American Whiskey

September 17 - 20, 1998
The Kentucky Bourbon Festival 

Heaven Hill Distillery
Bardstown,  Kentucky

After getting a late start (and misjudging how far the motel is from Bardstown) we arrived in town careening around corners like a scene from a wild car chase movie. "Wait! Please don't leave yet!", Bruce called to the tour guide as he leaped from the truck and stood in front of her tram. "Can you wait just a minute for us to park the cars and join you?", he flirtingly cajoled. "Why, sure", said Tammy, our soon-to-be guide on the Heaven Hill and Old Bardstown tour. And she did.

But once we got the vehicles parked and got on the tram things became much calmer. Heaven Hill, the largest family-owned independent distillery in the United States, is proud of its intimate connection with Bardstown. Unlike any other distillery, Heaven Hill begins its tour not at the distillery itself, but in front of the Visitors' Center in the very heart of old Bardstown. It is from here that our tram takes us to Heaven Hill's bottling plant. Along the way, Tammy pointed out the Doll Cottage, an old log cabin school, and of course Federal Hill, the fabulous antebellum mansion that served as the inspiration for Stephen Foster's ballad, "My Old Kentucky Home". The tram ride isn't a very long trip; Heavenhill Farm, the site of Heaven Hill, is only a mile or so from the heart of town. As we pass a lovely golf course the homes give way to corn fields. A couple of hills later and we arrive at the beginnings of the Heaven Hill complex.

Here we are surrounded by tall whiskey warehouses, but we will not be visiting a distillery here. There will be no displays of fermentation vats; no three-story tall bright copper beer stills will be seen on this tour. These remaining warehouses, and the bottling plant, are all that are left of the Heaven Hill operation since it was devastated two years ago, on the night of November 7, 1996, in one of the most intense fires in history. Two years later, the company has still not replaced the distillery itself, although production never stopped -- neighbors Brown-Forman and Jim Beam immediately provided production capacity and kept their competitor's business going. That's the kind of ethic found among Bourbon folks.

Our tour included a really good look at at the bottling facility, and a very up-close-and-personal view of the process of dumping the whiskey from newly opened barrels. The smell alone was almost enough to make you dizzy, and Tammy fetched the bung plugs from the barrels as quickly as they were removed and presented them to the onlookers for souvenirs. She also explained the way different whiskeys are made by carefully selecting and mixing the contents of barrels taken from different parts of different warehouses. The master distiller determines which barrels to use and how many and they are all dumped together and sent to storage tanks to "marry" before bottling.

After leaving Heaven Hill, our tram continued it's look at the lovely town of Bardstown, as Tammy wound through the streets and alleys, pointing out the Civil War Museum, the livery stable (there are still horse-drawn carriages available for touring the town), the old jail (now a bed & breakfast), the historic graveyard, the Oscar Getz museum, and the remains of the Old Talbott Tavern (which was burnt out in another fire just this March). The tavern is in the process of restoration, but it is a slow process and it will be a long time before it can be used again.

Restoring the distillery at Heaven Hill turned out to be an even slower process. In fact, it never was rebuilt in Bardstown and as of September 2000, the old ruins still stand at the base of the hill, their twisted pipes and building walls slowly rusting, the melted puddles that were once gate lamps a mute testimony to the intense heat (it's temperature was said to have reached five times that of the fire at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor).



After long and complicated negotiations with IDV/Diageo, the international owners of the Bernheim distillery in Louisville, Heaven Hill owner Max Shapira and his family purchased that plant in spring of 1999 and have been slowly making it ready to be the distillery for Heaven Hill's line of fine bourbons.  The formal dedication of the new Heaven Hill Bernheim Facility was held on September 14, 2000.  A major result of the purchase is that their line has now been increased by the addition of the Old Fitzgerald brand. This old and well-respected bourbon is made substantially differently from most, in that it uses wheat as a flavor grain instead of the more commonly-used rye. A spokesperson from Heaven Hill assured us of how enthusiastic they are about making this type of bourbon in addition to their other brands at the new facility.

While the fermenting , mashing, and distilling processes are being done at Bernheim, the aging, bottling, and shipping operations will remain in Bardstown, as will the general offices. From our point of view (bourbon fans who enjoy touring distilleries) that's good, because even without the distillery itself, Heaven Hill's combination tour is certainly the most ambitious of any we've been on.

Be sure to leap ahead two years to September 2000, and come with us to the visit distillery at Bernheim, in Louisville.  Bernheim : Heaven Hill's Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky -- 2000

And another half-decade beyond that to January 2005 (Wow! Has this really be going on THAT long?) to the Bourbon Heritage Visitor Center.

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Story and original photography copyright ©1998-2000 by John F. Lipman. All rights reserved.