For more than 20 years, Larry Kass, our Director of Trade Relations, has served as the voice of Heaven Hill. When media called with questions, Larry gave answers. In public forums, Larry represented us. When the distillery needed a representative in Frankfort, Ky., or on Capitol Hill, Larry shared our needs with legislators.
But this November, his unmistakable basso profundo voice departed Heaven Hill for self-reassignment in retirement. But those who know Larry know the voice will be as active as ever: serving up quips, pouring out tales of whiskey history and reeling off TV and movie trivia.
Larry loves to talk, and the world is a better place because of it. He’s a living treasure trove of history about Heaven Hill and the American spirits industry. His bottomless supply of tales about whiskey personalities and events has captivated and entertained us all these years, so we thought we’d let him share some with you.
Here’s Larry reflecting on his 20 years at Heaven Hill.
When I started at Heaven Hill in 1998, Bourbon wasn’t the most loved member of the whiskey family, but a shift was underway, and single barrels, small batch, and extra-aged whiskeys were on the market and starting to take hold.
I didn’t come to the job knowing a lot about whiskey – my experience with Bourbon began with drinking it warm from a Styrofoam cup outside a Charlie Daniels concert – but working for Heaven Hill was a real gift to a marketer. I didn’t have to make anything up. I was given all these great products I could talk about and feel good about.
Every time we’d launch a new brand, Heaven Hill President Max Shapira would say, “Now we to have to roll up our sleeves and get this brand going.”
And I kept joking, “I’ve got no sleeves left! I’m in a tank top here!”
Paving My Path
As American Whiskey continued growing, I convinced Max to start a corporate communications department.
There was suddenly a need for the company to be involved in the community, to take on a larger role in trade associations, in government affairs at the state and national level. The company, which is family owned and privately held, needed a public persona. I’d spent a lot of time building up relationships with people in West Louisville, where our distillery is, in Bardstown, where our whiskey is stored and bottled, and across the industry.
It wasn’t what I came to Heaven Hill to do, but the fit was natural.
I really enjoyed talking to the media, especially whiskey writers.
They were on this discovery of how exciting American whiskey really was and it was great to go along with them. I found whiskey writers to be smart, intellectually curious, and brutally honest people. They didn’t just always talk about whiskey, either; there was more, like literature, science and politics.
Whiskey writers are a unique breed, and Jim Murray was one of them. Jim is the author of The Whisky Bible, and he’s always contended that to give a fair review of a single barrel product, he needed a sample of every barrel in that release.
Well, when we’re doing 300 to 400 single barrels of Evan Williams in a year, we’re not sending him 300 samples. But when we had a major Rittenhouse Rye release back in the 2000s, I thought, “Here’s my chance: I’ve got 33 barrels in this release, and I’m going to send him 33 samples.” And he reviewed them all. There were pages and pages of Rittenhouse reviews in The Whisky Bible!
In helping those writers find great stories about this business, we’d often go down rabbit holes to search them out. In the whiskey business there’s such an embarrassment of riches in terms of the lore, incredible stories about companies, brands and people.
A perfect example is Parker Beam, our longtime Master Distiller who passed away in 2017. He was a larger-than-life figure who was so gregarious, a real people person. I was so fortunate learn at his elbow.
Working With Parker Beam
Parker and I traveled a lot together, which was always an experience.
Parker, like a lot of his peers—Elmer T. Lee (Buffalo Trace), Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey), Booker Noe (Jim Beam), Jim Rutledge (Four Roses) and others—had made whiskey during decades when nobody really cared. So, when they all started going to events like WhiskyFest, and at big ball rooms in Times Square, now people are practically genuflecting at their feet.
It was a beautiful sense of disconnect as they tried to understand having these legions of fans who knew them and loves what they were doing. All these distillers had to do was be themselves because they were genuine articles.
Parker had such an incredible work ethic, so when he told us he was getting dizzy climbing ladders and losing his balance, we were concerned. In 2010, doctors diagnosed him with ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s Disease), a diagnosis that was devastating.
But though he and Linda, his wife, knew the inevitable outcome, they chose to become public figures seen as fighting ALS. That his legacy will live on through the Parker’s Heritage Collection was something he was quite proud of. The series was launched in 2006, and in 2011, Heaven Hill began donating a portion of the proceeds from the sales of this collection to ALS research and patient care. That’s since amounted to more than $1 million.
Perhaps the most proud moment of my career was when I was able to introduce the idea of a another fundraiser called The Unity Bottle. We took Parker to several major distilleries where he met with their Master Distillers to receive 4 liters of their spirits. We videoed Parker meeting those Master Distillers, which was cool. Those spirits were then blended, put into crystal bottles and auctioned off for ALS causes.
Getting those Master Distillers on board to help said a lot about our industry.
The Rye Boom
Bourbon is finally taking its place in the pantheon of the world’s great whiskeys, but you can’t overlook what’s happened with Rye.
Bourbon had begun taking off before I got to Heaven Hill, but my timing on Rye was perfect. We had Rittenhouse and Pikesville, but to say that Rye was a moribund category back then was an understatement. We made rye just two days a year, which was more than enough. Now we mash rye twice a month.
Rye is this flavor monster that flies all over your mouth. It has such backbone in cocktails; it’s spicy and peppery. Rye went from unnoticed to incredibly popular in a stretch of about 18 months. In 2001, all our Rye stocks had been bought in just eight months, and now we needed to allocate it!
We put all our efforts behind the Rittenhouse Bottled-In-Bond. Then we came out with three extra-aged Rittenhouse single barrel releases in 2001, 2003 and 2005. That stuff flew off the shelves.
Learning From The Shapiras
To say Max Shapira is a hands-on owner is a great understatement. A family-owned company—its culture, its mission, its values – is defined by its owner. The Shapiras’ devotion to and passion for the company is overwhelming.
It was a watershed event for Max to bring his daughter Kate Latts, son Andy Shapira, and son-in-law Allan Latts into the company. Work, to this family, is inspirational, and leading Heaven Hill carries with it a real sense of personal pride and stake.
That’s been inspirational to watch, and I’ll miss being around that.
People outside the industry ask me continually whether the Bourbon boom will continue, and my best answer is to say a lot of smart people in this business have confidence that this growth will continue quite robustly.
We’re currently only scratching the surface of Bourbon’s potential international growth. There are many markets that are currently untapped, and distilleries are spending commensurately with that expectation by investing in production facilities, warehouses, and tourism facilities.
They’re putting their money where their mash is.
What Will I Do Now?
I’ve been nine-to-fiving it for 37 years, so since my wife and I are empty-nesters, it’ll take some getting used to.
We definitely plan to travel and do some volunteer work since I serve on some boards of not-for-profit organizations.
I also really want to learn to play that guitar I’ve had for 45 years, so the plan is to do all the things I’ve always wanted to do, but had little time for.
If that doesn’t work out, perhaps I’d make a good guide at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience.