Into the Colossus – A visit to Heaven Hill in Bardstown

Cistern room at Heaven Hill
In October, 2014 Mrs. Wonk and I toured eight whiskey distilleries in the vicinity of Louisville, KY, and Nashville, TN. In a prior post, I described the common elements of these tours in detail, while this post focuses on the unique parts of our Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center visit. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, it’s a good idea to read that post first.

CocktailWonk Rating: 7/10 (Behind the Scenes $35 tour)

Heaven Hill Distilleries Inc., based in Bardstown, KY, is a study in contradictions. And at their gigantic facility here you’ll find just about every aspect of whiskey production–except a distillery. And while the company bills themselves as “America’s largest independent family-owned producer of Bourbon,” they own roughly 1,200 different brands, the vast majority of which aren’t whiskey. Don’t dismiss them as whiskey wannabes though – they have roughly one million barrels of bourbon aging in their warehouses, ranking them as the second largest bourbon inventory in the world behind Beam Suntory. Fun fact: Kentucky has more bourbon barrels undergoing aging than citizens

Heaven Hill’s whiskey brands run the gamut from highly regarded to bottom-shelf. Their better-known American whiskey brands include Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, and Rittenhouse. Other relatively recognizable labels under their production umbrella include Hpnotiq (a bright-blue blend of cognac, vodka, and fruit juices – no thank you.), Pama (pomegranate liqueur), Christian Brothers brandy, Dubonnet, and Lunazul tequila. Really scraping the bottom of the barrel (ha!) you’ll find the Burnett’s line (gin, vodka, rum) and Whaler’s rum. Walk into any liquor store and pick five bottles at random from the bottom shelf – odds are the label on at least one of them says Bardstown, KY, meaning you’ve found a Heaven Hill brand.
Labels at Heaven Hill
It’s recently become popular for distilleries to create “experiences” in big cities, where visitors get a sanitized museum and gift shop experience without trekking out to the country (the horror!) to see the actual facility. Louisville, an hour north of the whiskey hub of Bardstown, has a few “experiences” available these days. However, it’s unusual that Heaven Hill built their large Bourbon Heritage Center, complete with museum, theater space, and giant barrel-shaped tasting room, in the middle of their complex in rural Bardstown. Why a heritage center rather than a distillery tour like everybody else? One big reason is that Heaven Hill, due to its unique circumstances, has flipped the model on its head: They distill their whiskey in the city of Louisville, while their Heritage Center is out in the country.

It hasn’t always been this way, however.  Heaven Hill had a distillery in Bardstown up until November 1996, when a catastrophic fire started in a rickhouse, full of highly flammable cask-strength whiskey. The destruction spread to several other warehouses, and before it was put out, the distillation building and 90,000 barrels of whiskey were gone. Today, the Bardstown facility handles the aging of whiskey made at the company’s Bernheim distillery in Louisville, and also functions as a giant bottling and shipping facility. – (More on this later.)

In the absence of many of the traditional whiskey tour highlights — grain, fermentation, stills, and spirit safe–why visit the Bourbon Heritage Center? Sure, you can watch the movie, gaze at the exhibits, and taste some whiskey, but Mrs. Wonk won’t stand for something that pedestrian. Is the Bourbon Heritage Center worth a visit? It depends. If you’re looking for the traditional distillery experience like you can get nearby at Barton or Willett, choose them over Heaven Hill, for the charm factor if nothing else. However, if you’re fascinated by all aspects of spirits production at enormous scales like I am, and you have the time to book the “Behind the Scenes” tour, then yes, absolutely go. Heaven Hill is a spirit wonk’s dream.

Cistern room, Heaven Hill
Barrel labeling, Heaven Hill cistern room

The Behind the Scenes tour is limited to 6 to 8 people. It begins at the Heritage Center with a fifteen minute movie, long on historical reenactment of the early days of Kentucky bourbon. Afterward, a one-minute minivan ride across the vast parking lot brought us to a building where we donned safety goggles before entering the cistern room, where a handful of people fill barrels with the assistance of serious amounts of machinery. New and empty 53-gallon barrels quite literally roll off a truck onto a chain conveyor belt. Along the first stretch, a robotic printer paints the barrel’s label and filling date on the barrelhead. After making a 90 degree turn, barrels arrive at the filling station, which fills four barrels at a time. A single employee walks back and forth between the barrels, inserting an overhead nozzle into each barrel, much like filling your tank at the gas station. High overhead, pipes carry new-make whiskey from tanks somewhere out of sight.

Once filled, and after the worker pounds a bung into the filled barrel, the barrel continues on the conveyor chain to be rolled again onto another truck. I estimate that a barrel spends no more than five minutes in the room from start to finish. We were up close and personal with everything we saw. Nothing separated us from the machinery or barrels as they went by – I would have reached out and touched except for the watchful gaze of our guide. The experience here was night-and-day different from Willett’s cistern room, one barrel at a time and powered only by gravity.

Barrel 14, Heaven Hill

Back in the minivan, we migrated to the dump room building, which is similar in size to the cistern room. As in the previous space, the main feature is a large chain conveyor belt that moves barrels around. Here again, a single worker manages the process of emptying barrels of aged whiskey. Once off the truck, the conveyor moves the barrel to a station where an employee manages four barrels emptying at once. Instead of inserting a fill nozzle, as in the cistern room, the worker positions an overhead auger bit that demolishes the bung instantly in a fit of mechanical violence. A pipe then descends into the barrel to suck out the contents. In the middle of the room, a large circular contraption filters out bits of bung and barrel char that get sucked out of the barrel along with the whiskey. Empty barrels find their way onto another truck, presumably headed for the enormous secondary barrel market that exists worldwide, for aging anything from beer to sherry to cognac.

Machine for removing debris from dumped whiskey, Heaven Hill
Back to the minivan (noticing a theme here?) for a short sprint to an enormous building – the bottling plant. This was easily a highlight of all our whiskey tours. The first room could have held a football field or two. Stretching from one end to the other, numerous bottling lines run straight and parallel to each other. (Mrs. Wonk spent most of the visit singing the theme song to “Laverne and Shirley” in her head, waiting for someone to send a glove down the bottling line.) You may recall from earlier that Heaven Hill makes more than just whiskey – spirits of all stripes and denominations flowed down this line on our visit, including triple sec, Christian Brothers brandy, and 190 proof grain alcohol. As with the cistern and dump rooms, this was a very up close and personal experience.

As we marched up and down various lines handling mostly 750ml bottles, we stopped to chat with several of the Heaven Hill employees. Nothing was between us and the line, and we frequently had to duck or squeeze through gaps between machines to make our way along it. Each line handles the entire bottling process – empty bottles are filled, labeled, capped, and boxed entirely without human intervention. Other than moving filled cases with a forklift, the most strenuous task we saw anybody do was rotate a bottle or drop an additional label on the box top. Electronic counter boards overhead show how many bottles each line has processed on the current shift.

Walking to the next destination within the plant, I saw another room nearly equal in size with yet more bottling lines–and who knows how many more we didn’t see! We also passed by untold thousands of stacked cases of spirits reaching at least 20 feet high, forklifts whizzing back and forth to move them about. Eventually we came to yet another bottling line, but quite a bit different from the first set. This line processes the small 200ml bottles with a visual spectacle straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon:  Boxes of empty plastic bottles travel on a high conveyor belt before rotating upside down and reverse course on the conveyor. The bottles fall into a gigantic bin, where they’re funneled into an upright position on the filling line. The bottles soon spin around inside a round, glass-sided filling machine, where a dozen or more bottles are filled at a time, each in a matter of seconds. After they exit, a camera snaps several pictures of each bottle, and a computer uses the images to verify that each label is on straight and the bottle is filled correctly. Any bottles found lacking are unceremoniously punched sideways off the line, although we weren’t lucky enough to see this happen. A computer display shows each bottle’s images and calculated variance from acceptable limits. You only get about a second or so before you see the next bottle’s analysis. I found it mesmerizing for a while.

Label room, Heaven Hill bottling plant
One of the thousands of labels at Heaven Hill.
Our last stop in the bottling plant was the label supply room – a bit of a mind-boggle for any sort of spirits wonk (or graphic design nerd, as is Mrs. Wonk). It’s here that we got a sense of just how many brands Heaven Hill owns. The labels for every spirit bottled at the plant can be found here – at least 1400 of them – many of them brands I’d never heard of (Mark Twain Bourbon, anyone?), and a few surprises such as Gosling’s rum, which is imported by Heaven Hill. Each distinct label has its own cubbyhole on one of the many aisles of shelves. Some labels are on big rolls while others are packed flat in boxes, depending on the type of bottling line used. Our guide let us roam freely up and down the aisles and select a few labels to take home as souvenirs. (See photos above.)

The last stop before returning to the Bourbon Heritage Center was Rickhouse Y. At this point, four distilleries into our visit, visiting a rickhouse was becoming old hat – dark, wooden floors, lots of barrels, angel’s share, etc… Nothing of note that I didn’t cover in my earlier post. A final jaunt in the minivan took us back to the Heritage Center for our tasting, held in the Parker Beam Tasting Barrel. The Tasting Barrel is a circular room that struggles to convey the feeling that you’re in the upper 1/3 of an enormous open whiskey barrel.

Inside the barrel walls, guests sit around a circular bar. Inside the bar ring is a podium from where the guide leads the tasting. The whole visual experience is a bit cheesy, bringing to mind a tiny model United Nations of whiskey. The tastings progressed through the mainstream Heaven Hill brands – Rittenhouse rye, Larceny bourbon, and Elijah Craig 12. Since we were on the fancy tour, our guide let us select one of the high-end bottles available in the gift shop for a final tasting.

Parker Beam Tasting Barrel, Heaven Hill
Rickhouse, Heaven Hill
The gift shop which wraps around the outside of the Tasting Barrel, is predominantly the mainstream lineup of Heaven Hill whiskeys at typical retail prices. I was happy to see that in addition, there were three special bottlings only available at the Bourbon Heritage center. Each was in the $100+ plus range and after prodding by Mrs. Wonk to just pick something already, I selected a bottle of Heaven Hill Select Stock for $150. It’s a 128 proof wheated bourbon, aged for eight years before finishing in cognac barrels for an additional 27 months. Mixed with a bit of water to bring it down to 100 proof, I find it eminently enjoyable.

The one letdown of our Heaven Hill tour was that we couldn’t photograph inside the bottling plant, so I deducted a bit from my rating score. Since the vastness and up-close experience bottling plant is what most differentiates Heaven Hill from the other tours we took, it’s frustrating to not be able to share photos as part of the story. Nonetheless, as a student of all aspects of spirits and how they’re made, I found the tour very worthwhile. We had plenty of time at each stop to soak in the details. However, someone with a more casual interest in whiskey (see also: Mrs. Wonk) might find the Behind the Scenes tour a bit long and perhaps not as interesting as a visit to the nearby Willett or Barton distilleries. As for the other Heaven Hill tours offered, we didn’t experience them firsthand, but the tour description implies they’re not much more than a movie and tasting, plus time to wander through the museum style displays before exiting through the gift shop. If you have plenty of time in Bardstown, by all means stop in, but if you only have time for one tour, Barton or Willett show you a lot more on their basic tours, with the added bonus of smaller scale and local charm.

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