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Heaven Hill History

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The Christmas season is the biggest quarter for spirits sales and is the focus of every company's annual marketing plan. Christmas season marketing to the trade starts, well, now, before Halloween. I get a lot of marketing stuff at this time of year, not necessarily all holiday related.

In this spirit, I recently received a big package of stuff from Heaven Hill. Tucked inside all of the usual plugs were a couple of documents on historical subjects, one a list of Heaven Hill "milestones," another purporting to be a history of the Bernheim Distillery, and the third the first corporate brochure I can ever remember seeing from Heaven Hill.

Here are a few things I found interesting.

First, since some of what I'm about to write may sound critical, let me say that I accept that these are marketing materials created for marketing purposes. Marketing materials don't allow for a lot of nuance, especially about a subject (history) in which the audience has minimal interest. You have to keep it simple and sometimes that creates a (generally harmless) misimpression.

So I think these documents are fine for what they are and I'm not suggesting Heaven Hill should have done anything differently. This is very "inside baseball." About the only place where I think anyone would find this interesting is, well, here within our little bourbon-obsessive world.

The document "Bernheim History, 1891-2002" is good on key facts, although nowhere does it say what happened in 1891. Instead it starts with the Bernheim Bros. & Uri Distillery, built in 1897. Uri sold out and Bernheim Distilling Co. was formed in 1903. In 1911, another distillery was acquired and the company name was changed to United American Co. By the end of Prohibition, United American had partially dismantled the distillery and sold the property to Leo Gerngoss and Emil Schwartzhaupt, who combined the Belmont and Astor Distilleries and renamed them Bernheim Distillery. Schenley bought it in 1937.

At this point the manuscript says Schenley "subsequently began producing I.W. Harper."

While this is no doubt literally true, it suggests that the brand originated with Schenley after 1937. In fact, the trademark for the brand "I.W. Harper" was registered in 1879, by Bernheim Bros. Co.

I think the problem is that they're trying to mesh the history of the name ("Bernheim") with the history of the site, without telling anyone that those are two separate things until after Prohibition. What Gerngoss and Schwartzhaupt bought in 1933 was everything except United American's distillery. They just bought the name and "moved" it to 17th and Breckinridge, where they built a new distillery on the site of Max Selliger's Astor and Belmont plants. That's what they sold to Schenley in 1937.

The original Bernheim operation, which became United American, was further south, across the municipal boundary in Shivley. That's what opened in 1897.

Back in 1999, when Heaven Hill bought Bernheim (i.e., the distillery at 17th and Breckinridge), they issued a press release that said the site had been home to a whiskey plant ever since 1852.

The only thing I know of that happened in 1891 was a fire in the mash room at Belmont.

An interesting note about the current (1991) distillery. It was "built with the bricks from the old distillery and incorporating the old stills."

The "Heaven Hill Milestones" piece begins, interestingly, with the words "The Shapiras geared up Heaven Hill Distilleries at the close of Prohibition, filling their first barrel on December 13, 1935." No mention of the fact that Heaven Hill wasn't even the Shaprias idea and that it was Joe Beam who really founded the company.

Some of the other, more interesting facts:

<ul type="square"> [*]Evan Williams was introduced "in the 1960s." [*]Max Shapira joined the company in 1971. [*]Harry Shapira joined the company in 1982. [*]Elijah Craig, "the world's first 'small batch' bourbon," was introduced in 1986.

The new corporate piece introduces us to three key families in Heaven Hill's history, the Shapiras, Beams and Homels. Of course, it's Parker's line (appropriately) that they talk about. No mention of Mr. Joe.

I was very interested to see them weave in the Homel family story. Harry Homel was a founder of the James B. Beam Distilling Co. who sold that interest and came to Heaven Hill in the mid-40s, at the same time as Parker's dad, Earl Beam. He built the Heaven Hill sales organization, which was subsequently headed by his son, Leonard, and is now headed by his grandson, Jeff. That sales organization is actually a separate company, Heaven Hill - Evan Williams, Inc., of which Jeff Homel is president.

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