Twenty years ago, Ken Lewis had a vision.
When he purchased a plot of land that was, essentially, a flood berm, people laughed. But in the past two decades, he’s transformed an empty space — conveniently located at the gateway to Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail — into a successful business and distillery. And while he made it look easy, getting there was a long labor of love.
“Forget experience,” Lewis says. “Pick heart, soul, and passion.”
That passion started with him building and running Party Source in Bellevue — which he sold to his employees in 2014 as an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) — and has led to his current venture: bourbon.
He wanted New Riff Distilling on the same property as Party Source because of its location in Kentucky — where the bourbon history is strong — and across the river from Cincinnati, where it would still be part of the urban core of the city.
So he moved the flood berm dirt behind the Party Source, made a new parking lot, and built a floodwall, creating a modern, urban space to distill an old favorite.
“This drink that was once your grandpa’s old dusty bottle that no one cared about — over the last 10 or 15 years — people were starting to get really excited about,” says Hannah Lowen, vice president of operations and general manager at New Riff Distilling. “They (Lewis and co-founder/fine spirits manager Jay Erisman) were seeing more and more interest in bourbon.”
“With the rise of craft beer, there was the beginnings of craft spirits and whiskeys out in the world,” she continues. “And I think the two men, being the very smart people they are, were like, ‘Well this is an interesting idea. Here we are in Kentucky, the epicenter of bourbon with this multi-hundred year history and all of the great resources that you need to make bourbon, but we’re also part of a metro area.’”
New Riff opened for events and tours in May of 2014 with a limited supply of their own Kentucky Wild Gin, made from local, wild-foraged botanicals, and their O.K.I. brand (distilled in Indiana, bottled in Kentucky, and enjoyed in Ohio), sourced from Midwestern Grain Products (MGP).
Every bottle is made on-site in Newport.
As of August 1, however, they officially began selling their own bourbon, which has been in aging in barrels for four years.
And while the vision has so far been a success, the process to get there was long. Distilling whiskey is a slow process. To do it right, New Riff enlisted Larry Ebersold, who was the master distiller at Seagram’s (now MGP), to train Brian Sprance, New Riff’s head distiller. By tapping into the Ohio River Alluvial Aquifer, situated directly below the distillery, New Riff has saved money by using the water to cool mash and condenser coils, which allows spirits to be bottled without chill filtration, showcasing the unique characteristics of each barrel.
All along, the idea was to put a new spin on an old product — hence the name, New Riff, which comes from the founders’ love of music and a desire to remain transparent.
“Bourbon is a very old song that has been played for hundreds of years and we’re not trying to write a new song,” explains Lowen. “We love the song. We love bourbon. We’re just putting our own spin, we’re doing our own riff.”
“New Riff is proudly an urban distillery, we don’t have a 200-year history, no one’s grandfather was a moonshiner and even from the inception of the idea … they were going to create that story,” she continues. “They were really proud and interested in doing something new and modern.”
The transparency extends to the building as well — the approximately 30,000-square-foot space is enclosed in glass, allowing people to see every part of the process. Building their brand, explains Lowen, was the product of wanting to do things the right way, which can be difficult when you don’t yet have your own product to sample.
The nearly 30,000-square-foot space hosts everything from tastings to weddings.
One thing that helped was their two event spaces. Although they max out at around 200 people, it’s a cozy place to host tours, tastings, cooking classes, pairings, all-day business seminars, and smaller wedding receptions with sweeping views of the Ohio River and downtown Cincinnati.
“The event center, the whole idea if we bring people into this building — whether they’re at their cousins wedding, a tasting, or they’re at a dinner with a local chef, or they’re on a tour of the distillery, and they have a really nice experience, you know, four years later, maybe they see that bottle on the shelf or at a bar and they think, ‘Oh, I remember New Riff, that was great, we had such a good time,’” says Lowen.
Without an advertising budget, it helps to make these organic connections.
“We actually had a couple that came on a tour for a first date and then they got married here a couple of years later,” she says. “Bringing people in and meeting them on our turf and hopefully helping them drink the ‘New Riff Kool-Aid’ a little bit has paid off.”
Hard work and dedication have paid off as well. As Lowen explains, they’ve grown up a bit, both in patience and size. The team has gone from about 11 full-time employees to more than 30, and they’ve built a second campus in West Newport where all of the barrel warehousing, storage, shipping, receiving and bottling takes place.
“We joke around here that you have to put on your ‘bourbon goggles’ because the timeline in this industry is so different than most of the rest of commerce,” Lowen says. “We look at things in decades-long scale. We’ll be sitting around and we’ll decide we want to make a specialty bourbon and ‘hey, this’ll be a fun thing to do’ and we make it and you know, it takes a few weeks of planning, three days of fermentation, and then we know it’s going to sit in the barrel for seven or eight years.”
“In some ways even though that was the epic journey just to get to this point,” she continues, “it’s really now just the very beginning of a company.”
New Riff Distilling is located at 24 Newport Way in Newport, KY. Call 859-261-RIFF to schedule tours, tastings, and events.
The right amount of holding on while letting go
To learn more about how New Riff became an overnight success — 20 years in the making — head to Brandemonium 2018 at the Westin Cincinnati (21 E. Fifth St.) on Oct. 4 at 4:10 p.m. to hear Ken Lewis, Hannah Lowen, and Amy Tobin, director of communications, speak about leaving behind the largest liquor store in the nation with the mission to become one of the greatest small distilleries in the world.
To register for the event, which runs from Oct. 2–5, visit Brandemonium 2018.