Conor O’Driscoll began 2019 with a fresh start — taking the esteemed position of master distiller for Heaven Hill Distillery.
Serving as the family-owned company’s seventh master distiller in its 84-year history, he brings with him more than 15 years of experience, having worked in the industry from Brown-Forman to Angel’s Envy.
At a meet-and-greet dinner last month, the Irish native said he plans to continue operations as they are and, basically, “not screw anything up,” he joked. And with about a dozen whiskey brands in Heaven Hill’s catalog, each with its own adoring fans, it’s important to him to honor tradition and also implement innovation.
As a testament to Heaven Hill’s standards, its Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bourbon recently was declared “Best in Show Whiskey” at the 2019 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, only the second time a bourbon has won the top prize among all whiskeys from around the world, including scotch.
“Talk about basking in reflected glory,” O’Driscoll tells Insider in a recent interview. “I don’t have to point out that I had nothing to do with this whiskey, but what great timing — plus, it’s a nice coincidence that McKenna was also from Ireland. Maybe his spirit is watching over me?”
He says his first few months have been a whirlwind, serving as both master distiller and distillery manager of Heaven Hill’s Bernheim Distillery, located in west Louisville. He spends most of his days here when not traveling, and has enjoyed learning the ins and outs of the huge operation.
“All distilleries are cool, but this one, the largest bourbon distillery in the world, has a special charm,” says O’Driscoll. “It’s going to be fun crafting whiskey on this scale.”
He reiterates that is No. 1 goal is: Don’t screw it up. “Beyond that, my first focus has been getting to know the team and learning the operation. They’ve been making great whiskeys here for 84 years, so I’m looking forward to learning from them and seeing what we can do together.”
We had to ask if he has any special releases up his sleeve, and of course, he remains mum, other than letting us know the innovation team is always hard at work.
O’Driscoll says joining Heaven Hill has taken his career to the next level, and he’s looking forward to playing a role in its continued success.
“From the legacy of the Shapira family to the industry giants whose shoulders I now stand on, there’s been a lot to absorb, and I’ve had to pinch myself more than once,” he says. “It’s been a great move, though, and I’m excited for what the future holds.”
During his off-time, the distiller, who resides in Louisville with his family, likes to explore the bars and restaurants that make each neighborhood unique. Although he prefers drinking his bourbon on the rocks and occasionally neat, as of late he’s enjoyed trying it in cocktail form.
“There are some great cocktail bars and mixologists in town, and in the last week or so I’ve had fantastic Pikesville Rye Manhattans at both Red Hog and Hell or High Water,” he adds.
We caught up with O’Driscoll before another day spent at the distillery to ask him some very important questions …
What was your first concert?
I saw a lot of bands in a lot of dive bars while I was in college. The Waterboys and the Hot House Flowers were two that “made it” afterward. Probably the first big name I saw was Michael Jackson. Even in the pouring rain in Cork, Ireland, he put on one hell of a show.
What could you give a 40-minute presentation on with absolutely no preparation?
Other than whiskey!? Probably bread-making. If we time it right, we could make it a practical demonstration and enjoy the fruits of our labor at the end of the slideshow!
What job would you be terrible at?
I had a job where I sat in a cube and stared at a screen for eight hours a day. That was soul-destroying and I hated every minute of it. The work itself wasn’t hard, but having no outlet for creativity or self-expression made me dread going to work every day.
This might be the toughest question on the list! We are so spoiled for choice in Louisville. I’ve always been a huge fan of Jack Fry’s and have had so many great dinners there. Butchertown Grocery is another go-to, especially for those lunches where, all of a sudden, you’ve been there for three hours.
Red Hog is just around the corner from where I live, so we are there at least once a week — everything about that place is fantastic. Royals is my guilty pleasure — their cucumber salad would be good on any menu, anywhere. And, to round it out, Con Huevos for breakfast.
What is something you think everyone should do at least once?
At the risk of sounding cliché, the Kentucky Derby!
Where would you direct a newcomer of Louisville to get a feel for the city?
Wow, where to start!? Probably not with the Derby, not for a first impression at least. A tour of the older neighborhoods, checking out Frankfort Avenue, Bardstown Road and Dixie Highway. Definitely, include the Olmsted Parks and the Parklands of Floyds Fork and wrap it up with a walk across the Big Four Bridge. Maybe throw in a Waterfront Wednesday or a show at the Palace.
What keeps you here?
Well, my wife grew up in St. Matthews and our daughter was born here, so “family” is the first answer. Beyond that, though, I have been made to feel welcome since the first time I visited almost 30 years ago. I’ve made some great friends during that time and couldn’t imagine my life without them.
And, of course, where else could I have had this career and especially this opportunity with Heaven Hill?
This post has been updated with a correction: O’Driscoll is Heaven Hill’s seventh master distiller.