Meet the man who’s worked at all of Heaven Hill’s distilleries

There were times in Charlie Downs career at Heaven Hill Distillery that making bourbon was painstaking, laborious work and other times, it was so high-tech it felt like flying a spaceship.

By the time he retired in 2017 from his four-decade career in distilling, working was downright fun as he let tourists hammer in the seal on the single barrel of bourbon he made each day.

Downs is the only employee who’s ever worked in operations at all three of Heaven Hill’s distilleries. Today, as the company celebrates the groundbreaking of it first distillery in Bardstown 26 years since a monumental fire destroyed the Old Heaven Hill Springs Distillery where Downs began his career, it’s a thrilling homecoming of sorts for the now retired distiller.

Charlie Downs worked at three Heaven Hill distilleries before retiring rom the company, including the one that burned down. He is seen with some of the moments from his career with the Bardstown distiller. May 25, 2022

Charlie Downs worked at three Heaven Hill distilleries before retiring rom the company, including the one that burned down. He is seen with some of the moments from his career with the Bardstown distiller. May 25, 2022

The bourbon giant is preparing to add a fourth distillery to its legacy with the newly announced $135 million Heaven Hill Springs Distillery, which is named for the distillery that was destroyed, that’s slated to open by 2024. Having worked in all three of its predecessors, Downs was the perfect person to help paint a picture of Heaven Hill’s past and get grapple on what this new site could mean for its future.

And while Downs won’t be running the operation this time, he certainly had a unique perspective to share that led me to the bourbon bar at the basement of his home in Bardstown.

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The first thing to know, he assured me, was that all three distilleries he worked in were wildly different. They were all owned by the same company, but there’s really no comparing them.

It burned so clearly, you couldn’t see the flames

Downs began his career at Heaven Hill on the bottling line in 1976 and transitioned to a role working the graveyard shift in the distillery in a matter of months. Originally built in the 1930s, the original distillery rested at the bottom of a hill near a creek to the south of Bardstown, which in the early days of bourbon production had been necessary for an abundant water supply, but it also meant the layout of the operation didn’t completely make sense.

The Old Heaven Hill Springs Distillery, which is the namesake of the company's new distillery project in Bardstown.

The Old Heaven Hill Springs Distillery, which is the namesake of the company’s new distillery project in Bardstown.

Mash, for one, needed to be pumped from one building to another at a different part of the property. He has less than fond memories of the 65 or so stairs he needed to climb from the bottom of the distillery to the top multiple times a day.

“I don’t believe many people nowadays could work in that environment,” he explained. “That’s all you knew. That was your job, and if you wanted to work in that environment you had to do that. That was the physical requirement of that job … to run and hop from one area to another to do your job.”

When the fire that leveled the original distillery started on Nov. 7, 1996, he first heard about it over a radio call around 2 p.m. As bourbon barrels exploded like bombs and temperatures reached such heights they melted a semi trucks down to a metallic mess  on the charred earth, Downs wondered if he’d survive the day.

When he and everyone else at the distillery came out of the destruction alive, he wondered if the bourbon brand would rise from the ashes, too. By the end of the night, millions of gallons of bourbon that burned so clearly you couldn’t see the flames had gone up in smoke.

Flames rise at Heaven Hill Distilleries in Bardstown in 1996. Witnesses said heat from the fire could be felt a half mile away. 
 James Wallace/Courier Journal
Flames licking around buildings at Heaven Hill Distilleries in Bardstown lit up the skies as darkness began to fall. Burning bourbon flowed from warehouses, and witnesses said heat from the fire could be felt a half mile away.
Nov. 7, 1996.

Flames rise at Heaven Hill Distilleries in Bardstown in 1996. Witnesses said heat from the fire could be felt a half mile away. James Wallace/Courier Journal Flames licking around buildings at Heaven Hill Distilleries in Bardstown lit up the skies as darkness began to fall. Burning bourbon flowed from warehouses, and witnesses said heat from the fire could be felt a half mile away. Nov. 7, 1996.

High winds fueled by extremely flammable bourbon spread the fire quickly to the distilling building and seven warehouses — massive timber structures seven stories high and 200 feet long — all of which were reduced to piles of metal barrel hoops from the 90,000 barrels that were destoryed.

“You saw just piles and piles of metal rings,” Downs said. “You’re thinking the whole time ‘is Heaven Hill going to survive? Do I still have a job?'”

He did, of course. The company kept using its mash bills to make bourbon, but it temporarily moved its production to the nearby Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont for a year and then later to what’s now The Brown-Forman Distillery in Shivley.

Background: Heaven Hill Distillery announces plans for new $135 million distillery in this Kentucky city

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-   Between 125 and 150 firefighters fought the blaze just south of Bardstown. Officials decided to let it burn itself out, with firefighters remaining to make sure it didn't spread.-

-A firefighter sprays water in an attempt to control the fire at Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, Ky., on Thursday, Nov. 7, 1996. Fire destroyed more than six bourbon whiskey warehouses. Each warehouse contained at least 20,000 barrels of bourbon. Firefighters from more than ten fire departments responded. Firefighters reported that burning whiskey ran downhill from the site and set a stream on fire.(AP Photo/News-Enterprise, Jayme Burden)

– – Between 125 and 150 firefighters fought the blaze just south of Bardstown. Officials decided to let it burn itself out, with firefighters remaining to make sure it didn’t spread.- -A firefighter sprays water in an attempt to control the fire at Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, Ky., on Thursday, Nov. 7, 1996. Fire destroyed more than six bourbon whiskey warehouses. Each warehouse contained at least 20,000 barrels of bourbon. Firefighters from more than ten fire departments responded. Firefighters reported that burning whiskey ran downhill from the site and set a stream on fire.(AP Photo/News-Enterprise, Jayme Burden)

The fire punctuated the cozy community of Bardstown into a before and after timeline. Everywhere Downs went, people wanted to know where he was when it happened, how it started and what it was like to be right in the middle of it all.

“They knew that it was your job and your livelihood there too, but a lot of people didn’t understand,” he recalled. “They were overwhelmed by the intensity of the fire and how much destruction was there.”

‘Like sending a 10-year-old to pilot school’

In 1999 Heaven Hill purchased the old United Distillers plant in Louisville. Today this complex is known as the Heaven Hill Bernheim Facility.

In 1999 Heaven Hill purchased the old United Distillers plant in Louisville. Today this complex is known as the Heaven Hill Bernheim Facility.

Three years passed before Heaven Hill purchased the old United Distillers plant in Louisville at 17th and Breckinridge streets just southwest of downtown in 1999. That was a big move for the company, but also for Downs, personally. Coming into the city to work at what they named the Heaven Hill Bernheim Distillery was intimidating for a self-proclaimed country boy like himself. The old distillery at the bottom of the hill was surrounded by picturesque farmland and the new one butted up to urban neighborhoods.

And that was just looking at it from the outside.

The way he described it, going from the distillery at the bottom of the hill to this incredibly tech savvy operation was like stepping in and out of a time machine. At the time, he wasn’t very literate on how to use a home computer and now he needed to use one to learn to keep these machines pumping out 100,000 barrels of bourbon a year — up from the 48,500 he was used to at the destroyed Bardstown plant.

So the company sent him to Rochester, New York, for two weeks to train on the high-tech system.

“It’s like sending a 10-year-old to pilot school and learning how to fly a plane in two weeks,” he remembered. “It was overwhelming, and I called my wife every night and I said ‘I cannot do this, I cannot do this.’ Eventually I did.”

Charlie Downs worked at three Heaven Hill distilleries before retiring rom the company, including the one that burned down. He is seen with some of the moments from his career with the Bardstown distiller. May 25, 2022

Charlie Downs worked at three Heaven Hill distilleries before retiring rom the company, including the one that burned down. He is seen with some of the moments from his career with the Bardstown distiller. May 25, 2022

“How long did it take you to be comfortable in that space,” I asked, and he smiled at me.

“I never was” he answered, honestly.

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But then in a very different way, he got the opportunity to go back to the basics in 2013.

Heaven Hill is the parent company of the bourbon brand Evan Williams, which has a historical marker at the corner of West Main and North Sixth streets.

“In 1783, (Evan Williams) built his distillery on the banks of the Ohio River, distilling whiskey from corn on the east side of what is now 5th Street,” the inscription reads. “It is said to have been the first commercial distillery in Kentucky, shipping barrels by flatboat down the Ohio River.”

The company has always maintained an office downtown, but as bourbon tourism began to boom, Heaven Hill was eager to bring its production back to historic Whiskey Row in downtown Louisville. When the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience opened in 2013, it came equipped with a micro distillery capable of producing a single artisan barrel of bourbon a day.

The vision was to make bourbon loosely like the distillery’s namesake did in the late 1700s. That meant dumping grains into the cooker by hand, manually pumping that mash into the fermenter, and far, far fewer computers for Downs to learn.

A display at the Evans Williams Bourbon Experience. May 24, 2019

A display at the Evans Williams Bourbon Experience. May 24, 2019

And while the output was small, Downs was having more fun at work than he ever had before. He was able to interact with visitors and apply his decades worth of knowledge about bourbon and the company in a new way. He got see first-hand how excited people were about what he dedicated his entire career.

‘A new adventure’

When the time came for him to retire in 2017, Downs said most people were confused about why he’d step away from such an incredible gig.

He was 62, though, and after having a hand in three major chapters of the company, it was time to step down. Downs had seen so many people in the bourbon industry cling too long, and he’d promised himself that no matter where he was at his career at 62, he was going to call it quits.

So that’s how I found the Evan William Bourbon Experience’s artisan distiller emeritus about a month after the announcement of the upcoming $135 million distillery in Bardstown — happily retired and enjoying his in-house bourbon bar.

Heaven Hill President Max Shapira said in statement that the new project will “honor our long-time Bardstown roots while applying state-of-the-art equipment and processes to produce the highest quality American Whiskey.”

Charlie Downs worked at three Heaven Hill distilleries before retiring rom the company, including the one that burned down. He is seen with some of the moments from his career with the Bardstown distiller. May 25, 2022

Charlie Downs worked at three Heaven Hill distilleries before retiring rom the company, including the one that burned down. He is seen with some of the moments from his career with the Bardstown distiller. May 25, 2022

It’s been 26 years since the fire destroy that original distillery in Bardstown and 23 years since Heaven Hill relocated distilling operations to Louisville.

After all this time, I wondered if Downs had ever expected Heaven Hill to bring its distilling operation back to his hometown.

“No,” he said, thoughtfully. “I might go back and work for them now, since it’s here in Bardstown.”

And as he said this, I laughed.

“I was going to ask you how excited you were that you didn’t have to learn this new set of equipment,” I told him.

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“I’ve already learned how to fly an airplane or a spaceship,” he said, referencing his first days at the Louisville distillery. “So I’ll take on a new adventure.”

Renderings for the new distillery just announced by Heaven Hill Distillery.

Renderings for the new distillery just announced by Heaven Hill Distillery.

True, he’s probably got another two years before Heaven Hill Springs Distillery could welcome him onboard, anyway.

But he’s hopeful he can be part of this next chapter, even if it’s in a small way.

“I think it would be neat if they asked me to come back to be an honorary employee for a day or two,” he told me. “Then I could say I worked in all four distilleries.”

Features columnist Maggie Menderski writes about what makes Louisville, Southern Indiana and Kentucky unique, wonderful, and occasionally, a little weird. If you’ve got something in your family, your town or even your closet that fits that description — she wants to hear from you. Say hello at [email protected] or 502-582-4053. Follow along on Instagram and Twitter @MaggieMenderski. 

What we know about the upcoming Heaven Hill Springs Distillery

  • The $135 million distillery is slated to open before 2024. The groundbreaking was held June 6.

  • This is the company’s first distilling operation in historic Bardstown, since a fire destroyed the original distillery in 1996.

  • After the fire, Heaven Hill moved distilling operations to Louisville, while bottling, aging of whiskey, and other functions continued in the Bardstown area

  • Heaven Hill will build the new distillery on a vacant 61-acre site at 1015 Old Bloomfield Pike, off KY 245

  • Initial production is slated for 10 million proof gallons a year, or 150,000 barrels, and will have the capacity to ramp up to producing 30 million proof gallons, or 450,000 barrels, over time.

  • Heaven Hill will continue to age bourbon at existing locations and the Bernheim Distillery in Louisville will continue to operate at full capacity.

A timeline of Heaven Hill Distillery

1935 – Barrel No. 1 is filled on Dec. 13, and Bourbon Falls is the company’s first label

1942 – Heaven Hill, and many other distilled spirits production plants, are shut down during World War II and work with the government to produce alcohol for the war effort

1946 – Earl Beam leaves the Beam Company to succeed his cousin, Harry Beam, as Heaven Hill’s Master Distiller

1955 – Barrel No. 500,000 is filled on Sept. 30

1957 – Evan Williams Bourbon is introduced and becomes one of the nation’s leading Bourbons and Heaven Hill’s flagship brand

1960 – Earl Beam’s son Master Distiller Parker Beam joins Heaven Hill

1961 – Barrel No. 1 million is filled on July 21

1967 – A new bottling facility is built with a capacity of 2.5 million cases per year

1975 – Parker Beam is named Heaven Hill Master Distiller, succeeding his father, Earl

1976 – Barrel No. 2 million is filled on March 24

1983 – Parker Beam’s son Craig Beam joins Heaven Hill

1986 – Elijah Craig 12-Year-Old Bourbon is introduced, thus becoming the first “Small Batch” Bourbon

1988 – Barrel No. 3 million is filled on Feb. 18

1995 – Heaven Hill introduces Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage Bourbon, Elijah Craig 18-Year-Old Single Barrel Bourbon, and Henry McKenna Bottled In Bond Single Barrel Bourbon

1996 – A catastrophic fire destroys Old Heaven Hill Springs Distillery and seven warehouses on Nov. 7

1998 – Barrel No. 4 million is filled on Jan. 13

1999 – Heaven Hill acquires the historic Bernheim Distillery and the Old Fitzgerald Bourbon brand

2022 –  Heaven Hill Distillery breaks ground on June 6 on the Heaven Hill Springs Distillery, recognizing a historic Bourbon Capital Homecoming

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Charlie Downs has worked at all of Heaven Hill’s distilleries