Exploring the people, places, and pastimes that
celebrate bourbon, America's native spirit
Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience Ushers in New Phase of Kentucky Bourbon Tourism
“Yes, we are bullish on bourbon,” Heaven Hill Distillery President Max L. Shapira nearly shouted at the excited crowd. Shapira was speaking at the grand opening of the new Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience in Bardstown, Kentucky in mid--June. For those in the back, he repeated the statement again.
We were standing in the beautiful renovated, expanded and renamed Heaven Hill visitor center as Shapira debuted its $19 million facelift. The spectacular facility blends cutting-edge technology with references to nearly nine decades of Kentucky whiskey history. Seeing it for the first time, no one present that day questioned the family-owned distillery’s commitment to America’s Native Spirit.
Oh, and don’t forget the $119 million Heaven Hill has already spent in less than three years on new whiskey production, aging warehouses, along with other bottling and equipment upgrades.
The new Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience features exhibits including:
“You Do Bourbon” a classroom style tasting room and lab where you sample, choose, bottle, and label your own bourbon.
The 1935 Distillery Theater with seven screens that fly in and out to tell the history of Heaven Hill in an entertaining 11--minute, high--resolution show.
Five Brothers Bar & Kitchen, an upscale area honoring the Shapira brothers who began the family’s journey in the distilling business in 1935.
The Family Gallery which explores the people behind Heaven Hill’s success. It includes interesting and engaging exhibits on Elijah Craig, Larceny, and Bottled--in--Bond bourbons. (Don’t miss the chance to get your photo taken with the Shapira brothers.)
The new space covers more than 30,000 square feet, tripling the size of the original Heaven Hill Heritage Center. That center opened in 2004 as one of the earliest efforts to draw tourists to Kentucky bourbon country.
The first phase of the renovation was unveiled in November 2019. It included three themed tasting rooms and a giant barrel room where visitors watch a widescreen video about making barrels and their role in the bourbon process. Read more about this first phase of remodeling here.
Kentucky Governor, Andy Beshear, was also on hand for the ceremony, which included media, local politicians and officials, and Heaven Hill team members.
“We’re cutting the ribbon on this great project on National Kentucky Bourbon Day,” Beshear said. “Although here in the Commonwealth, I’d like to think we have more than one day a year we can call Bourbon Day. I’m a little bullish on bourbon too.”
Calling bourbon “Kentucky’s $8.6 billion signature industry,” the Governor cited the 68 distilleries, 20,000 jobs and billion--dollar--plus payroll in saying bourbon has never been stronger.
“Bourbon is, as declared officially in a 1964 act of Congress, America’s Native Spirit,” Beshear said. “We all know, and indeed people the world over know (or need to know), that bourbon’s heart and soul lives right here in Kentucky and nowhere else.”
Before heading outside, tasting glasses of bourbon were distributed to the crowd. Shapira offered this toast: “Today we celebrate an industry built upon family and legends, a company built on patience and perseverance, and Kentucky bourbon, made with quality, made with heritage all interwoven in each step of the process. Today we toast to welcome American whiskey fans back to the Commonwealth of Kentucky and to the new Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience. Cheers everyone.”
The ceremonial ribbon was cut outside in front of the barn--like façade that echoes the 1935 distillery exterior. Then everyone came back in to watch the Governor fill the first bottle in the “You Do Bourbon” lab space. Unfortunately for him, the Governor had to skip the tasting portion and go right to the bottling and labeling.
Jeff Crowe, Heaven Hill’s Director of Kentucky Experiences, later told me, “If you’re the whiskey connoisseur coming back, you’re going to love the “You Do Bourbon” section. It allows you to taste four products that are not readily available anywhere else. All barrel proof, from Larceny to Elijah Craig to a Bernheim Wheated Barrel Proof that’s never been done before. And there will always be a rotating product.”
When the pomp and circumstance ended, we were left to guide ourselves through the new exhibits. It’s a fun blend of bourbon history with the best modern museum--quality exhibits. A place where a true bourbon enthusiast can spend several hours, and a novice will enjoy even the briefest visit. And every tour ticket includes a whiskey tasting.
Tour and Tasting Options
Each option includes a tasting session and the chance to take a self--guided tour through the various exhibits and theatres. Open seven days a week, times vary. Pro tip: book in advance. Reservations for the first month were already booked on opening day. Get more information here.
Magic of the Mashbill:
Taste five types of American Whiskey, each with a different mashbill. 45 minutes. $15 per person
Explore five premium or limited release American Whiskeys. 45 minutes. $20 per person.
You Do Bourbon:
Learn about mashbills, bottling, labeling, and quality control before bottling your own personalized whiskey. One hour. $40 per person. $5 per bottle is donated to a rotating charity, beginning with Bernheim Forest.
My favorite stop on the tour was the Larceny Brand Gallery. (I enjoy both the bourbon and its fanciful Prohibition--era backstory). Here you get to see a representation of Treasury Agent John E. Fitzgerald’s desk and office. The technology would make the folks at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter jealous. You can browse the registry of Fitzgerald’s barrels, hear from talking decanters, and learn to thieve whiskey from a barrel.
Just outside the Larceny area, I spoke to Bruce Corwin, the founder of the Bourbon Brotherhood social club in Louisville. Knowing he’s toured most of Kentucky’s distilleries, I asked Corwin his impression of Heaven Hill’s new offering.
“It’s fantastic -- I have to say the folks at Heaven Hill have always been leaders in the bourbon experience,” Corwin said. “They were the first ones to open in Louisville with the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. They really set the bar high. And they’ve done the same thing here.”
Corwin said the Bourbon Brotherhood is already in talks to hold an event onsite in the new facility.
Up on the second floor, The Five Brothers Bar & Kitchen features a 25--foot bar with a lounge and dining area. Through the floor--to--ceiling glass, you see the rooftop deck with beautiful views of some of the 63 aging rickhouses that Heaven Hill has in Kentucky.
The bar is now open for craft cocktails and bourbon tastings. The restaurant will open sometime next year.
It was there I ran into Adam Johnson, Senior Director of Kentucky Bourbon Trail Experiences with the Kentucky Distillers Association. I asked him what this new facility means for the KBT.
“It’s another arrow in our quiver for our visitors,” Johnson said. “Something new and exciting. Look at the view, this is amazing. It really complements what you see down the street with Bardstown Bourbon Company and Willett Distillery and their wonderful food programs. It really shows the evolution of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, from production tour to so much more.”
Outside I asked Crowe, who directs both this facility and the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in Louisville, about the tremendous effort that went into the new visitor center opening.
“It’s a great day for us as a company and for the family that owns us, “Crowe said. “The shining spot of this whole facility is that we showcase the Shapira family.”
“For all of us who are part of the team, the roughest year of our lives is now behind us,” Crowe continued. “To have a day like today, where we can celebrate all the work we were able to accomplish, is surreal. It’s nice to walk up here and see the parking lot full and see people up on our deck enjoying the amazing view. We hope everybody loves it as much as we do.”
As the crowd thinned out, I went up to Mr. Shapira and asked him what this day meant to him and his family. “Today is really a celebration of honoring the family legacy and understanding the foundation that they built for the company,” Shapira said. “But it’s also about what’s going to happen as we go forward to the future.”
Noting the family’s entry into the whiskey business 85 years ago, Shapira said, “That was when my Dad and his four brothers, in the middle of the Great Depression, with no production facility, no inventory, no brand, no knowledge of how to operate a distillery, made a very speculative investment in what was a struggling and fledging enterprise.”
Obviously, that speculative investment has paid off for America’s largest independent, family--owned and operated distilled--spirits company. As Shapira said in his opening remarks, “I think you’re going to find this new space interesting, informative, and a tremendous amount of fun.”
Bullish on bourbon, indeed.
Five Brothers Bourbon
This new small-batch bourbon honors the five Shapira brothers who started Heaven Hill Distillery in 1935. It blends five ages of whiskey ranging from five-to-nine years old and is bottled at 90 proof.
Tasting notes from Heaven Hill: Sweet and smooth with notes of vanilla and sugar cookie, the finish is long yet subtle making for an easy sipper.
Five Brothers Bourbon will only be available at the Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience and select Kentucky retailers. Suggest price is $59.99 for 750 ml.