Wednesday, January 31, 2024

What Becomes a Legend Most?

Heaven Hill was named after the farmer, William Heavenhill, who originally owned the land where the distillery was built. The company's founder and first distiller was a member of the famous Beam family, Joe Beam. Joe's first cousin, Jim Beam, had already cornered the market on the family name, so the new company pulled names from the history books, Evan Williams and Elijah Craig, to christen some of its first brands.

Despite those facts, Heaven Hill's beginnings are primarily the story of the five Shapira brothers, David, Ed, Gary, George, and Mose. The brothers ran a chain of small department stores founded by their father. Called the Louisville Stores, they were mostly located in Kentucky's small towns (not in Louisville). They were a lot like today's dollar stores.

One day, the brother who ran the store in Bardstown was invited to invest in a new distillery there. He agreed, believing whiskey was a good investment now that it was legal again, but he expected to be a passive investor because he didn't know the first thing about the whiskey business. He wrote the check and went back to running his store.

Prohibition ended in the midst of the Depression and money was scarce. Soon the brother and his siblings were approached with a new proposal. The other original investors were all over-extended. They intended to sell the company if they could, close it if they couldn't. Would the Shapiras care to buy the whole thing?

Though not sure they should, they did. At their mother's insistence, they pooled their money and thereafter shared everything equally, risks and profits. Slowly, the distillery and its whiskey built a following. The brothers may not have known whiskey, but they had a philosophy forged from their retail experience, of always offering customers the best value for the money. Today, Heaven Hill is one of the largest whiskey distillers in the United States, still owned and run by its founding family, and value is still their hallmark.

Even though Heaven Hill was their company, and always had been, the brothers and their descendants never put their family name on a bottle. Now they have. 

As a way of embedding the tribute in liquid, Five Brothers is Heaven Hill's traditional rye-recipe bourbon at five different ages, between five and nine years old. Yes, it's a gimmick, but it has gotten good reviews. Heaven Hill produces many brands, many of whose profiles include whiskey of different ages. Unless it's a bond or single-barrel, most whiskey products contain whiskey of different ages. Even when the label has an age statement, that just means the youngest whiskey in the bottle is that old. There is almost always older whiskey in there too.

Five Brothers Bourbon is only available in Kentucky, primarily at Heaven Hill's gift shops and a few other Kentucky retailers. Normally, I don't write about products that are this hard to find, but you don't need to buy Five Brothers to appreciate what they accomplished. Enjoy some Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, Larceny, Bernheim, Henry McKenna, Rittenhouse, or any of Heaven Hill's many other fine whiskeys. 

Ninety years ago, those five young guys took a gamble. They were new kids then. Some said they were playing where they didn't belong. There were ups and downs, but they stuck together as a family and persevered.

Today, with new bourbon brands appearing daily, often with dubious backstories and liquid of unknown provenance, you have the example of the five Shapira brothers, a classic American tale of taking a chance and doing the work to make it a success. 

David, Ed, Gary, George, and Mose thank you for your support.


Stacy Thomas said...

Amen, Chuck. Good to read a tribute to the Heaven Hill commitment to value. I don't know of any other distiller that consistently offers such high quality, reasonably priced bourbon. For example, the bonded versions of Dant and JTS Brown are really exceptional for the money and are good quality even if price isn't a factor.

Black label Elijah Craig is a reasonably priced and reliably good product available everywhere, and the white label bonded even more so. One can go up in price from there as far as desired, and the result is almost always exceptional quality for the money. In the current market the family could devote itself exclusively to cashing in but they seem to remain committed to the under $25-a-bottle consumers as much as to the higher end.

Patrick Skvoretz said...

Also, from what I remember from the early/mid-2000s, Heaven Hill was the first company to really embrace the visitor experience in their at the time new bourbon experience visitor center in Bardstown. I met their manager back in the day and I recall she was from Scotland so brought a lot of ideas from what the Scottish distilleries were already doing for visitor tourism. Since then, other distilleries have followed suit.

jcm said...

That’s a really nice story. Very refreshing change from the usual whiskey BS “legends”.

Richard Turner said...

Good Stuff, Chuck. ...As usual.
I look forward to trying the 'tribute' brand, and assume it will satisfy as nearly all the brands from Heaven Hill have over the years. I will echo the sentiments of your article, and of Stacy (above): the price/quality ratio of Heaven Hill's line of Bourbons have been and continue to be a reliable bet.

Richard said...

Interesting. I knew the Shapiro name, nut not details of the start up. There was a Louisville Store here in Lawrenceburg (KY). The sign is still there I believe.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Great article. And I concur with other posters that HH is often my go-to for well priced, excellent bourbon. While I probably can't buy a bottle of Five Brothers here in Florida, I will be on the lookout for it when I'm in a good whiskey bar.

And Stacy, I'm pretty sure you mean Evan Williams, not Elijah Craig. The Black is a great value, but as you note, so is the BiB White label. The 1.75L bottle of the White can regularly be had for well under $30 here.