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Wine Enthusiast Podcast: The Story Behind the Best Blended Whiskey in America

This week we’re looking at an emerging distillery company based in Ohio.

Editor Jacy Topps sat down with former design and brand executive turned master distiller, Adam Hines, to discuss his award-winning spirit’s company.

Opened in 2017, High Bank Distillery Co. has been collecting awards all over the country for their craft whiskey.

Adam shares the story behind his career change; how the pandemic impacted the up-and-coming distillery and how his background in design and branding has helped him create a successful business.

High Bank received the “Best Blended Whiskey in America” award at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition two years in a row. In 2021, for Whiskey War Barrel Proof and again in 2022 for Whiskey War Double Double Oaked. High Bank Distillery was also awarded 5 double golds for their Whiskey War Barrel Proof, Whiskey War Double Oaked, Whiskey War Double Double Oaked, Midnight Cask Barrel Proof and High Bank Vodka.

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Episode Transcript

Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.

Speakers: Jacy Topps, Adam Hines

Jacy Topps 00:008: Hello, and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast podcast. You’re serving them drinks culture, and the people who drive it. I’m Jacy Topps assistant editor here at Wine Enthusiast. This week, we’re taking a look at an emerging distillery company based in Ohio. I sat down with former design and brand executive turn master distiller Adam Hines to discuss his award-winning spirits company just opened in 2017 High Bank distillery has been collecting awards all over the country for their craft whiskey. So listen on, as we discuss Adams changing career, how the pandemic impacted of the up and coming distillery and how his background and design and branding has helped him create a successful business. Hello, I’m Jacy Topps, Assistant Editor here at Wine Enthusiast. Today my guest is Adam Hines, who is co-founder and master distiller at high bank in Ohio based Micro Distillery. Hi, Adam. Happy New Year. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Adam Hines 01:13: Hey, happy new year. Thanks for having me.

Jacy Topps 01:15: So you are co founder to highbank distillery. Correct. Now I was doing some research online and I saw that you previously were in design. How does one go from design to making whiskey.

Adam Hines 01:35: Yeah, yeah. So for me, my background, like you said is in design and brand management. I went to art school. That’s what brought me to Columbus, Ohio. I have just obviously always been a fan of creating and so never thinking that whiskey was in my future. But my dad is lived in Louisville, Kentucky, which is you know, about a three hour drive here from Columbus for about the past 16 or 17 years now. And one of the things when you know, I was in my early 20s J A J A And my my father and I would do would be we would ride motorcycles together. And I remember riding through you know, horse country down and down to Kentucky and over the border into Tennessee. And you know, we do day trips of all around there. And my first ever brick house you know that I saw it was these massive white barns. You can just smell you know, the whiskey a couple of miles further down the road was the entrance to the Jack Daniel’s distillery. And so the first distillery that ever set foot on was a Jack Daniels. And we did a tour together. And it was arguably love at first sight and never knowing that that that was gonna lay groundwork for you know what the future would have for me in the whiskey business. But I became what my father and I did together. So when I would visit him ride my motorcycle down to Kentucky, we’d hang out go for a weekend ride around. We just started going to distillery tours. And so you know, I’ve probably been on 50 or 70 distillery tours down on the Bourbon Trail down there. And again, never knowing that that was kind of laying the foundation of knowledge and interest and relationships and all that stuff. So when I had the opportunity here in Columbus, with my business partner at the time to create a concept we were trying to create a concept together. I was doing, you know, design work and owning my own design firm at the time, he asked if I wanted to be a part of opening up a restaurant with him and I said Well, only if there was something fun, you know, attached to it like a brewery or distillery or something like that. And so for us, we decided to do a distillery and then from from there, I figured out how to distill and blend.

Jacy Topps 03:32: I love that story. I love that it’s fairly new. You launched in 2017.

Adam Hines 03:38: Correct? Yes, we were established in 2017 bought our equipment and started experimenting and we opened our doors in May of 2018.

Jacy Topps 03:47: Okay, awesome. How was the pandemic for you?

Adam Hines 03:53: The pandemic was really interesting for us. So you know, here in Columbus, we have our distillery but we also have a very large restaurant. So you know, we have about a 17,000 square foot building, give or take. And you know, that building has about a 9000 square foot restaurant upfront with about 230 seats or so. And then we have about an 8000 square foot facility in the back, which is where we do all of our distilling. And then we are off topic we are about to expand into another 17,000 square feet next door to triple the size of our distillery. Oh, wow. But the pandemic was a double edged sword for us. You know, it sucked from the restaurant perspective, because we had to close down Ohio close its doors for about two and a half months for all restaurants. But from a distillery standpoint, you know, consumption of alcohol was up. It really helped brand awareness because we did much like many other distilleries we shifted we we kept I kept my whole kitchen staff and manager staff upfront J A J A employed because they just became distillery employees. We all started making hand sanitizer together. So you know a handful Little employees back there normally to having a dozen, you know, we were all bottling and labeling and packaging hand sanitizer, and my sales team was now shifting to calling nursing homes and fire departments who needed hand sanitizer. And it was actually, I mean, funds probably not the correct term for COVID. But for us, it was, it was just really engaging time. It was really good community building aspect for us.

Jacy Topps 05:25: Okay, yeah, I’ve had definitely hear that. I’m based in New York. So that’s, yeah. Yeah, exactly. So now, your actual whiskey brand is called something as its whiskey war, correct? Yeah. Okay. Now, why is that different as opposed to your actual distillery? Yes.

Adam Hines 05:46: So again, being a brand guy, and that being my background, I love stories, and we need to be able to tell a story with whatever we’re doing. So researching on products, what I didn’t find beneficial for craft distilleries is that when they would just use their one name, they would put that across the board, you know, from a vodka to a gin to a rum to a whiskey, you know, to a Agave spirit, it would be their name plus that spirit name underneath of it. And there was nothing super differentiating about that, if you look at, you know, what the bigger guys do and what well established brands do. They have individual brands for what that is, right. And so that goes into a lot of different things, the naming of it the style of model that you use, I mean, all that stuff. So from the start, for me, it was really something that I was paying a lot of attention to, on the name of my products, the style of bottle that my products were going into, because, you know, when you have somebody picking up a bottle of vodka historically, you know, not again, this is just kind of broad strokes. Vodka is consumed mostly by women, women associate something lower calorie or lighter by a tall skinny or clear model, right, something that fits into nicely because they have small hands, men are a bit more like Neanderthals and we go in, we pick up two bottles, they could be the exact same one is heavier than the other. And we think that’s a higher value. Right? And we have bigger hands, and we want something that that fits into that hand. And so you know, I spent a lot of time doing that research from how people interact with different brands. And that’s really what led us into doing these different individual stories. And so, you know, for a story like whiskey or? Well, let me back up actually, The name highbank comes from, we wanted something that was local to Columbus, but we didn’t want to call ourselves Columbus distilling company, because as soon as you go outside of our city, who cares about Columbus, I mean, really. And so for me, I wanted a name that was a little more generic, but that’s still tied back to our history. And so when when, you know, Columbus, when Ohio was trying to figure out where they were going to place their State Capitol in 1812, you know, well, over 200 years ago, there was a couple areas around the central Ohio that they were thinking about putting that capital, and one of them was an existing city called Franklinton. And Franklinton, was in an area called the bottoms. But what happened, why they didn’t place the city there was because there was a high risk of flooding. And in the great flood of 1913, that happened here in the Midwest, there was, you know, seven feet of water that came in and flooded that entire area out. So knowing that knowing the risk of flooding, the developers decided to build the city of build a new city called Columbus, on the high bank Of the two rivers that were right there, this Iota in the old tangy River, and that’s where we get our name, High Bank. So we tell that story on the bottle of every vodka, and that’s one of our J A flagship wholesale products is our vodka that we have. We have a gin that’s called State House of gin. And we it’s a hand drawn picture of, you know, the Ohio State House and tells the story of that behind it. And then whiskey war is a fun one for me. So there’s a suburb here in just outside of Columbus called Westerville. Ohio. Westerville is about you know, 12 miles as a bird flies from downtown Columbus. And it’s actually where my, my wife and I and our three daughters reside is here in Westerville. We have for the past eight years, but Westerville is history in 1875. There was a gentleman by the name of Henry Corbin, that was trying to open up a saloon in Westerville, Ohio. Well, Westerville was also home to the women’s temperance movement, one of the largest anti saloon league propaganda printing presses in the in the country as well. And so when Henry Corbin was trying to open up a saloon, there was a large riot that happened outside a couple days before he was opening that up. And later that night, people rolled into barrels and gunpowder lit it on fire and blew up his saloon. Well, Henry Corbin then two years later, rebuilt in an 1877 tried to open up the saloon again. Well, the exact same thing happened. A ride happened outside but this time, Henry Corbyn decided to take the matter into his own hands and started firing his pistols to disperse the crowd. And this is all documented. There’s a there’s a newspaper clippings about this And so it said that that single act of him, of him shooting those pistols in the air and the story goes that a crazed and drunk and Henry Corbin was shooting at men, women and children. That is what was written and spread across the country through that printing press in that in that mailing facility. And it is said that that single act is what ignited the whiskey wars, which then led to prohibition in the country. And so Westerville is home and as a prohibition Museum at it on our bottle, which is called Whiskey or at the top of the bottle, every bottle is to cross pistols, toting back to the history of Henry Corbin.

Jacy Topps 10:36: So that’s amazing. I love hearing like the backstories of how things came about.

Adam Hines 10:42: Yeah, I just like I like stories. And I like nuggets. Like I mean, for me, the bottle is nice. It was pretty, it looks great on a shelf. But then if you can take it down to you start reading it, or you start diving deeper in it, there’s there’s legs behind it.

Jacy Topps 10:56: So yeah, so Ohio does have a history with whiskey. A long history with whiskey.

Adam Hines 11:01: Sure. I mean, especially with the Ohio River, right I mean, we’re right across the border from Kentucky, the tri state area down there I mean, the Ohio River into the Mississippi River is how really the aging of whiskey and the transportation and the using whiskey as a barter system you know really started Okay,

Jacy Topps 11:19: so now are you making bourbon is because I know you know, well not everyone does know that you know all bourbon is whiskey banal. Whiskey is bourbon. Are you making bourbon and or whiskey or?

Adam Hines 11:31: Yeah, so for us what we do and where whiskey were was kind of born knowing that we were starting this from scratch and that we didn’t have a previous distillery set up for years prior. You know, I’m not a fan of young whiskies. One of the, you know, of those over those 10 years prior to opening up highbank When I was traveling with my dad and visiting distilleries, I, I kind of that was the time I was I guess I was really refining my palate and what I what I really enjoyed, and I’m not a what they call, you know, baby bourbons, you know, I didn’t want to I didn’t want to open up our distillery with a six month and then a 12 month and then an 18 month and kind of stair step in like most craft distilleries do. What what we decided to do instead was blend take the time to blend a whiskey. So we source whiskey Wars is, and we’re very open about it. It’s three different mash bills, three different recipes that we source and bring it in house finished agent house and blend to our specific ratio for what whiskey war is. Nobody else has that ratio. It’s ours. It’s unique to us. And that’s why you know, whiskey war is what it is. The reason why we did that is it allows our own bourbon that we do make in house to time to properly age. So we’re we just crossed over four years of aging on our own product, and it’s still not out yet. So to me, there’s no rush, I knew that I wanted it to age at least for possibly up to six years. We are tasting it, it’s good. And I’m excited and can’t wait for it to come out. I also can’t wait to continue to blend with it to see what I can do with combinations of whiskey war and I think bourbon and that sort of stuff. But I mean, that’s correct. We do make bourbon from scratch in house from you know, grain to grain to barrel to bottle. It’s just not released in the bottle yet.

Jacy Topps 13:12 Okay. Okay. That’s what I was thinking. I was I was thinking that you made. Okay. Yeah, it’s just not out yet. I actually have tasted Whiskey Wars is actually really, really great. Oh, that’s, I’m excited about it. Thank you and your your and your team for sending me some?

Adam Hines 13:28 Yes, absolutely.

Jacy Topps 13:30 So about your barrel program. I know like you were doing some wine barrels. Is that correct? Yeah. Correct.

Adam Hines 13:38 I mean, we so again, I just love experimenting and creating and trying to figure out you know, unique ways to go about things and obviously, I mean, we’re not we’re not the first to barrel aged whiskey in a wine barrel or anything like that. But we did come up with a barrel program here called Whiskey or barrel select. And what that is, is that allows us to source really, really high end wine barrels or cognac barrels or Sherry barrels, I mean, different things that we’ve we’ve been we’ve had shipped over from overseas or across the country, brought here into highbank. And taking that award winning whiskey were blend that we have, and second or third aging it into some of these different barrels. And the expressions that come out on the other end are just we’ve had such a positive experience with unfortunately, you know, these products have never been released outside of our distillery, you know, because they are single barrel offerings for us, we get about, you know, 240 to 200 and maybe 60 or 80 bottles per barrel because they are a little larger, they’re usually the wine barrels that are you know, 59 gallons. We sell them all barrel strength, they come in a beautiful packaging with the three dimensional metal pistol cap and, and the black velvet bag very kind of bland esque but in our own whiskey war style. Every time we put them out, they sell out same day. So there’s there’s just not enough to not enough to go around at the moment.

Jacy Topps 14:58 Right right. Now as far as the your whiskies, you do have a direct to consumer program.

Adam Hines 15:03 Yeah, we’re, we’re going to be in Michigan, which is going to be through what’s wholesale. And we’re going to have all of our products through that. And q1 of this year, which is coming up, we are also getting ready to expand in the state of Kentucky. And then obviously, we’re in the state of Ohio right now. So q1 to q2, will will be direct to consumer and in the state of Kentucky, as well as Ohio. And then as we continue to assess which other states we want to go into in the Midwest to start.

Jacy Topps 15:28 Okay, awesome. So I know a lot of people I’m talking even tell you some of the crazy myths and misconception that heard about whiskey. Are you good about debunking a lot of misconceptions about whiskies and like, what they’re made from and how they’re processed? And when where you can drink them?

Adam Hines 15:48 I mean, if you have specific questions, sure, I tend to have a decent amount of knowledge.

Jacy Topps 15:53 I mean, one I know a lot of people that can feel like oh, well, I you know, I can only drink whiskey during the winter times, or I can’t pair whiskey with foods or you know, things like that.

Adam Hines 16:05 Yeah, for sure. I mean, you know, I think one of the things that I discovered, especially with you know, blending whiskies is how well, they pair with foods, especially when you’re thinking of, you know, a dessert, whiskey goes, a lot of whiskies go really, really well with, with a lot of different desserts when you’re talking, you know, chocolates or creams or, or different stuff like that. But yeah, I mean, when we were when I was coming up with the blend, the reason it took me even nine months to do it, I mean, the story around that for me was, I would I would take my, I had all these samples from different distilleries around the country. And I would take I would steal my I had one daughter at the time when I would steal her medicine, Tylenol, Tylenol medicine dropper out of the cabinet, you know, Washington out real good, but one of those ones that you know, are the milliliter to style things. And I would, I would go down each night. And I’d be taking, you know, two milliliters of this, one of this three of that, and I’d be making these different blends and tasting them blindly. And I’d be reading them each night on which one I like, because what you discover is, depending on what you eat, changes the flavor profile of that whiskey. So you know, there’s a lot of bottles that I’ve had on the shelf, and I’m like, Oh, that was not good. And then I put the cap back on, and then it’s six months, and I’ve never had it again, because I’m like, that’s just that was a bad vibe. But then I opened it up again and I tried, I was like, Holy crap, this is totally different. And what we find is a lot of it has to do with what you’re eating, you know, if you’re going to eat something that’s really intense, like a garlic or, or onions or something like that, obviously, that’s going to affect anything that you drink a glass of wine, or a glass of whiskey, or or you know, a gin and tonic, I mean, everything will be affected by that sort of stuff. But when it comes to you know, pairing whiskies, I definitely think when I’m when I’m eating a standard meal, if I’m going to have you know, a nice steak or chicken sandwich or something like that, I’m going to typically stay on the lighter side of whisky while I’m consuming, like, my actual meal, and then come dessert time I want to go a stronger pour, I want to go something that’s a bit more of a barrel strength is more robust that when you’re going to eat something with that dark chocolate, you’re gonna then pair it with something that’s really you know, has a lot of body to it has a lot of legs to it, it still has the oil that’s unadulterated, I guess where you’re not, you haven’t added any water or any ice cubes to it or anything like that. And so you get the nice texture of the chocolate interacting with the oil of the wood and the whiskey and all that stuff. I mean, the experience can be can be really, really nice.

Jacy Topps 18:31 Yeah, I mean, like, obviously, you want a restaurant, so I’m sure lots of people have questions about pairing whiskies with food and other types of spirits as well. I mean, I guess, you know, like, because you guys offer a lot of other things, too. You got you offered vodka, and you offer gin as well, right? Yep. Okay. pairing food with spirits. It’s I feel like it’s becoming a really big thing. And I feel like a lot of consumers don’t know where to start.

Adam Hines 18:58 Yeah, I mean, we you know, some of the standard things that if you want to try different flavor experiences with whiskies, I would stay pretty basic and do do some chocolate, do some different nuts, whether it’s cashews, or pecans, or like a macadamia nut, and then go into dried A J A fruits as well. Because cranberry versus a raisin, you know, versus a mandarin orange that’s been dried out, you have completely different flavor profiles, right. And so like that orange will pick up more of the citrus inside of a whiskey or complement more of that citrus and that dark chocolate will maybe get more of those deep earthy leather notes, you know, out of that Whiskey a bit more. I mean, there’s definitely kind of some standard things on a tasting wheel that are good to pair with whiskey to start. So we here at highbank we do these things called you know, fly classes that will do well. We’ll bring you know 25 People in and well not just taste through our spirits because we know you know we love comparing our spirits to other spirits you know, we’ll do it Have a white class with you know, Buffalo Trace or Maker’s Mark have our spirits and their spirits and explore and celebrate the differences, you know, between between each one’s and pair them with light eats. So people can kind of understand what a lighter whiskey tastes like what a deeper darker whiskey tastes like. And what that experience is.

Jacy Topps 20:20 Awesome is High bank Distillery Is it organic or your spirits organic,

Adam Hines 20:26 Our vodka is made of 100% organic wheat. But from a we do source everything locally here in Ohio, all the grain that we use as Ohio grain, the only differences is our facility is not certified organic, we have not paid the money or gone through the process of making sure that every single thing that comes in here is certified organic, that what we’re most what I’m most focused on, is flavor, I will tell you, I would not buy organic product unless it tasted the best. So I’m way more about making sure the product tastes good. Before you know even even I give the example when I give tours. So far every single grain that’s been brought in here is made in Ohio. But if Ohio has a bad harvest one year, I’m not going to source Ohio grain just to stay Ohio grain, I’ll go to Indiana or Pennsylvania or New York and source better grain if they haven’t, because I’m in the flavor business. I’m in the business of making things taste good. Not necessarily in the business of making sure. You know, I source everything from Ohio, if that makes sense.

Jacy Topps 21:27 Right? I guess I’m wondering like is, do you see yourself heading organic in the future?

Adam Hines 21:33 I think again, it comes back to there’s so many factors. And I mean, you can imagine, especially right now with rising costs and inflation, right? Yeah, I have a hard time ever seeing going fully organic for a lot of those reasons. Because on the flip side to, again, from a it’s it’s all about quality one for us, but then it’s we also have to have a business plan that supports and can keep people employed. You know, and so there’s principles and morals that we try to stick to, but at the same time, one of the biggest things and that I have to be aware of is making sure I can keep my staff employed and we can be have a have a great work environment and have a viable business for people to raise families off of.

Jacy Topps 22:18 Okay, amazing. But you are a part of the 1% for the planet, correct?

Adam Hines 22:26 We absolutely. I mean, so one of the things that’s important to me is, I mean, I grew up camping and loving nature and hiking and traveling and all that stuff. I mean, that’s when you’re out on motorcycle rides with your father too. And you’re just seeing the country the whole time, you see how beautiful everything is, and you go through a lot of trashy areas too. And it just makes you feel really depressed and sad. And so if there’s ever an opportunity for us to try to become carbon neutral and make decisions that benefit the planet, we’re all about it. And so that’s that’s what made our decision pretty easy to join 1% for the planet, we were already looking at switching over to some Eco glass options, which is what we use for our vodka bottle. And, you know with switching over to eco glass and we try to upcycle a lot of different things, we partner with a local company here, who takes all of our most of our bottles that we consume here in house at our restaurants, and turn them on to candles, you know, which is honestly one of our highest salaries and at Christmas time is the whiskey or candle. We always were just always trying to look for ways that we can, you know, kind of give back to the community and give back to the planet we partner with. locally here we partnered with a organization called flow, which is Friends of the lower old tangi watershed project. They do a lot of tree planting, and they’re the ones that help take care of the river around here, which is where our story of highbank is built off of we also nationally we partner with one tree planet, again, because there’s such a shortage on white oak, which is what we consume the most of as a as a company, right? We consume a ton of white oak, because we’re buying barrels and filling them with whiskey all the time. And so why not try to grow more oak trees? While you’re consuming a lot of oak trees, right? I just feel like that’s responsible.

Jacy Topps 24:14 Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s great. But I also like, I mean, your company has been winning so many awards. I was doing research about that. And like, your whiskey and your spirits have been winning so many, like award competitions.

Adam Hines 24:30 Yeah, it’s very much I’m, I’m not gonna lie. It’s just gone past my wildest expectations ever, you know, of even receiving an award such as what we did, you know, year and a half ago with when we won Best whiskey in America at San Francisco. I mean, that’s, that’s the largest competition in the United States. Now, it’s the largest competition in the world. You know, and just this past year, there was over 5000 entries that went into it, and then to win it a second time in a row to be awarded best in class. Best point a whiskey in America. I mean, that just doesn’t happen. And even the CEO of San Francisco called me personally and she’s like, who are you? I was like,

Jacy Topps 25:11 I mean, it’s like, it’s like your company is like so new, you know, and but that’s a great congratulations.

Adam Hines 25:17 I appreciate I mean, the only thing I can, you know, I don’t know, like, we try to make sure how we execute things is excellent. But so many people try to do that. And I do just leave, like, what I make is what I like, from every product from my vodka to my gin to my whiskey, right. And obviously, I obsess about brown spirits. But I the only thing I make is what I like. And so the only thing where I can describe it as the palette that I have is what the palette of the people I guess what

Jacy Topps 25:46 To give the people what they want. One final question. Yeah. When you are not drinking spirits from high bank, what’s in your glass?

Adam Hines 25:57 Ooh, that’s a great question. So I love lots of things. So I have I have a pretty large collection, what I call it, you know, what I tell my wife is its research, right? I have several 100 models of research in my office. But you know, one of the ones that I’m always a fan of like shelters, what can you always find? And in Ohio, it’s a little different than other states. I understand that. But for me, you know, from a whiskey standpoint, I go pretty classic with like a early times bottled and bond is probably one of my favorites. Just because here in Ohio, it cost 25 bucks, and it’s a leader. And it’s delicious. You know, for the price point. I also, you know, one of our most popular products that’s come out in the last few years here is our whiskey word double oak. It’s one that sells out often. But my inspiration for it was was because I loved Woodford dublo Just regular double Oak 90 Proof 50 bucks, you could always find that on the shelf here in Ohio. That was something that I still do really enjoy today. But the thing that I’m on the biggest kick about is tequila. I love Yeah. So if a nice rep or Serato or classical, I’m a big fan of and that’s also detrimental to my budget because I’m realizing there’s so many kilos out there. And while I have several 100 whiskey bottles now I fear that I may start collecting lots and lots of tequila bottles.

Jacy Topps 27:25 Okay, I’m Adam mines from High Bank distillery. Thank you so much for joining us.

Adam Hines 27:30 No, I really appreciate you having me. Thank you.

Jacy Topps 27:37 From blending to aging, crafting award winning whiskey is not for the faint of heart. That’s also not just for large distilling companies. hearing stories like that of highbanks distillery makes me excited for the spirits category. The more diverse the producers, the more interesting the category. What are your thoughts? If you liked today’s episode, we’d love to read your reviews and hear what you think. And hey, why not tell your wine loving friends to check us out to remember, you can subscribe to this podcast on Apple, Google, Spotify and anywhere else you listen to podcast. You can also go to wine backslash podcast for more episodes. I’m Jacy Topps. Thanks for listening