Join us as we chat with Jodie Filiatreau, Artisanal Distiller at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in Louisville, Kentucky.
Jodie Filiatreau Joins Heaven Hill Distillery
In 1981 a young Jodie Filiatreau strode into the offices of the Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, KY. Acting on the advice of his uncle, the 20 year old asked for Max Shapira, then Vice-President of Heaven Hill. Max was not in charge of hiring and Jodie had no appointment, nonetheless, Max came out to the reception lobby to meet him. Jodie introduced himself and inquired about work at the distillery. Max listened to his appeal and sent him off to Human Resources. The rest, as they say, is history.
We met up with Jodie at his “office”, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in Louisville, KY, where he is the Artisanal Distiller. After greetings were exchanged, we headed down to the prohibition style speakeasy bar in the basement for bourbon and conversation. It’s been 41 years since Jodie walked through Max’s door and much has changed. To begin with, Max Shapira, has been President of Heaven Hill for over 25 years while Jodie has been the Artisanal Master Distiller for the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience since 2017.
So, Jodie, tell us about your early days at Heaven Hill
With so many years at Heaven Hill, our conversation first naturally steered toward all the various duties Jodie has performed. Back in 1981, Jodie said he was just looking for steady work and that he thought the Heaven Hill Distillery would fit the bill. And boy did it fit! He originally was hired on as a laborer on the second shift. Short stints as a forklift driver, a truck loader and as a utility operator in the distillery followed. Ultimately, Jodie found a more permanent home amongst the barrel warehouses. Once again he began as a laborer, then foreman, and finished his 28 years in warehousing as supervisor.
Bourbon Warehouses? I bet Jodie’s got some great stories!
After spending so many years outside minding the health and safety of all that golden nectar, Jodie had his share of interesting stories. He first explained that originally most barrel warehouses did not have lights. It was simply a safety issue, with fire being a large concern. The warehouses are enormous, now holding 20-50 thousand barrels each, although not quite that large back in the day. Flashlights were frequently needed. So it wasn’t uncommon to find a strange pair of eyes, belonging to creatures that are supposed to be living out of doors, staring back at him from between the ricks. Today, the newer warehouses have lighting and alleviate the safety issue by having power completely cut off once the work inside of that warehouse is done. Perhaps, there are also fewer surprises from glow in the dark eyes.
Time for a change
Although Jodie loved his time in the warehouse and a story such as this makes the job more interesting, after twenty-eight years it was time for a change. Jodie Filiatreau was ready to try something different. Timing can be everything and fortunately for this industry veteran, a new Heaven Hill venture was on the horizon in Louisville. The company would be opening Louisville’s first bourbon tourism experience, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, in downtown. As luck would have it, the EWBE would also feature its own artisanal distillery. So with the help of his daughter, Jodie put together a resume (none needed, at least for Jodie, back in 1981) and applied for the assistant distiller position. And in 2013, Jodie went from the barrel house to the still house; a new chapter with Heaven Hill had begun.
Things are different in an artisanal distillery
The still house came with a whole new learning curve for Jodie, as well as for his mentor and the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience’s first Artisanal Distiller, Charlie Downs. Even though both men had many years of experience at Heaven Hill, the two artisanal pot stills were a new twist. Heaven Hill uses column stills, and giant ones at that. The much smaller pot stills operate a bit differently from the column stills. Even so, the two carried on mashing and distilling and learning on the job, while putting their problem solving skills to the test when needed.
Charlie Downs retired in 2017 leaving Jodie Filiatreau to step into the lead role in the distillery. He really enjoys the artisanal process. While production is just one barrel a day, five for the week, the process keeps the distilling team plenty busy. How so? Jodie pointed out that everything is done by hand, from adding the grain to the mash cooker to cleaning said cooker. There’s no high tech here. The smaller scale however allows for ample experimentation with different mashbills. According to Jodie, they’ve distilled about 10 different ones.
Square 6 High Rye Bourbon
While the stills at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience have been busy distilling for the past 8 years, at last, one of those unique mashbills was ready for prime time last May (2021). Much excitement surrounded the first release of the Evan Williams Artisanal Distillery! The bottle was a 5 yr old high rye bourbon (52% corn/35% rye/13% malted barley) named Square 6. It was sold for the most part exclusively in the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience gift shop. This summer will again bring a new release to the gift shop. Jodie’s vault was locked as he would not spill the details, but if it’s anything like last years, it will be a bottle not to be missed.
What about Heaven Hill’s new Bardstown Distillery
The last topic of conversation drifted to the new Heaven Hill Distillery to be built in Bardstown by 2024. We were curious, since the press release had just been issued. According to Jodie Filiatreau, the Bardstown facility will initially add another 1300 barrels a day to the 1500 already produced at their Bernheim Distillery. It will be able to scale up considerably when the need arises. The truly interesting tidbit was the fact that Heaven Hill will once again propagate its own yeast!
Heaven Hill Yeast?
Up until 1996, when a massive fire destroyed Heaven Hill’s original distillery in Bardstown, they had propagated their own yeast. However, when the company purchased the Bernheim Distillery in Louisville in 1999 as its new production facility, they switched to using dry yeast. The yeast was still the same proprietary Heaven Hill strain that they had always been using, but it was just cultivated and converted to a dried form by an outside facility. So in 2024, when the new Bardstown distillery opens, the process will have gone full circle, with that same original Heaven Hill yeast once again propagated on-site!
Saying our goodbyes
The hands of the clock had made their full circle as well, and so our time with Jodie was up. We thanked him for his time and truly appreciated the insight we received from such an industry giant. It’s safe to say that Max made the right call that day back in 1981 by sending young Jodie Filiatreau off to HR where he did indeed find steady work. Steady enough to work his way to the top. Forty-one years and he’s still going strong. We didn’t ask about the R word, but I would suspect he would like to see more of his whiskey out of the barrel and into the bottle. We’ll be ready and waiting!
We hope you enjoyed our chat with Jodie Filiatreau, Artisanal Distiller at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. If you would like to read some more, check out our Evan Williams Bourbon Experience Review and our Square 6 Bourbon Review!
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