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Interview, Part 2: Heaven Hill’s Susan Wahl On The Bourbon Portfolio

July 29, 2020

In the second part of our interview, Heaven Hill Brands group product director Susan Wahl discusses the popularity of Bottled-In-Bond and extra-aged Bourbons, as well as the outlook on production and inventories.

SND: Old Fitzgerald is an historic brand, and has been serving as a great showcase for the popularity of Bottled-In-Bond Bourbons. What’s the latest?

Wahl: We began launching Old Fitzgerald Bottled-In-Bond back in 2008, and continue to release a spring and fall edition every year with our Decanter Series, which rolled out in 2018. This year’s spring edition was a 9-year-old Bottled-In-Bond, and in October we’ll be releasing a 14-year-old. So Old Fitzgerald has actually been tapping into two of Bourbon’s most important current trends—Bottled-In-Bond, and extra-aged expressions.

SND: Heaven Hill 7-year-old Bottled-In-Bond made an impressive showing on Whisky Advocate’s Top 20 list last year, finishing at No.-4. The initial plan was to make it more widely available beyond its initial eight launch markets. Have you been able to do that?

Wahl: You never know how things will go in the marketplace. We released Heaven Hill Bottled-In-Bond 7-year-old at $40, but we didn’t anticipate the turn on the shelf at that price point. Then came the Whisky Advocate Top 20 honor, which saw the brand sell out far more quickly than we expected. That forced us to rethink our expansion plans, so right now it’s still in the same markets where it launched—California, Texas, New York, Georgia, Florida, Illinois, South Carolina, and Colorado. We’d like to have more expansion, but we have to consider our whiskey inventories and the quality factor. We simply won’t pull from areas where we wouldn’t normally pull for Heaven Hill Bottled-In-Bond. The fact that all our Bourbon brands are growing exponentially higher than anticipated is making it harder to find barrels from the right places.

SND: It’s a big portfolio. What about your other Bottled-In-Bond labels?

Wahl: In fact, we produce the most Bottled-In-Bond whiskey of any distillery today. A brand like Henry McKenna—a Bottled-In-Bond Single Barrel expression with a 10-year-old age statement—has every attribute you’d want in a Bourbon. There are also JW Dant and JTS Brown, both with Bottled-In-Bond expressions. And Evan Williams Bottled-In-Bond has been on fire in recent years, as a trade-up option to Evan Williams Black.

SND: Has Heaven Hill completed all its expansion for now? How do you feel in general about the production situation for Bourbon?

Wahl: We’re not done yet. We reached nearly full capacity in our most recent expansion at Bernheim, which now can produce 1,300 barrels a day. But we’re creating more barrel warehouses—building new ones as well as replacing older ones with larger-capacity warehouses. We’re now holding just under 1.7 million barrels of whiskey. We haven’t yet reached the levels of Bourbon’s peak years during the 1970s. Per capita consumption is lower today—a sign that people are drinking more moderately—but there also are more people than ever at legal drinking age. So we still see room for growth, and we don’t expect that to change any time in the near future.

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