When I mapped out the sites on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to plan my visits Google told me Heaven Hill was only open on weekdays. What a pain. I ain’t got time for that! I gotta work!
So, the Monday after Easter, Bella had to work, but my employer considered it a holiday. I took the opportunity to drive down to Louisville a little early, planning to claim that elusive Heaven Hill passport stamp.
The place was pretty empty, yet I was still handed a pager after paying my $10 entry fee for the tour.
My pager went off and the tour began. It was very personal, with only two others besides me. Coincidentally, they were from Michigan, too.
I wish we had been able to see the mobile bar. It was made out of two connex containers and our guide said it was used for festivals such as the Kentucky Derby. He said during peak season it was used for tastings during the tours.
Our tour was of the rick houses, which is a cool Kentucky distiller’s way of saying “warehouse”.
Heaven Hill adds 900 to 1200 barrels a day to these warehouses. And they pay the greedy government $1 per year tax for every barrel they’re aging. There are more barrels of bourbon aging in the state of Kentucky than there are people, so the distilleries are making a lot of money for the government to misspend.
Apparently a “rick” is actually a unit of measure. It consists of three rows of 16 barrels, totaling 48 barrels. Most warehouses are seven ricks or floors high, so that’s 21 barrels high.
I recognized those from my trip to the Evan Williams Experience a couple weeks prior. They fill one barrel a day and that one is day #10.
The layers and layers of shelving are all tied together and if the heavy barrels are loaded in some haphazard method the whole house of cards could collapse. So the center of the warehouse is tied with cross braces and the actual balance of the building is monitored by the highly technical plumb bob. If they take too many barrels out of one side the building starts to shift and they’ll know before disaster strikes because the plumb bob will show the roof is trying to move on down the road.
Another fear these distilleries live with is fire. Lighting can get one of the wood buildings full of flammable alcohol burning and it can potentially move from one warehouse to the next. Each one holds around 55,000 barrels at various ages so losing one is incredibly costly. It happened to Heaven Hill in 1996, costing them 90,000 barrels of bourbon. It caused a river of fire over two miles long.
At one time the government charged taxes when the bourbon went into the barrel so if disaster struck, the costs were astronomical. Also, distilleries needed to employ people to wander through the buildings looking for barrels that leaked. Changes to the law have moved the tax collection to when the barrel is bottled, which is a little less financially risky. I marvel at the foresight and expense invested in the bourbon without any return until years later.
Most of the movement of the barrels is by brute strength. A couple guys have to roll the heavy barrels up that ramp and onto the table. From the table they can roll it onto the rick shelf. The art is getting the barrel to rest with the bung hole clocked at 12, more or less. It starts before they get it onto the shelf, so that 16 barrel diameters down the line it stops at the correct orientation. The first layer is filled from the floor, the second as shown above. For the third they flip that stand on end and reattach the ramps and push a little harder. Every rick has enough space between for a worker to walk along a plank to guide the barrel into position. It’s a lot of work.
To get the barrels to the second or higher floor, they use this hydraulic elevator.
This is one of the few nods to modernization. At one time they used a block and tackle and a mule team. The chains below have a hook at each end that would grab the barrel and hold it when hoisted by the center ring. The mallet is used to drive the bung into the bung hole and also to strike the stave next to the bung to pop it back out.
The wedges above are used to drive the bands down onto the barrel. Sometimes the bung won’t come out with a hammer so they use that cork screw looking thing.
That brass tool above is a bourbon thief, used to draw the liquid out of the bung hole for tasting. It’s essentially a giant brass straw that holds to bourbon in when you plug the hole at the top with your thumb.
Time to taste. The room is set up like a giant barrel.
The Star of David is a nod to the Shapira family who founded the distillery after Prohibition ended.
Every tasting has had water available, but this is the first time anybody has explained how to use it and what it does. It was a great lesson.
Remember what I said about their hours of operation? Closed on the weekends? Google lied to me. This shattered my whole world view. I don’t know who to trust anymore.
Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center
1701 W Breckinridge St
Louisville, KY 40210