Earlier this year, Heaven Hill Distillery was named the 2023 Global Distiller of the Year at the Whisky Magazine Icons of Whisky awards. We’re honored to receive such a distinction given the accomplishments of so many other whiskey distillers around the world.
We were previously announced as the American Distiller of the Year, which made us eligible to advance to the global competition. We took home a few other notable wins at the regional ceremony, too. We were named the Sustainable Distillery of the Year, thanks in part to our plans at Heaven Hill Springs Distillery which is set to open at the end of 2024 in Bardstown, Kentucky. And Batch C922 of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof walked away with dual wins—Best Kentucky Small Batch Bourbon and World’s Best Small Batch Bourbon.
We are proud of our products and what our family-owned business has become since its humble beginnings in 1935. We know such accolades wouldn’t be possible without the commitment to quality made by the team running our Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky. We’ve owned and operated this distillery since 1999, after our original distillery was lost to a fire. Today at Bernheim, three 70-foot-tall column stills churn out 450,000 barrels of whiskey each year by running ‘round the clock, seven days a week.
To celebrate this accomplishment, we wanted to share a few remarks from some of our Bernheim team members who helped make this win happen.
- Abby Long, quality supervisor, who helps maintain quality during production.
- Jason Kestler, distillery operator, who monitors and manages the operation of the stills at Bernheim.
- Mike Hanson, warehouse supervisor, who manages a team moving tens of thousands of barrels into and out of our rickhouses.
- Chris Morris, distillery supervisor, who oversees the acquisition and quality of grain inventories, and supervises the team that executes cooking, fermentation and distillation.
QUESTION: ABBY, HOW DID THE TEAM REACT TO WINNING THIS AWARD?
ABBY LONG: I know everyone was honored that we were chosen. [Our Master Distiller] Conor O’Driscoll gets really excited about it. Personally, it’s just nice to be recognized for the work that we’ve been doing.
Q: WHAT TEAM ATTRIBUTES DO YOU THINK CONTRIBUTED TO THIS WIN?
AL: We try to be consistent every day in every part of our operation—which isn’t always easy when you’re making a product out of crops. It takes everyone being on the same page, driving that message of consistency.
Also, communication is so important because it empowers the people who must make good decisions when things might get outside the norm. These people are the boots on the ground 24-7; they’re observing and addressing issues as they come up. That reinforces the importance of listening to our people and understanding what they’re seeing in their work. I think doing that all translates to award-winning whiskeys.
Q: JASON, WHAT WERE YOUR THOUGHTS WHEN YOU HEARD THE NEWS?
JASON KESTLER: Just knowing that we’re part of something like that is enough of a reward. But it’s still great that it happened. How many people can say that the distillery they work for was part of something like that? It’s a big accomplishment that makes you feel good to be part of a winning team. The award is like a pat on the back; it makes me very proud of what we do here.
Such recognition is special because we work all week in the distillery, watching the process from beginning to end, with grain trucks coming in, cooking grain in the mash tubs, moving it to fermenters for four days before we distill it—it’s all so cool to see. But the process takes quite a bit of time to learn. You have to pay attention to every step. Our team is really good at that.
Q: MIKE, YOU AND YOUR TEAM WORK IN THE RICKHOUSES, CORRECT?
MIKE HANSON: Yes, we spend days in those warehouses when it’s a hundred degrees in the summer, rolling barrels in and making sure they’re bung up and not losing any product. The teams maintain those ricks and make sure nothing is interfering with that airflow around those barrels. When that air is flowing, they rest well while nature does its magic.
Q: HOW DID YOUR TEAM FEEL ABOUT THE RECOGNITION?
MH: The award means a lot to my team. When an outside source recognizes our accomplishment as a company, that makes our people feel good because the job they’re doing means something to people outside of Heaven Hill. You tell them that Heaven Hill Distillery was chosen Distiller of the Year and you see their pride coming out—you know, that look of, “Hey we’re part of that!”
Q: WHAT DO YOU THINK MAKES THE TEAM AT HEAVEN HILL DISTILLERY SPECIAL?
MH: The spirit of commitment here among the employees is unbelievable. Our philosophy goes like this: When I make the job of the person in front of me easier, and they make it easier for the person in front of them, the whole process always works well.
We have a group who’ve been here as long as 20 years, and others who’ve been here just 2 weeks. So, a lot of mentoring is required from those who are looking at retirement to teach those new folks coming in. There’s a strong commitment to pass those lessons on.
Q: CHRIS, HAS ANYTHING CHANGED IN YOUR DAY-TO-DAY? OR IS IT BUSINESS AS USUAL?
CHRIS MORRIS: It is nice to be recognized for our hard work—especially by someone outside the company. It reminds us that what we’re doing has real value to people. But was there a party that day? No, it was more like “kudos,” and “good job team,” and, “Now let’s keep it rolling.”
Being positive, reliable and honest when we work with our teams is what makes it work. The better the relationship we have with them, the better the results.
Q: WHAT DO YOU THINK MAKES FOR THOSE RESULTS?
CM: I think the biggest thing is to be a problem solver for our team. If they come to a distillery supervisor like me with an issue, we’ve got to find the answer. That solution has to be something communicated across all three shifts to make sure everyone is following uniform standards. When we communicate well to all three shifts, that’s when we’re working toward our goal of being the best distillery we can. So, when you think of that award, I think things like that have helped us to get to this point.
A SINCERE THANK YOU
Thank you once again to our hardworking Bernheim team and everyone at Heaven Hill Distillery that made this win possible. If you enjoy any Heaven Hill Distillery products, we hope you’ll join us in raising a glass to all those that make our award-winning whiskeys.