While new bourbon production is thriving across the United States, far from the spirit’s home turf in the Bluegrass State, Rabbit Hole Distillery, founded in 2012, is notable not only for its inventive approaches to the juice but also for the location of its sleek new facility—smack dab in the heart of Louisville, Kentucky. A labor of love from Kaveh Zamanian, a psychologist and wine and spirits fan who made the bold move to chase his dream, Rabbit Hole earned its sobriquet based on his Louisville-native wife’s prediction that he was “taking the family down a rabbit hole” by opening a distillery.
We’ll sidestep the psychological ramifications of ultimately exceeding your wife’s expectations, but Zamanian’s choice to set up shop in bourbon’s birthplace has delivered abundant benefits, among them access to local skill, traditions, suppliers, and hardware that dovetails nicely with his own out-of-the-box ideas on bourbon innovation.
That innovation starts in the bottles, with some unique signature mashbills.
Introduced in 2019, Rabbit Hole’s Heigold Kentucky Straight bourbon (about $70) nudges toward a traditional high-rye bourbon style, but it’s only just a nudge. Hiegold’s mashbill is 70% corn, 5% malted barley, and a hefty 25% malted rye (from Germany). It is also bottled at about four years of barreling (hence qualifying for the straight bourbon label) and slightly over-proof at 47.5% ABV. The malted barley and rare malted rye components amp up the pour’s sweetness and complexity and deliver a toasty creaminess followed by an expected high-rye peppery finish.
Zamanian’s wife, Heather, not only inspired the operation’s name, but also Rabbit Hole’s sherry-finished offering, Dareringer PX (about $80), which gets a kiss of Pedro Ximenez casking in exquisite barrels produced by Spain’s Casknolia Cooperage. While most distilleries would simply decant their core bourbon product for sherry cask finishing, Rabbit Hole developed a separate mashbill for this product of 68% corn, 18% wheat and 14% malted barley. The formula just plain works with the sherry casking finish and delivers some subtle dried cherry sweetness in the bourbon mix.
The distillery’s Cavehill Kentucky Straight bourbon (about $60) might come across as simply a fine example of four-grain distilling. The mashbill reads 70% corn, 10% malted wheat (and malting wheat is already pretty unique), and 10% malted barley—but instead of rye, the “fourth” grain is an additional 10% hit of honey-malted barley. Honey-malting is a special process that reduces oxygen exposure during the barley’s germination and cooking that increases sweetness while reducing the roasted flavor of the grain source. So, expect some unique fruity decadence reminiscent of baked goods along with a nice high-corn bourbon smack smoothed out by the malted wheat.
We caught up with Kaveh Zamanian to not only take a look at the estimable work he’s done, but also talk a little bit about Rabbit Hole’s future:
Wine and Whiskey Globe: Most new bourbon distillers in the U.S. are opening everywhere but Kentucky. Why did you decide to base yourself in the Bluegrass State?
Kaveh Zamanian: To me, Kentucky represents the major leagues, and I wanted to go head-to-head with the established big guys. But, what is isn’t talked about much is Kentucky’s special terroir and seasonality, which is perfect for bourbon production. At one point there were over 2,000 individual distillers here, with a lot of variation in the products. That tradition is inspiring to me as I try to elevate and redefine what Kentucky bourbon can be.
WWG: Rabbit Hole’s mashbills are particularly innovative. Is that development kind of a experimentation process for you?
KZ: Absolutely. Mashbills are dear to my heart and an important part of America’s whiskey tradition. We use almost a kind of culinary/test kitchen process. We started with 5-gallon stills, then progressed to 23-gallon work, inching up to larger scale production. We want to hone and define a product that way and then scale up into full production.
WWG: Your facility has been called an architectural gem, a phrase not often associated with a distillery. What is your visitor experience like?
KZ: The building is really something to see, but our question going into the design was “How do we make American manufacturing an exciting and sexy thing to experience again?” Visitors get an immersive, sensory, on-the-line experience of every single aspect of the process, from soup to nuts. There is really no separation between manufacturing and hosting for us.
WWG: What’s does the future hold for Rabbit Hole?
KZ: We have a unique partnership with our distributor, Pernod, who has been instrumental in our steps to achieve both national and international distribution. Last year we were available in about 13 states, but we have recently completed our plan to be in all 50 states. International availability will start next year with the U.K. I’m am very excited about being a part of elevating American whiskey on a global scale.