In the 1800s, there were more than 2,000 distilleries in Kentucky alone. Before long, the combined forces of competition and the enactment of Prohibition in 1920 whittled down that once-massive number to just a handful at the time of Repeal in 1933. Even today there are fewer than four dozen total distilleries in the state.
Thousands of other distilleries nationwide suffered similar fates during that dry, 13-year stretch. Lacking the scale or capital to rebuild whiskey stocks after Prohibition ended, many never returned to the market, and their passing meant storied brands also disappeared. Other brands lived on, scooped up at fire-sale prices by larger, better capitalized distilleries that often resold them. Some of those historic brands flourished, while others languished due to neglect or lack of demand from consumers thirsty for new and different beverages.
At Heaven Hill Distillery, we’ve acquired several of these historic brands—some nationally iconic, some regionally beloved because of their appealing patina of legend and a customer base that wouldn’t let them die off. To our surprise, a few of our favorites have become highly sought brands swept up in the renaissance of American whiskey. What we once viewed as heritage purchases have become headline-making additions to our portfolio.
Henry McKenna Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is a standout amongst these historic brands. McKenna was an Irishman who emigrated to the U.S. in 1837 and brought his family’s whiskey recipe with him. He founded his namesake distillery in Fairfield, Ky., in 1855, and operated it until 1893, when his sons took it over. Closed during Prohibition and reopened in 1934, the McKenna brand was sold to Seagram’s in 1941. Many decades later, we acquired and launched a line extension of the brand in 1994 as a single-barrel, Bottled-In-Bond bourbon extra-aged 10 years. Twice it’s won Double Gold at international whiskey competitions, and Gold at another.
Another victim of Prohibition was rye distillation. Once sharing the title of “America’s whiskey” equally with bourbon, most of the Pennsylvania’s and Maryland’s rye distilleries didn’t reopen following Repeal. And while two of the country’s most storied rye brands never disappeared, they sank into near obscurity before we acquired them. Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whisky (originally made in Pennsylvania) and Pikesville Straight Rye Whiskey (originally made in Maryland) not only live on today in the Heaven Hill Distillery family of whiskeys, they’ve prospered beyond expectation.
Rittenhouse, a spicy and robust Bottled-In-Bond rye, has become a craft cocktail standard for bartenders across the U.S. Pikesville, a powerful and rich spirit packing 110 proof, is a statement maker sipped neat or on the rocks. Beyond their incredible flavors, fans of each are also drawn to their significance as reborn brands.
Each brand is authentic and has a great story. Keeping them alive keeps their history alive, too. “A lot of these smaller brands have stories that are really important to a limited base of consumers,” says Larry Kass, Heaven Hill Director of Trade Relations. “A desire to serve those customers, too, is part of who we are, our ethos as a distillery. That’s why we like to think of ourselves as a preserver of brands.”