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Kentucky’s New Riff Distilling Keeps Production Going, With Off-Premise Sales Showing Resilience

March 26, 2020

While larger-scale brands have fared best in the COVID-19 crisis thanks to their presence in grocery, drug, and major retail channels, the smaller players have been facing greater challenges. Newport, Kentucky-based New Riff Distilling launched its first labels in late 2018, and has a portfolio that includes New Riff Bottled-In-Bond Bourbon ($40), Single Barrel Bourbon ($50), and Bottled-In-Bond rye. The company has come a long way in a short time, with its rye expression last year earning a spot on Whisky Advocate’s Top 20 Whiskies of the Year list. Annual production is at 8,000 barrels, and volumes reached 23,000 cases last year. But despite its smaller scale and status as a relative newcomer, co-founder Ken Lewis says sales of New Riff’s brands thus far have been strong.

“We’re doing better than the (smaller) true craft operations who rely significantly—and sometimes nearly exclusively—on customer facing activities like gift shop sales, tours, and events, as well as on-premise customers,” said Lewis. “Our Event Center, gift shop, and Aquifer bar are all closed, of course, but they represent a fairly small percentage of our business. Our livelihood, like all mid-sized-and-above players, comes from distributor sales. Distilleries in Kentucky are now defined as essential businesses, and since most retailers not only are open but are doing significantly increased business, it’s more than making up for the on-premise closures.”

On the production side, New Riff is nearly at normal levels, and has been getting product into the pipeline. “We’re at nearly full operation, and, thankfully, shipping everything we’ve put into a bottle—I say nearly full operation because we’re following all CDC protocols and have a handful of production workers self-isolating,” Lewis said. “And like many distilleries, we’ve turned part of our production over to making hand sanitizer, which we’re about to donate to first responders and public health agencies throughout greater Cincinnati (directly across the Ohio River from the distillery).”

Thus far, New Riff has laid off no staff. “We’re keeping all our full time and permanent part time workers on full pay and benefits, even though many in the customer facing and sales part of the business are home,” Lewis said. “I think we’re living proof of the adage that in good times and bad, the alcohol business is the place to be. We’re thankful for our blessings, and for being a part of such a dynamic, fortunate and—as we’re all witnessing in so many ways—charitable industry.”—David Fleming

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