The Shapira Brothers
The story of the Shapira brothers has to begin with their father Max Shapira (full name Mendel “Max” Lieb Shapira) who set sail for America around 1888 for a new life. Raised in a port town in Lithuania (which was part of Russia at the time) this Jewish immigrant was a son from a poor family and left during a time when the area was depressed economically. Max arrived in the United States in New Orleans but moved to a suburb of Louisville, Kentucky called New Haven in about 1920. His first job in Kentucky was a door to door salesman peddling small house ware items like needles, thread, thimbles and lotions. He started by walking on foot with only a back pack worth of merchandise. Within time he added a horse and then a small traveling store on a trailer. Then in the middle of the most difficult economic times during the depression and prohibition he opened a brick-and-mortar store just outside Louisville and called it the “The Louisville Store.”
Max was a shrewd business man and always reinvested a substantial part of the profits back into the business to help it grow. Max met and married Annie Berlin around the turn of the century, he was very happily married and had six sons five of which lived to adulthood, as each of those boys grew up, graduated from school and worked as an apprentice with him, David (1913-1987), Ed (1906-1982), Gary (1901-1960), George (1904-1996) and Mose (1914-1971) were set up in their own identical “Louisville Store” to run to make a living by keeping part of the profits.
Initially all the stores were within 100 miles of the original location but the business continued grow and prosper even during the depression. Eventually it became a big chain of twenty junior department stores, all over Kentucky, Southern Indiana and Southern Ohio branded as both The Louisville Store and now The People’s Store as well. The stores main products were clothes like shits, pants, dresses, socks and suits. But they also had many other items for sale from household items to farm supplies and implements to non perishable food items (like pickles in a barrel). Each of the Shapira boys were doing well by following the exact business plan their father laid out for the store and their families.
Ed Shapira’s Louisville Store was located in Bardstown, Kentucky which (prior to Prohibition) was known for its vast number of whiskey distilleries. When Prohibition ended in 1933 every body in the country thought they could start their own successful bourbon business and make money hand over fist. Five local Bardstown businessmen including Ed and David Shapira and Mr. Joseph L. Beam (Jim Beam’s cousin) put their heads and their wallets together and started a distillery. The Shipira’s initial investment was 40% of total and equaled $17,500 (Mr. Joe had a 20% share or half of that of the Shapiras at $8,750) into a company that had no still, no warehouses, no brand names and no inventory. That amount is the equivelent of $330,000 in today’s monetary value. On December 13th, 1935, the first barrel was filled at Heaven Hill Distillery. The name was taken from William Heavenhill, a farmer who previously owned the land where the distillery was built. An old wise tale claims that when one of the partners went and applied for the distillery permit he typed the name wrong as two words instead of one. From that point on the name stuck.
The first whiskey sold from this distillery with Mr. Joe’s son Harry Beam as their first Master Distiller was a 2 year-old brand called Bourbon Falls. This was done just to bring in some cash flow to help continue funding the distilling process when none of the partners were drawing a penny. The other investors including Mr. Joe then ran into financial problems unrelated to Heaven Hill, and claimed they would have to sell their shares or shut the business down completely. Stuck in the position of either having to liquidate everything for pennies on the dollar or shore up their investment with new capital, Ed went to all his other brothers and asked them to join him. Around 1939 the five Shapira brothers (David, Ed, Gary, George and Mose) all agreed to invest another $20,000 to buy out their partners and keep the business running.
After parting ways with Mr. Joe and Harry Beam they had to find someone who knew the distilling business since none of the Shapiras knew anything about the whiskey industry. Infact it is said that they didn’t know the difference between a barrel from a box. Ed and David Shapira who had been the active partners on-site went straight to the top of the Bourbon world and hired Park Beam, Jim Beam’s brother as their second Master Distiller.
In 1940 a well aged premium brand of five year old bourbon was released called “Old Heaven Hill Bottled-In-Bond.” Bolstered by its inexpensive price, the guarantee of quality with the “Bottled-in-Bond” promise and its distribution chain of ready made stores their sales of Old Heaven Hill went through the roof. Within a few years this gold labeled brand became the number one selling bourbon in the whole state of Kentucky.
Business was booming and the company continued its rapid growth as the Shapiras ran the business side of things and Park Beam and his son Earl Beam ran the production side of the distilling operation. In 1957 Heaven Hill under the Shapira’s stewardship and Earl’s whiskey expertise introduced “Evan Williams” Kentucky Straight Bourbon. This brand would go on to become the world’s #2 selling bourbon and Heaven Hill’s flagship brand.
Two of the sons of the five Shapira brothers followed in their collective fathers’ footsteps. Max L. Shapira (1943-present), Ed Shapira’s son, came aboard at Heaven Hill at the age of 28 in 1971. Max had graduated with his Masters in Business Administration from Harvard and worked on Wall Street for five years before coming back to join the firm. Max became the first member of all the Shapira grandchildren to join the family business. His cousin Harry Shapira (1947-2013) , who was David Shapira’s son would also go to work for Heaven Hill when he started in 1973. Harry Shapira helped create and design the company's two new modern attraction centers: the Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown, KY and the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, set in the heart of Louisville, Kentucky’s "Whiskey Row."
The longest surviving of the five Shapira brothers was George Shapira who passed away in 1996. At tat time Max took over as President and Harry as Executive Vice President at Heaven Hill. The Shapira Brothers were inducted posthumously into the Bourbon Hall of Fame as a collective group in only its second class in 2002.