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Led By Evan Williams, Heaven Hill’s Whiskey Portfolio Climbs To New Heights

March 5, 2018

At nearly 14 million cases in 2017, Heaven Hill Brands has grown to become the nation’s sixth-largest distiller—behind only Diageo, Sazerac, Beam Suntory, Pernod Ricard, and Bacardi. While the company’s roots are in whiskey, its strategy has been to diversify over the years, and today Heaven Hill competes across all categories. Vodka, once non-existent, today comprises 44% of the company’s volume, thanks to its Burnett’s and Deep Eddy brands. American whiskey’s share, currently at 26%, is lower than it was years ago, but that share number is somewhat deceiving because the pie has grown so much. American whiskey today comprises 3.56 million cases of the company’s volume, compared to 1.96 million cases two decades ago.

Indeed, while diversification has been crucial to Heaven Hill’s development, American whiskey remains its heart and soul. “It’s part of our original DNA, and carries through today,” says company president Max Shapira. Heaven Hill’s modern whiskey portfolio includes numerous labels but is led by three brands: the flagship Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, and Larceny.

Evan Williams currently sells more than 2 million cases annually. “On average, Evan Williams ($15 a 750-ml.) is about five and a half years old and 86 proof, and it’s less expensive than Jim Beam White, which is four years old and 80 proof,” notes master distiller and vice president of operations Denny Potter. The brand is also perhaps the best example of how Heaven Hill’s marketing has evolved over the years. As recently as 2000, Evan Williams carried different proofs and ages in different markets, but today it’s a fully integrated force supported by a robust national marketing program—centered on sports networks ESPN and FS1, as well as FXX and History Channel. Also key to the brand’s evolution has been the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, a multimillion-dollar immersive tourism destination on Louisville’s Whiskey Row that draws 90,000 visitors annually.

The more upscale Elijah Craig ($30 to $200 a 750-ml.) has been in the portfolio since 1986, but the past two years have wrought major change. In 2016, the company changed Elijah Craig 12-year-old to Elijah Craig Small Batch, dropping the age statement, but retained it for Elijah Craig Barrel Proof 12-year-old and for the 18- and 23-year-old expressions. The move coincided with a major packaging upgrade. “We’ve been able to transition stocks to have adequate supply to expand, and we now have a serious, full scale marketing program for Elijah Craig,” says Shapira. “It will be one of our big brands in the future.”

Indeed, the shift is already noticeable. Volumes jumped from 85,000 cases in 2016 to 105,000 cases last year. And in November, the brand received a further boost when its Elijah Craig Barrel Proof was named “Whisky of the Year” by Whisky Advocate.

Heaven Hill’s third core Bourbon brand, Larceny ($25 a 750-ml.), is a wheated Bourbon whose taste profile is inspired by Old Fitzgerald. Wheat comprises 20% of Larceny’s mash bill—the highest of any Bourbon on the market, according to Potter. With its decidedly millennial-centric image, Larceny launched in limited distribution in 2012. It was in 19 markets by the end of 2017, and by year-end it will be available nationally. As with Evan Williams, the price is approachable, and the focus is on at-home drinking, versatility, and mixability. “I believe Larceny could become our next Evan Williams,” Potter says.

Market Watch has a full profile of Heaven Hill Brands on its website.

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