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6,500,000 and counting

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Heaven Hill marks milestone

By Forrest Berkshire, Editor

Heaven Hill Distilleries celebrated a milestone in its history Tuesday with the filling of its 6.5 millionth barrel of straight Kentucky bourbon.

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Local elected officials and bourbon industry professionals gathered in the cistern room to witness the filling of a new white oak barrel marked No. 6,500,000 with 53 gallons of the spirit.

“It is indeed a proud day for our company and our extended Heaven Hill family,” Max Shapira, Heaven Hill president, said during some brief comments.

Shapira noted that if production continued apace, it would be February 2015 when the company celebrated its 7 millionth barrel. In 2010, on the company’s 76th anniversary, it filled its 6 millionth barrel.

After the ceremony, Shapira said the bourbon industry is robust.

“Bourbon is probably at its most popular level, certainly in the past 25 years, and possibly ever,” Shapira said.

Over the last 15 years or so, Shapira said, the company has diversified its portfolio beyond bourbon, expanding into rum, gin and the HPNOTIQ liqueurs. But the Kentucky-born product holds a special place for the company.

“That remains the heart and soul of the company,” Shapira said. “That’s where the history and the energy stems from.”

Heaven Hill is riding the wave of bourbon’s popularity, introducing last year its new brand, Larceny, and currently developing The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in Louisville, a multi-million dollar artisanal distillery on the city’s “Bourbon Row.” The company is also preparing to begin construction in Nelson County on two new rick houses that can house 100,000 barrels.

“Bourbon is booming,” said Adam Johnson, director of The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, who was on hand to mark the occasion.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail was founded in 1999, and introduced its passport program in 2007, where visitors get their book stamped at the distilleries and, after completing the trail, get a T-shirt.

Johnson said that in 2007, 180 people completed the passport book. In 2012, more than 18,000 did so. And this year, he said, participation is already up 52 percent. Johnson said 500,000 people visited the distilleries on the tour last year.

Johnson likened the Bourbon Trail to California’s Napa Valley experience, but said the colorful history and characters involved in the story of bourbon adds its own element to the experience.

With more than 95 percent of the world’s bourbon produced in Kentucky, Heaven Hill is the second-largest holder of bourbon in the world. It holds about 1 million aging barrels in its inventory

Shapira, as head of the nation’s largest independent and family-owned-and-operated distilled spirits producer and second largest bourbon holder, noted the tradition of the company and its operation. Shapira is the second generation to head the company since its founding in 1934, and the third generation is firmly in place for the future, he said. Also present at Tuesday’s event were sixth- and seventh-generation master distillers Parker and Craig Beam, father and son.

“This occasion is made all the more special in that it is personally overseen by two generations of my family and two generations of our master distillers,” Shapira said.

FORREST BERKSHIRE can be contacted at fberkshire@kystandard.com