women in whiskey
Covering both the science of distilling and the history of women in whiskey is less like a boring lesson and more like a great conversation over whiskey.
Susan Wahl, Heaven Hill: The Corporate Behind the Casks
This month for Women in Whiskey, we chat with Susan Wahl, Group Product Director for Heaven Hill, who pulls back the [corporate] curtain behind the casks.
If you are a whiskey lover with a fondness for bourbon, you are probably familiar with their brands that include Mellow Corn, Evan Williams, and Elijah Craig. Heaven Hill is the 5th largest private, family owned and operated spirits distributor in the United States. They average 1,300 barrels daily, 400,000 annually, and own the largest single site bourbon distillery.
BROWN SPIRITS RISING
It may surprise you to know that when I asked Susan about her first memory of Heaven Hill, her response was…vodka. Yup, Heaven Hill ALSO has vodka, rum, tequila, brandy, and liqueur brands in addition to its whiskeys. (Don’t worry — for this article, we’ll stick to the whiskey.)
Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Susan remembers bottles of Heaven Hill vodka and rum in her parents’ liquor cabinet. She earned her Bachelor’s in Business Administration & Communications at Bellarmine University and landed a marketing job through their partnership with Heaven Hill.
At the time, Susan knew “most of the backbars were filled with white goods” and the cocktail of the moment was the Cosmopolitan (thanks to Sex and the City). But she remembers walking into a conference room filled with marketing displays of their whiskey and feeling excited to be working on a product she’d encounter in her every day life and was a large part of Kentucky culture.
Since the company was still small, Susan wore several hats in the office with the perk of tasting and providing feedback for flavor profiles. One of her favorite tasting memories was a vintage unveiling with press. Susan walked into the rickhouse and for the first time in her life, tasted straight from the barrel; the 130 proof numbed her lips. Before Heaven Hill, whiskey had been Derby cocktails in college. Susan was able to chat with Master Distiller, Parker Beam, one-on-one about his palate and process. (Parker is credited with developing Heaven Hill’s Small Batch and Single Barrel bourbons.) Her whiskey education began and would continue under his guidance.
She left briefly for Yum Brands, another Kentucky company (ever heard of KFC?) but was happy to return home to the privately held Heaven Hill, far removed from the whims of Wall Street. “I can focus on the product, long term health of the business, and more importantly, our relationship with people.” They had just filled Barrel #5,000,000 the year before, and after her return their new Bourbon Heritage Center won "Visitor's Attraction of the Year" for North American and Worldwide from Whisky Magazine.
In addition to the day to day marketing activities, Susan is responsible for three key areas:
▪ Barrel Inventory: As of 2020, the Kentucky Department of Revenue reported Kentucky barrel inventory to be almost 10 million barrels (including Heaven Hill’s 1.7 million), its highest number since 1968. This is critical since, according to Susan, “growth numbers are both exciting and scary because our product requires time so we can’t simply ‘just make more’”.
▪ Visitor Centers Experience: Bourbon lovers can be immersed in either the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience on Louisville’s Whiskey Row or their multi-million-dollar Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown featuring three tasting rooms that reported ~70,000 people in 2019.
▪ Innovation: Having worked with the products before the recent “bourbon boom”, Susan has been a key part of the portfolio’s growth and its enjoyment by bourbon lovers worldwide.
Heaven Hill was founded in 1935 by the Shapira family and today, family members continue to help shape its growth and foster its culture through Max Shapira (President), Kate Shapira Latts (Chief Marketing Officer), Allan Latts (Chief Operations Officer), and Andy Shapira (Director of Corporate Analysis/Sales, Western Division).
Beyond the strong family culture in the company, Susan loves being in the Kentucky Distillery community for its camaraderie amongst families of “Heritage Distillers” such as Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, and Brown-Forman; their families grew up in the same Bardstown communities. She remembers learning that Distillers Parker Beam, Booker Noe, and Jimmy Rutledge would have breakfast once a month on a Friday morning to chat about their whiskeys, the industry, and shoot the breeze.
This “competitive collaboration” had also manifested itself in November 1996, when a fire claimed 90,000 barrels of bourbon (2% of the world’s whiskey and 14% of their inventory at the time). Fellow distillers stepped up and offered contract distilling. (Thankfully, no lives were lost.) Susan told me the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, and the Kentucky community at large, always pitched in whenever help was needed, either through volunteered time or donations (monetary or goods).
When Covid-19 hit, Heaven Hill immediately communicated to the public on their healthcare precautions and status, and gave back to their community. They joined the #TeamKentucky initiative with other Kentucky Distillers to use their production facilities to make and distribute hand sanitizer. They pledged $400,000 for their employees, as well as their hospitality communities in the United States (Kentucky, Texas), Canada (Lethbridge), and Ireland (Dublin), in addition to individual whiskey brand contributions (Evan Williams launched the American-made Heroes Foundation Fund and awarded up to $75,000 toward nonprofit veteran focused organizations; Elijah Craig donated $10,000 to the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation (RWCF) with a match of consumer donations up to $15,000).
Recently, they partnered with Punch for Inaugural Old Fashioned Week (October 16-25) featuring Elijah Craig and raised another $100,00 for RWCF through a series of virtual events (such as Cocktail Hour, Bourbon Trivia, and Elevating Your Home Bar). If you missed it, you can watch them here.
Exploring Heaven Hill’s whiskey brands and all their expressions could be its own article with Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, and Larceny leading the pack. But for now, we’ll highlight their 2020 releases:
Evan Williams Rebrand: Their flagship bourbon gets modernized across the portfolio with new packaging and label look
2020 Releases (Author Samples & Tasting Notes; WBSE Members: click here for the live tasting video in our group.)
Larceny Bourbon C920: Wheated bourbon of 6-8 years; ABV 61.2% (122.4 proof)
Nose: Hay, straw
Palate: Rum holiday cake; soft finish with proof burn on the tongue
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof C920: Uncut Small Batch of 12 year bourbon; ABV 66.4% (132.8 proof)
Nose: Maple syrup, caramel cream candy
Palate: Toasted Twix bar with a Red hot spicy finish in the chest
Parker’s Heritage 14th Edition: Mashbill - 78% corn, 12% malted barley, 10% rye aged 10 years in Level 5 char barrels (90 seconds); ABV 60% (120 proof); from 102 barrels aged on the 6th floor of Rickhouse Y
Nose: Dark cherries and figs
Palate: Cardamom and cloves; for cigar smokers – like a Plasencia Alma del Fuego; even finish with a smoky coat in the mouth
85th Anniversary 13-Year-Old Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey: This Heaven Hill single barrel expression was filled on December 13th, 2006 and dumped on December 13, 2019 to honor the first filled barrel with Kentucky Bourbon. It was aged on the 2nd floor of Rickhouse G and cut to 107 proof. MSRP $299.99
For people building their bourbon collection, Susan suggests Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond and their new
innovation: Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel. (EC Toast Barrel takes 8 to 12 years, EC Small Batch Bourbon re-entered into
a second, custom designed, toasted new oak barrel at full barrel proof; the design was in collaboration with the
Independent Stave company using 180month air dried oak that was toasted then flash-charred).
For cocktails, she prefers an Old Fashioned over a Manhattan and loves a Bourbon Mule.
Larceny Bourbon Mule
● 2 oz Larceny Bourbon
● 3 oz Ginger Beer
● 1 splash Lemon Juice
● 1 dash Bitters
● Lemon Twist, for garnish
Build over ice in a copper mule mug. Garnish with lemon twist.
Susan’s thrilled to be part of bourbon’s growth, especially as a woman behind the scenes, and supporting the rise of celebrating other women in the industry through professional groups like Women of the Vine & Spirit, as well as female consumers new to brown spirits.
On behalf of Heaven Hill, Susan thanks ALL whiskey lovers who have ever raised a dram or cocktail, either at home or supporting local businesses, and invites you to learn more about Heaven Hill through their bourbon podcast: Tales from the Hill.
Bonus Cocktail: Mellow Corn
I couldn’t resist NOT including this iconic Heaven Hill whiskey that is either loved or hated by whiskey lovers. Known to many whiskey lovers.
Kentucky Straight Corn Whiskey (which has its own set of regulations) with a mashbill of at least 80% corn, aged 4 years in an ex-Heaven Hill Bourbon barrel, and 50% ABV (100 proof).
A quick search in our WBSE Facebook Group pulled up this gem by Brian Niday:
Mellow Corn Cereal Milk Cocktail
* 4 ounces milk
* 2 ounces Mellow Corn
* 2 tablespoons powdered sugar
* Couple splashes vanilla extract
* Few dashes of cinnamon
Put all ingredients in a shaker with ice, give it a good mix, and pour. Tastes just like your milk with Cinnamon Toast Crunch Cereal. Keep it away from the kids....