To folks in the Kentucky bourbon industry, he’s known as “that fermentation guy”. In fact, he’s been working in microbiology, fermentation science and chemical engineering since attending college in his native Ireland. But to those lacking that insider baseball insight, so to speak, Conor O’Driscoll is a new name to hear. However, since he’s just been named the distiller manager and master distiller for Heaven Hill, Kentucky’s largest single-site distillery, we at Distiller think it’s time to get to know him.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Distiller: After your transfer to the United States, how did you go from making cheese enzymes to making bourbon?
O’Driscoll: “When Pfizer sent me to Terre Haute, Indiana [from Ireland], it was for a three-to-six-month assignment. [But] after four months they asked me to stay. I came down [to Kentucky] for the weekend … Driving back to Terre Haute that Sunday evening, wrestling with the choice it came down to, ‘I’ll stay as long as it’s fun.’ Because I had had such a fun weekend. It’s still fun I’m glad to say!
But in the interim then—the next 10-year window—I thought, ‘Okay, well if it quits being fun, what then?’ Well, I’ll go back to Ireland and specifically go back to Dublin. Wouldn’t it be cool to get a job making Guinness in Dublin? With the ‘Guinness Plan B’ in the back of my head, I was starting to drink bourbon and I thought, ‘That would be a cool industry to get into.’
That was in 2002, which was long before bourbon tourism, bourbonism, the boom, any of that. And I knocked on doors for two years. Finally, in 2004, Brown-Forman hired me [as operations manager for Brown-Forman]..[and] I haven’t looked back since. It’s been fun and rewarding and challenging and all the good things.”
Conor O’Driscoll / Photo Credit: Heaven Hill
Distiller: So once you had the bourbon bug, you pushed yourself and your career in that direction?
O’Driscoll: “Yes, and at that time the master distiller roles were still generally filled by production people, but they were becoming more and more marketing [focused]…[Here at Heaven Hill] my title actually is distillery manager/master distiller. In that order. I’m running the distillery making the whiskey.”
Distiller: So the whiskey comes first?
O’Driscoll: “The whiskey comes first.”
Distiller: And if you get to trot out and do an appearance somewhere, great?
O’Driscoll: “Exactly. But there better be good whiskey flowing.”
Distiller: It sounds like the new role is an extension of what you’ve been doing since 2004 when you got into the industry, but faster in terms of volume and at a larger scale in portfolio breadth.
O’Driscoll: “Faster in that we fill more than 1,300 barrels a day. At other distilleries I’ve worked at, we might have filled 200 a week.”
O’Driscoll educating at Woodford Reserve / Photo Credit: Woodford Reserve
Distiller: Then there’s the new master distiller title and the marketing responsibilities that go along with that. Were there things in your career path that prepared you for that title as well?
O’Driscoll: “At Woodford Reserve—where I really cut my teeth and did most of my learning—I got asked to do a lot of tours, and not just the regular public tours but things like Camp Runamok, VIPs [and] stuff where you’ve got people who don’t necessarily understand the science of it. [But] they’re excited to be there and you want to give them the show, as it were, and explain why you’re doing it and convey the passion and what it takes to make whiskey. [While there I was] learning how to tell that story and do it well, while at the same time learning how to make good whiskey, make better whiskey, make more whiskey, keep the consistent quality and all that. So, yes.”
Distiller: Do you feel comfortable with these two titles, now?
O’Driscoll: “I do, yes. It’s going to be a challenge. But if you look at the lineage I follow—Danny, Craig, Parker, Earl—that’s quite the roll call there.”
Distiller: Heaven Hill has an enormous portfolio. It is iconic not just for individual products but also for having so many beloved brands. Is it daunting at all to take on the responsibility for something that large?
O’Driscoll: “I don’t think daunting is the right word. [It’s] challenging to really learn the portfolio and appreciate the differences between one or the other, but that’s the depth and breadth of the portfolio. We have a million and a half barrels in 56 warehouses—some in Jefferson County, most in Nelson County—the number of variables that you get from those and the different things you can do to mature whiskey this way or that way [is part of the challenge]. It’s kind of fun, and I’ve only scratched the surface at this point, but it’s a really fun surface to scratch.”
A rickhouse at Heaven Hill / Photo Credit: Heaven Hill
Distiller: In some distilleries they’re taking the tack of separating the concepts of distillation and maturation. But it sounds like you have responsibility for raw ingredients, process, maturation, selection, batching—all the way into bottle, is that correct?
O’Driscoll: “That is correct. You think about it, [when] you make great new whiskey, it’s got 40% of its flavor and zero color. You can’t even call it a [straight] bourbon at that point. You’ve got to wait at least two years and preferably four or more. It’s going to get sixty percent of its flavor and all its color from that, so that’s beyond critical … proper maturation and proper stewardship of that maturation is very, very critical.”
Distiller: Thinking about making whiskey requires looking at a very long timeline. Is there anything specific you’re thinking about that you want to accomplish across the next 10-20-30 years, anything that we should anxiously look forward to?
O’Driscoll: “The specifics are to maintain the quality; to maintain the consistency. The breadth of the portfolio speaks to the innovative mindset of Heaven Hill. Obviously most of that to date has been within the standard of identity, but really there is only so much you can do there—a little bit more rye, a little less wheat, whatever it might be. But what can we do with age, what we can do with innovative mash bills, what can we do with barrel finishes, what can we do with different types of wood? I dabbled in all of those in my previous roles and had some really fun experiments come out really well, and others that were just interesting. With a million and a half barrels, there’s a lot we could do.”
Distiller: What’s your favorite way to drink bourbon?
O’Driscoll: “Generally speaking, on the rocks.
I like it that way because when you take that first sip, it’s basically bottle proof and you get it as it was intended, if you will. But then as you drink it, and the ice melts, it opens up and you get to see the layers in there. It’s a good way to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were. The not-so-good whiskeys, the more dilute they get, the more defects tend to show up or the finish disappears or it’s just not what you thought it might be. But with the good whiskeys, the quality goes all the way to the end and the finish is there, the complexity is there, you can really access the different layers and the different notes that are in there.”
Distiller: Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you’re excited about right at the moment that you can share?
O’Driscoll: “The future, the future writ large!
This is a really exciting role. Heaven Hill’s been in business for 85 years. This distillery has been running for decades … to continue that legacy, to maintain consistency, maintain quality.
(whispering) Don’t screw anything up.”