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Interview, Part 1: Heaven Hill’s Group Product Director Susan Wahl Talks Bourbon

July 27, 2020

While Heaven Hill Brands boasts a diversified spirits portfolio, Bourbon has always been the company’s signature.Its key Bourbon brands include Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Larceny, and Old Fitzgerald, and its Bernheim facility in Louisville is the largest standalone distillery in the world. Throughout the current Bourbon boom and more recently during Covid-19, Heaven Hill has been seeing major growth. SND editorial director David Fleming recently spoke with Heaven Hill’s group product director Susan Wahl for an update on progress in the Bourbon space.

SND: Elijah Craig arguably has been your most dynamic brand of recent times. How are things lately?

Wahl: Elijah Craig Small Batch has now crossed the 250,000-case mark and is growing at exceptionally high rates, due to the off-premise surge amid Covid-19. It’s currently at 35%-40% growth year-on-year. We’ve also been innovating, with a new extension, Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel ($50 and 47% abv), rolling out in September. It’s finished in toasted barrels designed in partnership with Independent Stave Company to get the character we want—an extra layer of complexity and sweetness, and at 94 proof, an exceptionally smooth finish. Toasted Barrel will be available nationally, though on a somewhat limited basis. We also launched our Elijah Craig Rye last year, line priced with Elijah Craig Small Batch ($30) and currently sold in Oregon, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Helped by the reputation of Elijah Craig Small Batch and the popularity of classic cocktails, the Rye has done well. We’re communicating how it can be used in cocktails, with programming centered around the Old Fashioned and how to make it at home.

SND: Evan Williams has been in growth mode for many years—even well before the Bourbon boom. It’s a brand that seems made for the current off-premise environment.

Wahl: Evan Williams has been seeing historic growth over the last four months, obviously due to consumers turning to brands they know and trust. Its depletions have crossed the 2-million-case mark this year. Our flavors are also doing very well, breaking the 300,000-case mark. Peach and Apple are leading some of that, but Honey is right in there too. The flavors continue to find a home with people who want lighter Bourbons, particularly for summer cocktails. For Evan Williams Black Label, we’re continuing with our American-Made Heroes program, and we’ve established the American-Made Heroes Foundation Fund in support of veterans.

SND: Larceny was first introduced in 2012 but only went national at the end of 2017. How’s progress currently?

Wahl: Larceny also has been a beneficiary of what’s happening in the world today. It’s been growing at 20%-30% and then doubling that in the pandemic months. We launched Larceny Barrel Proof last year, and continue to pour more into it, as we do with Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. We’re doing programming around the Larceny Kentucky Mule, mainly because Larceny’s wheated profile pairs well with ginger. We’ve also been able to offer a private barrel program for Larceny in some markets.

SND: How are Heaven Hill’s private barrel programs doing overall?

Wahl: The private barrel programs have been around a long time, but started to become a growth driver about 10-15 years ago, and actually went dark for a while from 2015-2018. More recently private barrel has been at the core part of Elijah Craig’s growth strategy, and now that we’re expanding it to Larceny, we’ll continue to look at growing it further. Private barrel is a great way to get retailers excited about a brand. They become part of the process, and often include staff in making barrel picks. It’s something they can all get behind.

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