New Riff Distilling opened in 2014 in Newport, KY, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, OH. New Riff sells a variety of products today, including Kentucky Wild Gin, New Make un-aged whiskey and an older bourbon called OKI Reserve. In 2018, New Riff's bourbon and rye whiskey will be ready for the market as well. Bourbon and Barns recently caught up with New Riff's VP of Operations and General Manager Hannah Lowen to talk about what's going on at the distillery in Northern Kentucky.
Bourbon and Barns: How did New Riff Distilling get its start?
Hannah Lowen: New Riff opened in May of 2014, but the idea to open an independent Bourbon distillery was hatched a handful of years before that. Coming out of the Kentucky retail liquor industry, our owner and president Ken Lewis saw Newport, Ky. as the best place in the country to make quality craft Bourbon, firmly based in Kentucky, but with a new riff on an old tradition. This new riff on Bourbon would be Modern, Urban, and Quality Driven. Making a huge change in his career and following his entrepreneurial roots, he set forth on putting together a team of so-called corporate refugees all working toward a pretty lofty goal: to one day be considered one of the great small distilleries of the world.
BB: How big is the distillery?
HL: At New Riff we often describe ourselves as very big for a little guy, and very little for a big guy. We currently produce about 7,500 barrels a year, which compared to many of our colleagues n the craft distilling universe is a ton. However, compared to our Kentucky Bourbon Brethren, it's a drop in the bucket. We are patiently waiting until our Bourbon and Rye turn four years old, as we believe those extra years are worth the wait. Our bottled portfolio now is limited to our Kentucky Wild Gin, New Make un-aged whiskey, and a merchant bottling of older Bourbon, O.K.I Reserve. All of these pale in comparison to the cases we'll have out in the world come the end of 2018. As far as staff goes, the distillery is also home to the bustling New Riff Event Center, and we have close to 25 full time employees, with many other part time folks.
BB: What products does the distillery offer?
HL: Right now, we offer O.K.I Straight Bourbon Whiskey, aged 10 years and put forth in a handful of expressions and finishes; our Kentucky Wild Gin, and Bourbon Barreled Kentucky Wild Gin; and finally New Make Bourbon and Rye (an un aged bottling of what will become our New Riff Bourbon and Rye). We focus a vast majority of our energy in producing Bourbon and Rye whiskeys that won't be bottled until they are atleast four years old, however, we're getting close, and should see those releases in late summer/fall of 2018. We also have a great early adopter single barrel program known as the Ranger Program, which has been a huge success for us. https://newriffdistilling.com/riff-ranger/
BB: Can you describe how the distillery came up with the name OKI? (I really like the OKI t-shirt where the period between the letters is the shape of each state. That’s very clever!)
HL: Our O.K.I. Straight Bourbon Whiskey really embraces the incredible lost history of Greater Cincinnati’s distilling history. We don’t distill OKI (in fact, it's distilled in nearby Lawrenceburg, Indiana, at a local distillery dating from 1847) but we do age and select the barrels and bottle it in time-honored Cincinnati fashion. Basically, the idea behind O.K.I was to find a way to be transparent and tell the story of a whiskey we love and respect, but did not distill, and to honor the whiskey traditions of Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati. Thus the name. It stands for 'Distilled in Indiana, Bottled in Kentucky, and Loved in Ohio." We have to give props to the design firm we worked with, BLDG, out of Covington, who translated those ideas and plans into the visual elements.
BB: When will your bourbon and rye whiskey be available?
HL: Our Bourbon and Rye will be released in late summer or fall of 2018. Once you've waited four years for a brown spirit to properly mature, we don't want to rush the last couple of months, so I don't know the exact date. We will be keeping about a third of our production back for further aging and older releases down the road as well. We believe in quality over just about anything else, and waiting for these whiskies to really come of age before we send them out into the world is a big deal to us. I will say, they're tasting mighty fine, and being patient is becoming increasingly difficult.
BB: Can you share the mash bill for your bourbons and whiskeys?
HL: Of course, we share our mash bills and processes regularly on our tours, and would be happy to. We are a pretty rye-centric Bourbon distillery, mostly because we all love that flavor profile, the spice and liveliness, and because we like a challenge—rye is such a tough grain to wrestle with, but we think it's worth the headaches. Our New Riff Bourbon mash bill is 65% Corn, 30% Rye and 5% Malted Barley. And our New Riff Rye Mash bill is 95% Rye and 5% Malted Rye.
BB: What can visitors expect on a tour?
HL: We offer free tours of the distillery six days a week and take visitors through the entire distillery and distillation process from grain silos to barrels. We also try and give a sneak peek of our event spaces, as long as they're not booked. Our tours guides are knowledgeable and passionate about Kentucky Bourbon and since we're a smaller Kentucky Distillery you really get a first-hand look at everything. Tours usually take an hour including a free tasting. We are currently under construction at our warehousing campus which is about two miles from the actual distillery. We're hoping to have tours and a tasting room up and operating there by early 2018.
BB: I know the distillery has a beautiful space that is available for weddings and special events. Has New Riff been a popular location for these events?
HL: Well, thank you. We think it's pretty nice. The Event Center has been a huge success for us—we thought it would be a hit, but it's even more successful than we imagined. Weddings, business meetings, community and non-profit events, trade shows—you name it, we've had them in the building. We believe the Event Center is a huge part of our marketing plan. A little over 30,000 people visited last year, and a majority were here for events. Hopefully they are associating a high quality positive experience with our brand. Maybe in a couple of years, they'll think "Hey I've been there, let's try their product."
BB: I know the distillery has a goal of becoming one of the great little distilleries in the world. What do you have to do to accomplish that?
HL: As I mentioned above, we find ourselves in a interesting middle ground between the heritage Bourbon distilleries and the wave of craft distilleries coming online. We believe what makes us different is our all-out commitment to quality. Our commitment to becoming one of the best small distilleries of the world means we don't cut corners in production (53 gallon barrels, well water drawn directly from an alluvial aquifer, all-copper Vendome stills, no chill-filtration in bottling), we are patient in the aging process, we hire, train and compensate our staff in a fair, competitive and kind manner, and most importantly that we remain independently owned. We do not want to compromise quality for profit, we want to preserve doing things the slow and careful way, the continuation of traditional drinkways. We'll never rival Jim Beam on price, or Corsair on experimental whiskeys, but we think we've found our niche doing things the right way for the right reasons.
BB: What is your favorite bourbon cocktail and how do you make it just right?
HL: My favorite cocktail is a solid Manhattan, made with a great vermouth, Angostura bitters, and a splash of cherry juice from the jar. Honestly, I usually make them with Rye instead of Bourbon, I like a little bite to go along with all that sweetness.