A Decade On, New Riff’s Impressive Patience Has Paid Off With Sublime Bourbon

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A Decade On, New Riff’s Impressive Patience Has Paid Off With Sublime Bourbon

When it comes to making quality American whiskey of any style, there’s almost certainly no virtue more integral to the entire process than patience. Whiskey is a long, arduous affair. You want to make great craft beer? Fire up the fermenter, and it’s entirely possible that a month from now you’ll have a world-class IPA. You want world-class bourbon, though? That’s going to be the work of years, maybe even the work of decades. Many distilleries don’t really have the patience to wait on the sidelines for so long … but Newport, Kentucky’s New Riff Distilling has possessed that particular quality of patience from day one, and it’s a major reason why they now find themselves as ascendent bourbon makers celebrating their 10th anniversary in 2024.

I remember my first time tasting New Riff’s distillate, back in 2018. The brand had just put out its first ever release, and I recall then how impressed I was that they had waited a full four years after beginning operations to not just release their first bourbon, but to build their brand around bottled in bond bourbon. That 4-year-old, 100 proof product immediately announced a brand that was taking its flagship seriously. This was no two year old placeholder, to be replaced with higher-quality whiskey at a later date. They waited until a standard of quality had been met before introducing themselves to the world.

This same streak of patience runs through so many aspects of the way New Riff runs its business. Before opening, founder Ken Lewis sought out the advice of consulting master distiller and MGP of Indiana legend Larry Ebersold, who assisted in crafting what would become the outline for New Riff’s bourbon and rye whiskeys. The godfather of MGP rye suggested that in hiring a head distiller, Lewis should seek out someone steeped in the beer industry, which would offer a greater degree of knowledge on the art of fermentation. Lewis responded by hiring Boston Beer Co.’s Brian Sprance to the post, and Sprance immediately began training in distillation with Ebersold.

Now, a full decade later, New Riff made an announcement at the turn of the year: Brian Sprance is finally and officially being named the company’s Master Distiller. And one might ask, why not give him the title 10 years ago? If he’s been overseeing distillation since the beginning, was he not always the “master distiller” of the company? But that’s not the New Riff way–the Master Distiller title wasn’t something to be handed out when the company itself was brand new. Rather, it was something for Sprance to grow into as he legitimately became a master of his craft.

And now is honestly the perfect time for such a title, because New Riff Distilling has clearly achieved a brand new level of maturity in 2024, allowing itself a moment to both celebrate its first decade and simultaneously institute a changing of the guard that will propel it through its next 10 years and beyond. Founder Ken Lewis took the opportunity to formally retire in March, handing off the reins of CEO to former Vice President of Operations Hannah Lowen. Meanwhile, his daughter Mollie Lewis steps up to the role of President. These women will be leading New Riff forward, even as the company debuts its beautiful third floor Aquifer tasting room and cocktail bar at the Newport distillery, and releases its oldest products to date.

Speaking of: New Riff released its first-ever expression of 8-Year-Old Bourbon back in March, and American whiskey industry critics responded by hailing it as a breakthrough, on par with some of the best releases from Kentucky’s biggest bourbon powerhouses. In my own review, it immediately became one of my highest scoring entries of 2024 to date, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see that bourbon end up in my year-end list of the best whiskeys of the year.

In recognition of this new era that New Riff has seemingly entered, I sat down with CEO Hannah Lowen while in Cincinnati recently, to discuss the fruits of New Riff’s labor and the company’s future.

Paste: It really feels like in this moment, New Riff has reached a new level of demonstrable maturity, with the release of the 8-year bourbon and the official designation of Brian Sprance as your master distiller. What does it feel like to be reaching this point after a decade in operation?

Hannah Lowen: I think most of all it’s exciting. This is a big year for us, for all of those reasons. For years since 2018 when our whiskey came out, the question we’re asked all the time is “The 4 year old is fantastic, but what is coming next? Where’s the older product?” And I think in the bourbon industry, especially here in Kentucky, we’re in the backyards of the giants of the industry, so we were always going to need an older product that would be judged against them. That’s why we always held back almost a third of what we distilled, waiting for this moment.

That 8-year-old is limited this year, but will become a core product that will be regularly available. It feels great to say that. It’s exciting to see the fruits of that labor pay off.

Paste: You were here from the start, right?

Lowen: I was here from before there was a building, and so was Brian Sprance, and Jay Erisman who’s our co-founder. And we’re all still here. So to watch this whiskey grow up from an idea, remembering the first whiskey we ever distilled, and then see where we are now, it’s fantastic.

Paste: It’s incredible to me to think about the degree of uncertainty in never knowing how your aged product is actually going to turn out. Larry Ebersold can tell you that “here’s how I think your bourbon will taste in 8 years,” but you can never really know that until it happens. That would be nerve-wracking to me.

Lowen: Well one of the biggest things that impacts our whiskey is our aquifer, we’re pulling it straight out of the alluvial aquifer below our feet and even Larry wouldn’t have known the impact that was going to have at the time. I think this release is different because we’ve been able to watch it very carefully, and we’re a decade more experienced now. When the 4-year was first coming out, that was terrifying because we didn’t know how it would be received, we were younger and unproven. There was a lot of anticipation then.

Now, my role at New Riff has nothing to do with making the whiskey; we have an amazing team that is fermenting and distilling and barreling and everything. But what I’ve heard from the team making the whiskey, is their excitement for the legs that they believe the 8 year old still has, that it doesn’t feel worn out or over-oaked and can still age a whole lot more. We can’t wait to see how it continues to evolve.

Paste: How much contract distillation are you guys doing, or how much of your capacity does it take up?

Lowen: We have done a relatively small amount of contract distillation since the beginning, I think it’s about a quarter of our production capacity these days. We feel very fortunate for some of the long-term partners we’ve had, but as time has gone on we’ve clawed back more and more production for ourselves. I think at this point, between our physical capacity at this plant on site, the contracts we have, etc., when we do our long-term planning for the next decade we feel very comfortable with our physical capacity on site here.

Paste: It’s fascinating to just look at the cocktail list at The Aquifer, because you notice it’s sprinkled with all these spirits and liqueurs that I’ve never seen from New Riff. There’s New Riff apple brandy, nocino, etc. Are you regularly producing these small batch, unique spirits?

Lowen: Yes and no. So, there are many things we’ve made over the years as places for our distillers to learn and experiment. Opportunities come up–like that apple brandy is a good example. There were two barrels of it, it’s 8-year-old apple brandy and we made it because friends in the brewing industry had excess cider a million years ago and we wanted to see what we could make with it. What’s fun with the nocino is that it’s made with rye distillate, so they’re pulling off small amounts from our regular production to make it. The tasting room features stuff we’ve made over the years that we’ve saved, without a distribution destination in mind. It is a place where people can come to find and taste things they won’t be able to taste literally anywhere else.

Paste: What’s the story of the corn whiskey on the menu?

Lowen: That is actually the first-ever New Riff distillate. When we opened in 2014, because we wanted to sour mash all of our bourbon and rye, we had to do a sweet mash for the first thing we ever made. So we made a corn whiskey, like a half batch. That corn whiskey has been sitting in barrels for like 10 years, it was never intended for any kind of commercial release. We assumed it was going to sit in the warehouse forever, but then we had the idea to pair it as a boilermaker with a Cincinnati beer, Little Kings, which features corn in its recipe. So now it’s this unusual, unique part of our history that you can taste here.

Paste: Is there anything else coming down the pipe this year that you’re free to announce?

Lowen: I will say this: We have been putting away interesting whiskeys for years. We have a really robust whiskey club that we offer in the spring and the fall, and so there will be another new product release for that. And there will be some fun stuff in the summer to commemorate our 10 year anniversary. We also have some favorites that are coming back out; there will be more Balboa by the end of the year, and more Sherry Malted Rye, which I don’t think has been announced yet. I don’t want to get screamed at by the marketing department by going into too many specifics, but it’s going to be a big year for New Riff.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.

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