Friday, February 2, 2024

My Louisville Beginnings


My first office in Louisville was on the top floor, left side. Right across the street was my favorite lunch place. Both are still there.

My recent post about Five Brothers Bourbon and the early history of the Heaven Hill Company brought to mind my own early history with the company and the Shapira family.

Early in 1978, with snow still on the ground from one of the worst winters in memory, I moved from Columbus to Louisville to take a new job. Although the job was supposed to take me on to New Orleans, that part fell through, but I liked Louisville and the company, Fessel, Siegfriedt & Moeller Advertising (FS&M). Ed Fessel was retired by then, but Fred Siegfriedt and Rudy Moeller became my mentors in business and life.

Like most Louisville ad agencies, FS&M had a bourbon client. In our case it was Heaven Hill. I didn't work directly on their business, but in a small agency you're exposed to everything. I don't recall ever meeting any of the founding five brothers, but Max Shapira, Ed's son, was in our offices usually several times a week.

It wasn't much business, some small space magazine and newspaper ads for Evan Williams Bourbon, the occasional sales brochure, point-of-sale display, or label design. I recall when the art department started work on packaging for a new bourbon called Elijah Craig. 

Heaven Hill's bourbon, I soon learned, did not have the best reputation, especially in Bardstown, where it was made. It was described as 'oily.' The current distiller, a member of the Beam family, was aware of the problem and in the process of correcting it, I was told, but these things take time. Although Max's father and uncles owned and ran Heaven Hill, the whiskey had always been made by Beams.

Heaven Hill made whiskey exclusively, bourbon mostly, a little bit of rye, and of course blends. I was in the room when the first label designs for Heaven Hill Gin, Vodka, and Rum were presented. All of the bourbon companies were being forced by changing market conditions to either sell or diversify into other, non-whiskey categories. The Shapiras had no interest in selling, so they diversified.

Fred and Rudy were terrific bosses, and I learned a ton from both of them. Fred had some amazing stories about his Army service in Europe at the end of WWII. I spent the most time with Rudy, often in the car driving to meetings with clients and prospective clients. That's where I got my first Kentucky education, as he told me what crazy thing happened in this or that house as we drove through various small towns.

Max Shapira, who was then in charge of marketing, went on to run Heaven Hill, only recently transitioning to emeritus status. 

After a few years I left FS&M for another Louisville company with a distillery connection. This time it was Brown-Forman, where I worked on various brands but not Jack Daniel's which, although owned by Brown-Forman, was entirely run from Tennessee. 

I left Kentucky in 1987 but by then the Commonwealth had its hooks in me. 


Cary Dice said...

Interesting to read of your early experiences in the agency biz. My start parallels yours although I worked mainly on beer and burgers. Mets lots of interesting characters in each.

Ken said...

Hey Chuck, did you taste the "oily" Heaven Hill? Did it really make a negative impression? Because now some folks are doing oily on purpose, and it doesn't sound bad. Though I haven't tried it yet.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I could taste what they meant. It was a flaw. I'm glad they got rid of it.

Patrick Skvoretz said...

I guess that's the thing... was it an oily, viscous mouthfeel, which can be considered an asset, or was it an oily flavor? Or both, or something completely different!

Anonymous said...

Chuck, there for a moment I thought it might be possible that you and I had met without knowing it. I managed the Ollie's Trolley at 3rd and Kentucky. But alas, it was 1974, 75.

Chuck Cowdery said...

It was 40+ years ago. I only remember so much.

Richard Turner said...

Nice to hear a little "personal history". Your posts about the history of Bourbon and its many corporate 'evolutions' is always interesting and entertaining; but, a bit about the "early Chuck" is priceless. Thanx!