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Issue 49 - A Phoenix from the flames

Whisky Magazine Issue 49
July 2005

 

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A Phoenix from the flames

It's nearly 10 years since a major fire all but destroyed a great part of Heaven Hill. But the distillery's now thriving and going from strength to strength. Charles Cowdery reports

The flames could be seen for miles.

The heat could be felt a half-mile away. Ablaze fuelled by alcohol and oak burns like nothing else; blue-white, clean, and very intense. The best firefighters could do was contain it.

No one was seriously injured, but the property damage was catastrophic: 7.7 million gallons of aging bourbon, seven warehouses, a 60 year old distillery and three fully-loaded grain trucks, all destroyed.

Executives at Heaven Hill prefer not to discuss The Fire. They do not intend to commemorate its 10th anniversary next November.

“Yes, there was a fire, but it didn't cause any major changes,” says Max Shapira, company president. “It's not a factor in our decision-making today. The company did not miss a beat.” Well and good, but a fire from which rivers of blazing bourbon flow like molten lava, igniting two miles of nearby creek and making crackerjack video for the evening news; such an event forces itself into the story.

Since The Fire appears not to have been transformative for the company, I'll use it as a metaphor. Kentucky's Heaven Hill Distillery has faced many challenges in its 70 years. It literally has been tested by fire, but buffeted even worse by a volatile industry in which brutal consolidation has caused many much larger organizations to crash and burn.

Today, the industry of which it is part is enjoying a rare interlude of peace and prosperity, and Heaven Hill is thriving.

Heaven Hill calls itself America's largest independent fa...

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