Black Friday: people sprinted to the Pappy Van Winkle, of course, and to us to get the Heaven Hill 27-Year-Old. It took us 6 minutes to go through our one bottle of it. But then we got into the breadth and depth of our portfolio. Heaven Hill had a crowd in front of its booth six deep all night long because we had Larceny, we had Old Fitzgerald, we had rye … we had, we had, we had. People were like, “What else can I try?”

Do you like the fact that people really like and admire what you do for a living?
It’s kinda fun. My daughter thinks it’s cool that I’m minorly famous.

Now, a truly serious question. Which do you prefer: that which Americans call football or that which Irish call football?
That which the Irish call football. I appreciate American football, but I don’t watch it regularly. I’ll watch rugby all day long. I’m a season-ticket holder for Louisville City FC, and then of course there’s Gaelic football, which is a different version altogether. It’s similar to soccer and rugby.

You’re an Irishman whose countrymen brought distilling to the U.S. two centuries ago. Is your family proud that you’re continuing that Irish whiskey-making heritage?
They definitely think it’s cool. My siblings think it’s fantastic, and I had some high school buddies I haven’t spoken to in 30 years see on LinkedIn what I was doing and they said, “You’ve got the coolest job of all of us.”

No regrets among your family back home that you’re not making Irish whiskey?
Not at all. And there’s something to say about the biggest single-site Bourbon distillery in the world putting an Irishman in charge. Living the dream, living the stereotype, that’s me!

Bernheim Distillery, Louisville, KY, May 2019 

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