Though it was an extremely windy day in Bardstown, Ky., on Thursday, Nov. 7, 1996, it was business as usual at the Heaven Hill Distillery. After a three-decades-long glut, bourbon was starting to garner interest in America again. The year before, the family-owned distillery, founded in 1935, had introduced Elijah Craig 18 Year Old and Henry McKenna Bottled In Bond, looking to compete with the raft of higher-end, small-batch releases that were becoming buzzworthy.
Around 2 p.m. that day, however, a worker spotted smoke rolling out of Warehouse I, where power lines ran down the side of the building, smacking the wooden windows due to the strong gusts. Before there was time for anybody to react, the seven-story wooden structure had burst into flames. The 50-mile-per-hour winds blew the flames onto a second warehouse and that one ignited just as the first warehouse collapsed. By the time firefighters had arrived minutes later, flaming bourbon had rolled down the hill — the Courier-Journal, in a front page headline, described it as “like lava” — across Route 49, and onto additional warehouses, many holding up to 20,000 barrels of aging bourbon.
“Welcome to hell,” said firefighter David Shield as he approached the scene.
Over 100 firefighters from 10 different departments would battle the blaze well into the evening. At one point flames would stretch some 20 stories into the sky and the heat was so intense, the firefighters couldn’t get any closer than 300 yards. By nightfall, the fire was under control, though it had absolutely decimated the Heaven Hill campus, destroying 7.7 million gallons of bourbon, some 90,000 barrels. All that remained after the blaze was piles of iron barrel rings.
“The loss of liquid that day represented 2 percent of the world’s whiskey stocks at that time,” wrote Steve Coomes, “and the destruction of Heaven Hill’s distillery was akin to the death of a family member in the bourbon community.”
Kept on Trucking
The smell of ash lasted for days and it would take about a month to clean up all the debris, some of which had blown five miles away. Some warehouses were still partially standing, and wouldn’t be torn down completely until years later. It was a $30 million hit for the brand — $22 million in ruined facilities, $8 million in destroyed bourbon.
“It looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off,” recalls Mike Sonne, Heaven Hill’s current master taster, upon arriving that Friday. Back in 1996 he was quality control manager; he and a fellow employee, Chris Briney, spent the day of the fire standing atop the bottling house with a fire extinguisher, just in case any flaming debris landed on the roof. “But everybody was back to work the next day, full scale. We just kept on trucking,” Sonne says.
People whose jobs were suddenly burned away — like the distilling employees — were moved to teams that still needed workers, like the bottling house. There were 37 warehouses that survived the fire — with barrels anywhere from a day old to 18 years of age — but the company needed new distillate as well.
“Jim Beam in Claremont and Brown-Forman jumped in to help,” says Sonne. Immediately, in fact. “They had the space. They would make [our] new whiskey, distill it, put it in a barrel, and we would haul it back to our warehouses.”
If there was ever a time to have a massive distillery fire, 1996 was it. Decades of consumer apathy toward bourbon in favor of clear spirits like vodka was finally about to come to an end. But 1996 was still the calm before the storm — before everything would change, before Pappy Van Winkle would become a household name, before the Buffalo Trace Distillery would open and change the industry, before every distillery would begin releasing high-end limited editions (“LEs”), and before an online black market would form to handle such aggressive fandom.
I asked Sonne: If the fire had happened today, when just about every Kentucky distillery is operating at full capacity, would any distillery even have the room to distill for someone else? His response was quick and unsurprising “No way!”
Smartly, Heaven Hill — owned by the Shapira family, then as it is now — had begun diversifying its portfolio as the second generation began to take over the company in the 1980s. (The last living original founder, George Shapira, had just passed away in May 1996.) By 1996, Heaven Hill had acquired such non-whiskey brands as Burnett’s Gin, Two Fingers Tequila, Coronet VSQ Brandy, and quite a few liqueurs and aperitifs, none of which were produced in Bardstown and so were not affected by the fire.
“In the 1970s, as whiskey was going out of favor, the company switched from an agency model to an acquisition model,” explains Lauren Cherry Newcomb, Heaven Hill’s communication manager. “So thankfully we had a lot in place before the fire happened.”
More acquisitions would come after the fire, most notably Hpnotiq, a turquoise-colored combination of vodka, Cognac, and “natural tropical fruit juices” that would become a sensation in urban nightlife and among hip hop artists like Diddy, Fabolous, and Ludacris. In just a couple years it went from 1,000 cases sold to many millions, reportedly becoming the fourth best-selling liqueur in the entire country at one point, a critical money earner when Heaven Hill needed it most.
In February 1999, Heaven Hill purchased the Bernheim distillery in Louisville, which had been built in 1992. The $171 million deal with United Distillers & Vintages also included seven brick warehouses as well as the Old Fitzgerald bourbon and Christian Brothers Brandy brands. Heaven Hill would again, for the first time in four years, be able to distill its own whiskey.
“By 2000 we were back to firing on all cylinders,” says Sonne.
And so was the bourbon industry, with that year being the first to see an uptick in production since 1970.
Pre-Fire Heaven Hill
“I’ve never heard that even said before!” exclaims Sonne when I ask him if he believes it’s true that Heaven Hill’s bourbon was better before 1996. “Why would it be better?”
Sonne may not be aware, but on the internet, “pre-fire” Heaven Hill bottlings are highly coveted among bourbon collectors, with many believing the quality was higher than it is today (even if most modern enthusiasts remain fans of Heaven Hill’s current bourbons and ryes). Others, like Sonne, are more dubious.
“I don’t want to totally dismiss that some of it does have that ‘mythical old richness’ that we get in dusty old bourbon, but no more so than other distilleries at that time,” says Josh Peters of the Whiskey Jug, who has drank his fair share of pre-fire Heaven Hill. “Net-net, it’s as good, and bad, as other bourbon made at that time, but it has the added fetishization of being from before the distillery burned down.”
In 2020, Single Cask Nation, an acclaimed independent bottler, released what it called 24 Year Old Pre-Fire Kentucky Straight Bourbon, artistic flames on the label and all. Though legalities prevented it from labeling it as Heaven Hill, it was clear to everyone where this bourbon had been distilled in October 1994. The 1,200-bottle release sold out instantly online, despite the $300 price tag, and has been well received by fans.
“It fulfills the promise of dusty bourbon in that it tastes different from anything being produced today,” wrote Taylor Cope on Malt Review. “However, it also has plenty of Heaven Hill hallmarks that … remain constant between whiskeys produced at the old and new distilleries.”
But Sonne doesn’t buy that there should be any difference whatsoever.
“Why would it change?” he asks. “Even when Jim Beam was making it for us, they were still doing it with our mash bill. Nothing has ever changed with the taste.”
Yet, even Heaven Hill itself has capitalized on this mysticism, releasing a pre-fire 27-Year-Old Barrel Proof Small Batch in 2018. Created with 41 surviving barrels from 1989 and 1990, the 3,000 bottles released were priced at $399, and, yes, sold out instantly. Today it goes for around $800 a bottle on the secondary market.
Heaven Hill Brands
“This boom in the last few years has been unbelievable,” says Sonne.
Bourbon has now become a $9 billion dollar industry and Heaven Hill has ridden that tidal wave, with its Evan Williams now the world’s third best-selling whiskey after Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s. Meanwhile, the distillery’s annual Parker’s Heritage Collection (named after late great master distiller Parker Beam) has become one of the industry’s most coveted “LEs” after being first unveiled in 2007. And Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig Barrel Proof has been named Whiskey Advocate’s Whiskey of the Year and remains a favorite among the cognoscenti.
Strategies after the fire would even change how the distillery viewed itself. In 2014, the company changed its name to Heaven Hill Brands, an effort to highlight the fact that it is not only in the American whiskey business these days. In fact, Heaven Hill is now one of the largest overall spirits suppliers in the entire nation with top-selling products like Deep Eddy Vodka and Black Velvet Canadian Whisky.
But bourbon will always be Heaven Hill’s bread and butter and, despite losing 2 percent of the globe’s whiskey stocks in 1996, the brand is now the second-largest holder of aging bourbon in the entire world. It just needs to keep finding places to store those barrels, on track to soon fill its 10 millionth one.
“The last couple years, we’ve been putting up warehouses as fast as we can build them,” says Sonne.
And, smartly, they all have fire protection as well.