When Copper & Kings launched in 2014, it was husband-and-wife duo Joe and Lesley Heron’s mission to bring American brandy to the Louisville, Kentucky market—also known as the heart of Bourbon country. Once people began visiting its state-of-the-art distillery, Copper & Kings quickly became ingrained in the community. Over the years, the company has seen mounting success with its brandies, while also expanding into gin, liqueurs, absinthe, cocktail modifiers, and occasional special releases. At press time, Copper & Kings was newly acquired by Constellation Brands, which originally took a minority stake in the company in 2017.
“We’ve always been entrepreneurs who look at market space versus marketplace, and we’re much more interested in what the next thing might be versus what’s currently ‘in,’” says Copper & Kings co-founder and co-owner Joe Heron. “We’re market makers in many ways; we identify the gap in the market, enter it, and then make it real and tangible.”
Heron sees the Copper & Kings consumer base as 50% whiskey drinkers. “They gravitate to our brand, as something to explore outside of whisk(e)y, Bourbon, or rye,” Heron says. “We get the domestic brandy drinker that’s looking to trade up. Of course, we also get the Cognac drinker who’s looking for something different; the general gin drinker aiming to branch out from mainstream brands; and an umbrella of people who are cocktail enthusiasts.” Heron says the typical consumer is between 30-45 years old, and generally educated and affluent. Copper & Kings currently distributes its products across 43 markets in the U.S.
The Herons decided to launch Copper & Kings because they saw a market for brandy in Louisville and across the U.S. According to Joe Heron, there was a sizable gap between domestic value brandy and Cognac. “There was a hole between $15 and $50, and that’s where we saw an opportunity,” he says. “In 2014, no one spoke about American brandy. Now it’s become a category of its own, and we’re quite proud of that.” The company depleted 20,000 cases of brandy in 2019, according to Heron.
Copper & Kings’ most recent brandy releases are its Northern Soul Michigan apple brandy, aged in hard cider casks from Michigan cidery Vander Mill, and its Way Up West American brandy, aged in Kentucky Bourbon barrels and then American single malt whiskey barrels (both $65 a 750-ml.). The portfolio also includes American Apple brandy ($35), American Craft grape brandy ($35), Butchertown brandy ($55), Floodwall apple brandy ($45), and the unaged Immature brandy ($30), and Heron notes that pear and peach brandies are in development. “Our American brandy isn’t staid and traditional,” he says. “It’s modern and well-designed, and has a personality.” Copper & Kings uses grapes from California and apples from Michigan.
Copper & Kings often partners with distilleries on novel barrel finishes to innovate its brandy offerings. In the past, for instance, Heron has worked with Kentucky Peerless Distillery—also based in Louisville—on an American brandy finished in rye whiskey barrels; plus, Peerless crafted a single-barrel rye whiskey aged in Copper & Kings American absinthe barrels. The company has also worked with Chicago’s F.E.W. Spirits on its Via Chicago brandy. Some other special brandies in the Copper & Kings portfolio include Cadillac Walk, a Colombard brandy finished in Tequila barrels; 3 Marlenas, an apple brandy aged in Tequila barrels; and Riding With The King, a Muscat brandy aged in red wine barrels. All limited releases retail at $65 a 750-ml. “We look at the market very carefully and we innovate with a short-term paradigm, say one year of barrel-finishing to much longer periods for high-end, ultra-premium innovations,” Heron says.
Copper & Kings first stepped beyond brandy in 2014 with absinthe, aiming to put an American spin on the style. The distillery produces two absinthes, Alembic Blanche and Alembic Barrel Finished, both retailing at $55 a 750-ml. The absinthes start out as Muscat brandy, which is double-distilled in American copper pot stills. Like the rest of the spirits, the absinthes are non-chill filtered. They contain botanicals including grande wormwood, anise, fennel, and hyssop. Copper & Kings also intermittently produces limited-release absinthes, like its juniper barrel-aged offering.
In 2017, Copper & Kings moved into the gin space. Its gin portfolio encompasses several expressions, including The History of Lovers; The Moons of Juniper; The Ninth, A Symphony in Orange; and American Dry gin (all $35 a 750-ml.). Special releases include 1495 Guelder’s gin and L’Inspecteur gin. “As we got into gin, we realized our distilling competence was higher than we knew,” Heron adds. “And making gin on an innovative non-neutral spirits platform gave us a differentiated product, rather than just another dry gin using grain neutral spirits as a base.” Last year, Copper & Kings depleted more than 5,000 cases of gins, according to Heron, with The History of Lovers rose gin emerging as the bestseller.
Gin also gave Copper & Kings extended seasonality. “Brown spirits tend to surge from October through March, while white spirits like gin tend to see popularity from spring until the fall,” Heron says. “Gin gave us that summer drinking occasion—something brandy didn’t do.”
Also in 2017, Copper & Kings put out a line of cordials under its Destillaré label. The lineup includes Orange Curaçao, Intense Café, Intense Chocolate, Intense Pomegranate, and Mistelle (all $35 a 750-ml.). “We started with cordials because of the popularity of Sidecars,” Heron says, referencing the classic cocktail traditional made with Cognac, orange liqueur, and lemon juice. But soon after the cordials were released, Heron found that more people were using them for modern drinks like Margaritas than for older recipes.
Heron says that when Copper & Kings first began observing the liqueur market, there was a lot of “cheap and sweet” to be found. To avoid being categorized in that space, he took another approach, infusing liqueurs with honey and using a double-distillation process. Heron cites cordials as a space ripe for innovation. “We look for ways that are not only distinctive, but also differentiated.” For example, the Destillaré Intense Café non-chill-filtered coffee liqueur is made with brandy infused with fair trade arabica cold brew coffee, Madagascan vanilla, and cardamom. The mixture is blended in oak barrels and infused with honey at the end.
The company puts out about four special products a year “in a non-Covid universe,” Heron says, noting that those offerings occasionally go beyond the halo of brandy, gin, and absinthe, extending to categories like dessert wine. He adds that the distillery’s range is what makes it exciting. “You have an opportunity to talk to a whisk(e)y drinker in a language they understand and appreciate, while offering them different products,” he says.
Heron is particularly excited about Copper & Kings’ cocktail modifiers, first launched in 2018. The full lineup includes Old Fashioned brandied cocktail cherries ($15), as well as Old Fashioned, Alembic gin, and Alembic Red cocktail bitters (all $10), and Red Chile Margarita salt ($6).
“The modifiers started as an idea to succeed in the bar space,” Heron says. “Then it became a substantive business because it was a good price and was American-made from Oregon.” Heron explains that not many craft distilleries enter the drink modifier space, so Copper & Kings had ample room to play there. “We had sort of a leg-up on Luxardo, which is very candy-like and imported from Italy.” Copper & Kings’ cocktail cherries are juicy, rather than small and candy-like, and stemmed.
The cherries and bitters have seen an increase in sales ever since the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded, as people have taken to building up their bars and mixing their own cocktails while stuck at home. “Our cocktail cherry business is doing well online,” Heron notes.
Copper & Kings sits in a dazzling 30,000-square-foot property in Louisville’s Butchertown neighborhood, filling half a city block. Staffed by 25 full-time employees, the space includes a first-floor distillery and barrel cellar, along with an outdoor 4,000-square-foot butterfly garden, a reflecting pool, and a large courtyard including a big barn, which—when there’s not a public health crisis—is the setting for frequent events such as weddings, gin and tiki festivals, and movie nights.
On the building’s second floor sits an impressive art gallery featuring a variety of artwork, from hanging sculptures crafted from recycled materials to rock and roll photography (Heron is an avid music fan—his stills are even named after Bob Dylan songs). Also featured are works that Heron commissioned from local artists for the labels of limited releases. When there aren’t pandemic-related restrictions, the gallery is used for brandy and gin tastings and other events multiple days a week.
“Music, art, and invention are three huge pillars for us,” Heron says. “The distillery is our vehicle to be part of the community, and we have to be part of the community before we’re a purveyor of spirits.” The Copper & Kings property is near bars, restaurants, and other shops, and in normal times draws approximately 4,000 visitors a month, when it offers nearly hourly tours from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. every day.
Perhaps the most notable part of the distillery is its third-floor bar, Alex&nder. The bar has become a huge part of the company since its launch in September 2018 after legislation passed in Kentucky allowing distilleries to sell alcohol by the glass on-premise. “That was a financial godsend, because we started selling much more product here, and we kept the margin because we didn’t have to share it with a retailer or distributor,” Heron says.
Some of the cocktails at Alex&nder—each featuring Copper & Kings spirits—include classics like the Old Fashioned ($10), Sazerac Deluxe ($12), and Vieux Carré ($12), as well as more inventive drinks like the Paper Tiger ($12), which mixes American Craft grape brandy, Plantation Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple rum, pineapple juice, house-made chile-lime shrub, and lime juice, and the Rosalita ($11), comprising Destillaré Intense Pomegranate liqueur, Casa Noble Tequila, lime juice, and simple syrup, rimmed with chile salt. The bar also offers small bites and desserts.
“It’s an elevated, beautiful bar with the best view of downtown Louisville,” Heron says. At Alex&nder, guests can get a clear understanding of Copper & Kings products and learn how to properly enjoy them. Plus, bartenders can experiment; Copper & Kings employees have created wine cocktails like the Everyday Superhero, which features Merlot and American Craft grape brandy, and the Guns and Rosé, which mixes Immature brandy with Band of Roses rosé, raspberry syrup, lemon, and mint. These cocktail creations and more are listed on Copper & Kings’ impressive and accessible website, Copperandkings.com, which includes a blog and store.
“Consumer engagement is pivotal right now,” Heron says. “The website allows us to offer rich information to consumers, as well as communicate our values clearly.” Heron adds that Copper & Kings’ social media use has increased since the pandemic shutdown. The brand has pages on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter and also creates playlists on Spotify and uploads videos to YouTube. A recent YouTube video posted to Copper & Kings’ profile in May featured Heron in conversation with Steve Ury of Serious Brandy.
Copper & Kings prides itself on its commitment to upholding principles of nondiscrimination and sustainability. “Trust and reliability were the original pillars of brands, but now we need to demonstrate these values,” Heron says. “Our value system starts with nondiscrimination and environmental responsibility.”
The distillery has a sign near its entrance that states “All people welcome,” and in terms of environmental responsibility, Heron maintains the butterfly garden—planted with milkweed—and keeps beehives on the premises. The distillery also relies upon solar panels and uses repurposed shipping containers. “We’re one planet,” Heron says. “There’s a moral responsibility there.”
And because Copper & Kings grows some of its own fruit for its brandy and other spirits, looking after pollinators and sustainable actions are crucial. “This goes for all alcohol,” Heron says. “Keeping a distillery is actually an agricultural artform.”
This past spring, Copper & Kings had to make some tough decisions in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Everything shut down on March 17 and it wasn’t just a punch in the stomach, it was a punch in the face,” Heron says, explaining that there was a huge profit loss since the distillery’s events and tours had to be cancelled and Alex&nder was closed. In mid-July, Kentucky began to allow direct-to-consumer (DTC) shipping within the state, though many of the details still remain to be sorted out. “There’s hope that that reciprocity will allow for shipping outside of the state quite soon,” Heron adds. “We’re excited about DTC because it gives us an opportunity to form relationships with consumers across the country, not just in Louisville.” At press time, things were gradually re-opening, though from March through the summer months the distillery was relying heavily upon delivery and curbside pickup.
Heron has hope that once a coronavirus vaccine is introduced, operations will start to get back to normal in the beverage alcohol industry. “But from a hygiene point of view, people will be extra careful for a long time,” Heron says, adding that he knows he is leaving Copper & Kings in good hands with Constellation Brands. “Of course, nobody knows anything concrete—we don’t have a crystal ball. First, we have to survive this period.”