Ken Lewis spent 38 years as the owner of Bellevue, Kentucky liquor retailer The Party Source, building it into a $40-million-a-year business and becoming a Market Watch Leader along the way. But five years ago, Lewis switched careers and became a distiller. After selling The Party Source to his employees in 2014, he launched Newport, Kentucky-based New Riff Distilling.
New Riff rolled out its first products, New Riff Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon ($40 a 750-ml.) and Single Barrel Bourbon ($50), in the fall of 2018, followed by its Bottled-in-Bond rye ($48) in early 2019. The releases have garnered critical acclaim, with the rye recently earning a place on Whisky Advocate’s Top 20 Whiskies of 2019 list, finishing at No. 17.
New Riff focuses exclusively on bottled-in-bond and single barrel whiskies. “That’s our baseline,” says Lewis, adding that his vision is for the company to become one of the great small distilleries of the world. To help achieve that goal, he tapped the consulting services of master distiller Larry Ebersold, whose pedigree includes decades of experience at Seagram’s Lawrenceburg, Indiana distillery (today MGP). He also hired ex-brewer Brian Sprance, formerly of The Boston Beer Co., as head distiller. Jay Erisman, who worked at The Party Source with Lewis, is a co-founder and serves as vice president of strategic development.
While bottled-in-bond is the core focus, New Riff devotes an unusually high degree of attention to its single-barrel program. “For many distillers, single barrels can be a nuisance because they get in the way of production efficiencies—it doesn’t move the needle much to sell a few barrels to someone,” says Lewis. “But we expect to sell over half of our core products in single barrels. We’re also selling quarter- and half-barrels to the on-premise as well as to individuals and groups, so that people can become involved.”
New Riff has shipped hundreds of private single barrels to on- and off-premise accounts across the U.S. Potential buyers can visit the distillery and receive an education on production, aging, and tasting. “We’ll thief [sample] from the barrel for them, and they can taste through every one,” Lewis says. “We’ll do that for the trade, on- and off-premise. We encourage even our most experienced trading partners to send their employees here as a get-to-know New Riff experience.” The distillery is about 100 miles northeast of Louisville, and its location directly across the Ohio River from Cincinnati has been helpful in attracting visitors.
Further down the road, New Riff also plans to release branded expressions that go well beyond bottled-in-bond’s 4-year aging requirement. “We hold back at least a third of our production for further aging,” Lewis says. “Long-term, it will be older products that help establish our reputation, so we’re highly committed to making 8-, 10-, or 12-year-old whiskies.”
New Riff is also a contract distiller, although its own brands are taking a rising share of total output. Branded production this year will account for 5,250 barrels, or about 66% of a total production of 8,000 barrels. “Within about two or three years, around 90% of our production will be for our own brands,” Lewis adds. New Riff sold 23,000 cases in 2019, with an eventual goal of hitting the 65,000-75,000-case mark.
The portfolio is widely available in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire, with limited distribution in Nashville and a Michigan launch planned for this year. In some other markets, New Riff has been developing relationships with key retailers, including K&L Wine Merchants, Binny’s Beverage Depot, Total Wine & More, Gary’s Wine & Marketplace, and Happy Harry’s. “We’re looking to find first-class retail partners and develop long-term relationships, in terms of their support and brand-building,” says Lewis.