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Interview: Heaven Hill’s Max Shapira On The Rebirth Of American Whiskey

July 29, 2013

Heaven Hill Distilleries Inc., the largest U.S. independent family-owned spirits producer, has been a key player in American whiskey’s current renaissance. Shanken News Daily recently spoke with Heaven Hill president Max Shapira about the company’s rapidly expanding American Whiskey Collection and its overall Bourbon portfolio, which has grown through upscale line extensions, new products and Bourbon-based liqueurs.

SND: What are the most significant trends impacting Bourbon consumption today?

Shapira: There’s a lot of activity in Bourbon and American whiskey, much of which is due to a cultural shift—a newfound appreciation for the quality and value of American whiskies. Two decades ago, we were seeking ways to raise the category’s profile to compete with Scotch and Irish whiskies. Today we find unprecedented, largely organic demand for a broad range of American whiskey products at various price points. And look at the capital investments we and other Bourbon producers are making to expand production. Heaven Hill is spending over $25 million this year to expand our distillery, aging facilities and tourism experiences.

SND: How is your Bourbon portfolio trending in the U.S. in 2013 compared to last year?

Shapira: We continue to see robust growth, both among our core brands such as Evan Williams and among specialty whiskies like Elijah Craig and our recently launched Larceny wheated Bourbon. We’re also enjoying solid growth in other American whiskey subcategories, such as our Rittenhouse Rye, Bernheim Wheat Whiskey, and even our Mellow Corn and Georgia Moon corn whiskies.

SND: How are things progressing with the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, your new artisanal distillery and tourism destination?

Shapira: The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is scheduled to open in October. It will include an immersive tourism experience, tasting rooms, retail space and an artisanal pot still distillery. It will be the eighth stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour—and the first in Louisville. We’re building it in a historic building along Louisville’s traditional Whiskey Row, across the street from where Evan Williams established his distillery in 1783.

SND: What’s the state of play for Bourbon in the on-premise?

Shapira: On-premise is a major growth area for Bourbon. Accounts are not only expanding their repertoire and promotion of American whiskey cocktails, but they’re also boosting the number and variety of brands they feature. There are now more accounts than ever that specialize in Bourbon and pride themselves on a vast array of bottlings and a deep Bourbon cocktail list. Getting your products on these lists—and onto the Bourbon flights now being featured on many menus—is more essential than ever.

SND: What have flavored Bourbons and Bourbon-based liqueurs brought to the category?

Shapira: We’ve seen the flavored varieties attract new drinkers to the category—not only females but also some new male consumers in the 25-35 age range. As we’ve seen in many other spirits categories, flavor varieties can drive incremental business, often with little or no cannibalization of the core brand. We continue to see impressive growth from our range of Evan Williams Flavored Reserves, and last autumn we successfully introduced our fall seasonal flavored offering under the Evan Williams name, Evan Williams Apple Orchard.

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