After Four Years of Aging, Northern Kentucky’s New Riff Bourbon is Ready to Meet the Masses

New Riff's hotly anticipated bourbon hits store shelves Sept. 1

click to enlarge New Riff's just-released bourbon - PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
New Riff's just-released bourbon

On a hot Tuesday afternoon in July, more than 2,000 people have gathered on the Purple People Bridge, lining the structure from Newport to Cincinnati in two haphazard rows. They’re here to participate in “The World’s Biggest Bourbon Toast” — and to get a taste of New Riff Distillery’s highly anticipated first batch of bourbon. After four years of aging, the spirit is bottled, branded, priced (at $39.99 suggested retail) and ready to hit 500 liquor distribution points on Sept. 1. (A first round of bottles was available for sale at the distillery on Aug. 1 but the entire allocation — all 2,100 bottles — sold out the first day.)

After listening to praise from Newport dignitaries and an impassioned sermon from distillery owner Ken Lewis on bourbon, growth and celebrating the relationship between Northern Kentucky and the Queen City, glasses are raised by those who haven’t already finished sipping their sample and the throng toasts to New Riff’s new era.

Even though each individual allotment of liquor is only enough to fill a shot glass, you can almost hear a collective sigh of relief and eager chatter as the group realizes the bourbon they have been patiently waiting four years for is actually, honestly really good.

From the Source

“Our mission statement is to be one of the great small distilleries of the world,” Lewis says, “not to be one of the most profitable distilleries of the world. We want to pay our bills, have a good lifestyle, but we want to be one of the great distilleries of the world.”

Named New Riff — as in a new riff on an old tradition — the company set out to look at bourbon making and its associated industries through a new lens. Since its inception, that innovative mindset has been the machination of Lewis.

“By design, I’m very independent. Always have been. An entrepreneur,” he says. “I’m a 100 percent owner (of New Riff). I don’t have any investors. No venture capital money. Those folks, inevitably, bring a different set of expectations. The whole thing is about making money; short-term thinking. I didn’t want any of that.”

This is Lewis’ third act. He went to school to be an educator and was an English teacher for a couple of years in the 1970s before taking over his uncle’s liquor store in his hometown of Louisville, Ky.

“I was 24 years old and I found myself in the liquor business,” Lewis says. “I never looked back. I loved it. I like being a retailer. I like dealing with people. I like the action. I like the multitasking. I really like the whole business. I threw myself into it.”

Fast forward several years and Lewis had launched an empire of discount liquor stores in Kentucky — he actually opened the first discount liquor store in the state. He had 400 employees spread across a handful of outlets, including at Newport’s The Party Source. He was living in Louisville with his family and driving back and forth from there to here, working 80-hour weeks.

“I didn’t like the whole scene,” he says. “I thought I was going to die rich but not be very happy.”

That’s when he decided to focus solely on The Party Source — it was his largest and most successful store. And for about a dozen years, he was happy.

But it was in the early 2010s while he was at The Party Source that he noticed the uptick in interest in bourbon. (According to the Kentucky Distillers Association, Kentucky bourbon production alone has increased 315 percent since 1999.)

“Because I owned The Party Source, I saw the tremendous demand,” Lewis says. “I saw it was starting to happen. I thought, ‘That’s interesting.’ Nobody else was doing anything in distilling in Greater Cincinnati whatsoever. I thought, ‘Maybe we could open a distillery?’ That idea grew and grew and grew.”

In the United States there is a three-tier liquor system; you cannot be a manufacturer of alcoholic beverages as well as a retailer or wholesaler. You have to pick one.

“I had to make a choice: If I wanted to jump into distilling and have a second career in my life — or third, I guess — then it was necessary for me to sell off (The Party Source), get out of the retailing, and I chose to do it,”    Lewis says.

He sold the company to his employees and The Party Source became — and still is — a group-owned ESOP or Employee Stock Ownership Plan. “It fit the values and the culture that I’ve always tried to incorporate in my businesses,” he says.

With that problem solved, Lewis was ready to start the next chapter.

Thinking Outside the Barrel

click to enlarge New Riff's original Newport campus - PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
New Riff's original Newport campus

Now, Lewis knew he wanted to start a distillery, and he had some capital from selling off ownership of The Party Source. But where do you put a distillery and how do you make alcohol?

The first part was relatively simple. Lewis already had the land (he still owned the land upon which The Party Source sits), location recognition and a big parking lot at The Party Source. He just had to move a million-dollar floodwall and construct a 30,000-square-foot modern distillery and event space on the property.

With that underway, the next part was assembling a team. Lewis and The Party Source’s fine spirits buyer Jay Erisman used their knowledge of the spirit industry and recruited Larry Ebersol, a retired master distiller from the Seagram’s plant in Lawrenceburg, Ind., to consult. With his knowledge and expertise in place, Lewis went out to build the rest of New Riff’s distilling team.

“I didn’t want to just go out and hire people from other distilleries,” he says. “If you’re in a global big heritage distillery, you tend to repeat. You want consistency. You tend to spend your entire career doing the same thing.”

Instead, Lewis and Ebersol wanted to find someone passionate and educated about fermentation that could make something new — a fresh take on America’s strictly regulated and only native spirit — so they started looking for beer brewers.

Enter Brian Sprance, now New Riff’s head distiller, whose pedigree includes brewing experience at the Cincinnati’s BarrelHouse and Sam Adams, but zero distilling experience and an initial limited knowledge about whiskey itself (“Whatever whiskey I drank was at like three in the morning,” he says).

“I was there when the building was still being built,” Sprance says. “I mean the first interview I ever had with Ken, he was walking through basically the ruins of construction. I had this vision of like Ken is the owner of The Party Source and he’s going to put this little pot still in The Party Source and I’d just be sitting in a corner of The Party Source.

“As he walked us through the building and he was like, ‘That’s going to be a 60-foot column still,’ I was like, ‘I don’t even know what a column still is.’ … He said no one else has had any part of running a distillery or making whiskey so it was just the opportunity to jump in feet first and learn a brand-new trade.”

Sprance also had the benefit of coming to distilling without ingrained ways of thinking about bourbon and other spirits.

“Let’s say they were to hire a distiller from Maker’s Mark, he’s probably going to come here and make Maker’s Mark,” he says.

In the United States, for bourbon to be bourbon, it must be made from a mash recipe containing at least 51 percent corn — the rest can contain rye, wheat, etc. It must be distilled at no higher than 160 proof, stored and aged in a new charred oak barrel at no more than 125 proof (there are no specific minimum aging requirements) and must be a minimum of 80 proof at bottling. And it can’t have any color or flavor additives.

Outside of that, the rest is up to you.

Since Sprance had zero experience making bourbon, but a lot of experience brewing beer, that’s where he started.

Finding the Spirit

click to enlarge New Riff head distiller Brian Sprance - PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
New Riff head distiller Brian Sprance

“As we started making bourbon, we started with kind of a traditional recipe, but as a brewer, there’s an arsenal of a million different ingredients out there that you can use,” he says. “Bourbon doesn’t have to be just corn, rye and barley. It’s got to be certain percentages, but you can really expand upon that on the other half of designing and creating mash builds.”

For the distillery’s signature bourbon, Sprance went high rye, meaning the bourbon’s second ingredient after corn is rye. Rye is finicky and hard to work with, but it makes for a spicier, more complex and full-bodied spirit. Lewis calls it “smooth but bold” and “aggressive.”

“I’m always most comfortable when I’m uncomfortable as far as when you’re creating, so I’m not afraid to think outside the box,” Sprance says. “A lot of brewers that I know, and distillers for that fact, always talk about wanting to have their creative license. Ken gave me my creative license and for a lot of people, that’s hard. You stomp your feet and wave your hands and say, ‘I wanna do what I wanna do,’ but when somebody actually gives it to you, it’s like staring off a cliff and being like, ‘So it’s just me here. OK.’ So you lean on a lot of what you’ve learned throughout the years.”

“Ken’s always said, ‘One of my jobs is to give you the best tools and just get the hell out of your way,’ ” he continues.

Sprance describes the taste of New Riff’s just-released bourbon as rich and big-bodied with an aroma of butterscotch, vanilla and some confectionery rye spices. It’s zesty with a backend of dark fruit.

And part of that flavor is derived from the water they use to make their bourbon, sourced from the Ohio River alluvial aquifer — serendipitously located 100 feet below the distillery in The Party Source parking lot.

“Water is important. You only have a couple ingredients,” Lewis says. “Some grains and some water. You throw in a little yeast. Boom. You’re making whiskey.”

“It’s extremely hard and very high in calcium and magnesium,” Sprance says of the aquifer’s water. “It’s very good for yeast health. But also, it’s one thing that’s extremely unique to our distillery. They call it the flora and fauna. I believe that translates into our natural wild yeast, and all of these bacteria that are floating around all contribute to the flavor of our whiskey. It’s, in my opinion, a very geographical flavor that I hope no one else can reproduce.”

The water, which comes out of the ground at 58 degrees, is also used to cool the distillery and stills. It’s cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

Other ingredients and techniques that impact the flavor of New Riff and create a terroir unique to the distillery are their non-GMO grains — corn from a family farm in Indiana (Lewis says it’s the same place Four Roses sources their corn) and the highest-quality rye and malted rye from Germany — as well as their lack of chill filtration. Chill filtration is what it sounds like: For liquors that are under 96 proof, you cool the spirit and filter it to remove any little particles and improve clarity.

Because New Riff is 100 proof — “We’d rather sell you whiskey than water,” says Lewis — they forgo chill filtration. It’s not necessary and it kills some of the inherent natural flavor.

“We want every last drop of flavor,” Lewis says. “(We’re) trying to be as natural as possible. It’s very akin to the natural wine movement. It’s like craft brewing. It is an important differentiation with big distilleries. That’s our flavor profile. Very, very bold. Spicy. Aggressive. Lots of mouth.”

New Riff bourbon is also “bottled in bond,” a distinction set by an act passed in 1897. It means the bourbon was produced in one distillation season, by one distiller at one distillery and aged for at least four years.

“It was a baseline of quality,” Lewis says. “We determined early on, it’s an old-fashioned concept, we’re going to bring it back. That’s part of our DNA.”

“To (be one of the great small distilleries of the world), you have to be all about the quality,” he continues. “One of the things that we eschew is selling our whiskey too young or too expensive. From the beginning we wanted it to be at least four years old.”

The Waiting Game

click to enlarge Barrels in an aging facility on the West Newport campus - PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Barrels in an aging facility on the West Newport campus

New Riff’s distillery and event space opened in the parking lot of The Party Source in 2014; that meant they had to wait until 2018 to start seeing a return on investment on their own bourbon. The distillery’s annual production capacity is about 8,000 barrels and they’re making roughly 3,500 barrels for themselves per year (the rest is contract distilling).

But without their own bourbon, they had to find a way to support themselves and entertain their 30,000 annual guests until, well, right now.

“We’ve survived for the first four years of the distillery on a combination of contract distilling, what we make for other people, but subsidizing it with the proceeds from the sale of The Party Source to my employees,” Lewis says.

Lewis bought barrels of high-rye bourbon from a Lawrenceburg, Ind. distillery six or seven years ago, bottled them and, very transparently, sold those under the name “O.K.I.” (named for the states it was served, bottled and distilled: Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana) — not New Riff bourbon — and used it for guests to taste after distillery tours. They also made Kentucky wild gin and a unique barrel-aged gin.

But during that time, they were still producing, distilling, barreling and aging their own spirit, waiting to see what it would taste like and if it would be successful.

“Ken is the most supportive boss,” Sprance says. “He told us straight up we’re going to fail (or) we’re going to succeed, but we’ll do it as a team. You see buildings going up and you see all of this other stuff going up and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh. This is all built on the quality of the whiskey and we’re still waiting and waiting.’ ”

As New Riff was producing and aging barrels, they had to expand — even before they had tasted the finished product, they needed more space to store their spirits. They had to take a gamble and keep growing with the assumption the public would like and support the results.

“Barrels take a lot of space. And they weigh a lot. They pile up on you,” Lewis says.

They filled a building they were renting and for the past two years have been sending barrels to age at Castle & Key Distillery in Frankfort, Ky.

“We knew all along we would need a second campus (besides The Party Source campus),” Lewis says. “We’re hemmed in. We’re constrained. We would need rickhouses. We would need a distribution facility. Finished goods. We’d eventually run out of offices. All those things have happened.”

Three years ago, Lewis bought two turn-of-the-century buildings on Route 9 in West Newport. They used to house Northern Kentucky’s Green Line busses and trolleys.

In the years since, he’s restored the structures, built new rickhouses and created space for New Riff to expand. The two rickhouses on the West Newport campus can hold 21,000 barrels. The other structure houses offices, a private tasting room and will eventually be home to an event space.

“We project that in about five years we’ll need another 18,000-barrel rickhouse, which ought to complete our needs,” Lewis says. “We’re not trying to grow, grow, grow.”

But they are trying to help bring commerce, jobs and tourism to that section of Newport. To “reinvigorate” that area, Lewis says.

Riffing Ahead

click to enlarge New Riff's West Newport campus - PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
New Riff's West Newport campus

“We’re at the beginning of a journey. Releasing the bourbon is the beginning,” Lewis says. “We’re going to hold back a third of everything we make to get older. Not principally to make more money but because our quality, determining our reputation to be a great small distiller of the world, that will be determined a lot more by our 8-year-old or 10-year-old bourbon than our 4-year-old.”

Within the next 18 months, New Riff will release a single-barrel bourbon, a barrel-proof bourbon, a 100 percent rye whiskey and some other creations Sprance has been working on — maybe something inspired by an oatmeal stout beer. By 2020, there will be a 100 percent malted rye on the market.

All of this will help increase tourism in the area and elevate Northern Kentucky as a bourbon destination.

“We’re a founding member of the B-Line,” Lewis says of a local bourbon tourism initiative. “The tourism thing is a big deal. Cincinnati is a natural gateway to the (Kentucky) Bourbon Trail. Whether it’s the beginning or the end. It makes sense to do a loop. Start in Louisville. Finish in Cincinnati.”

“That’s one of the reasons we built our second campus in West Newport instead of, like everybody else, going out and buying 150 acres out in the country where it’s a lot cheaper,” he continues. “We want to be loyal to Newport and to Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati. We want to have a place for tourism. People love barrels. We actually think there will be more tourism at that (West Newport) campus than (the Newport one), eventually.”

Lewis says having a significantly sized distillery in Greater Cincinnati is “a big feather in the cap of the area from a tourism standpoint.”

And that tourism not only helps support the local economy but also helps ensure the long-term employment of the loyal New Riff team, which currently has 27 or 28 members, including Lewis’ daughter as well as New Riff’s vice president of operations and general manager, Hannah Lowen; distiller Stephanie Batty; and director of communications, Amy Tobin. In a traditionally male-dominated industry, it’s worth noting that New Riff is one of the progressive distilleries putting females at the forefront, which Lewis says, “comes naturally (when) looking for quality.” 

click to enlarge New Riff vice president of operations and general manager Hannah Lowen - PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
New Riff vice president of operations and general manager Hannah Lowen

“The thing I love about New Riff is that, frankly, everyone actually gives a shit about what we’re trying to do,” VP Lowen says. “I think the commitment to our big goals and each other somehow translates to a quiet confidence in what we’ve been up to all these years. You never know how people will react subjectively — it’s whiskey and everyone has a unique palate — but objectively, we feel really good about what’s in the barrel. It’s been so fun to share.”

The all-in supportive mentality and excitement that’s inherent in the New Riff team is spreading to the general public as they start to buy into the cult of Ken and his vision of the future … and his bourbon.

“I grew up in the ’60s,” Lewis says. “That was what we said: You change the world by changing your tiny little corner of it. I still believe that. It’s in my DNA. The idea here is great sense of pride — 30 families having jobs that they really are passionate and care about. A sense that the employer has taken care of them. It’s a career position.

“This is what I want. This is not about me on personal level. It’s all about New Riff bringing that tourism, bringing that pride to Greater Cincinnati. Having had an influence on 30 lives, like how selling to the 100 employees at The Party Source influences those lives. It’s all about leaving the world a little better than the way I found it. My own little piece of the world.”

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