Ken Lewis saw the bourbon boom coming from a mile away. The former owner of Party Source, an encyclopedic Newport, Ky.-based liquor superstore across the river from Cincinnati, spent his spirits world career mainly as a retailer, providing him with real-time information on emerging trends and buying patterns.
“I got the idea to start a distillery maybe 10 years ago, on a whim,” Lewis says. “Bourbon was just starting to really come into its own, and there were no other distilleries in the Cincinnati area at that time. I saw an opportunity, and I took it.”
Divesting his Party Source interests, Lewis teamed with Jay Erisman to found New Riff Distilling Co. in Newport in 2014. Although Lewis was certainly well-versed in retailing, he relied on the practical wisdom of strong partners and expert consultants to build New Riff from the ground up. The team included former Seagram’s master distiller Larry Ebersold, and Brian Sprance, who transitioned from Cincy’s craft beer scene into the coveted head distiller spot. Lewis wanted fresh eyes, too.
“If you’re a lifelong distiller who works for a major producer, you get used to making the same recipe year after year,” he explains. “We were looking for a young person who could offer a certain amount of creativity and really understood the science and the art of the fermentation process.”
The New Riff name speaks to innovation while still honoring Kentucky’s historic bourbon culture, an interesting juxtaposition considering the distillery utilizes a traditional non-chill filtration process.
“We feel strongly that unchill filtering is the best way to squeeze out every last drop of flavor,” Lewis describes. “It results in a better taste profile, and the fact that we’re always bottled in bond at never less than 100 proof is another detail that we think makes a big difference.”
Keeping quality top of mind, New Riff taps into high-mineral, limestone-filtered water from an aquifer source directly below the distillery to produce nearly 8,000 barrels a year through continuous column still production.
All the attention to detail pays off in products like New Riff’s four-year Kentucky Straight Bourbon (65% corn, 30% rye, 5% malted barley), a brash sipper that opens up with hints of vanilla and toasty rye.
Single barrel sales currently account for nearly half the operation’s bourbon business.
“As a retailer, I could see that market segment was underserved; it’s no surprise to me that it was prime for growth,” Lewis notes. “It’s harder for the big producers to focus on single-barrel business, but for a mid-major distillery of our size, it’s a great opportunity.”
Still a relatively young operation, New Riff has already amassed a loyal following and looks to have real staying power. The company’s most recent whiskey club offering sold out in 61 minutes flat, and customers are already anticipating a six-year-old malted rye next year—although Lewis is most excited about releasing the eight- to ten-year inventory in the not-too-distant future.
“People are getting to know us, and they like the fact that we’re an independent operation with no partners or shareholders,” he says. “That really resonates with our customers. There’s an authenticity that comes with going our own way.”