When a Psychologist Takes on Bourbon Country, This is What Happens

When a Psychologist Takes on Bourbon Country, This is What Happens

A psychologist walks into Bourbon country, and... No punch line here, friends. Sorry to disappoint. Besides, we wouldn’t joke about Bourbon this seriously good. (Yeah, that’s bull. But play along for the sake of this lede, yeah? Thanks.)

With that, we ask that you turn your attention to Rabbit Hole, an award-winning distillery out of Louisville, Kentucky headed up by, yes, a former psychologist. Iranian born, Kaveh Zamanian grew up in Southern California and came of age in Chicago before settling in Louisville, Kentucky.

Not only do they have some pretty modern, snazzy digs, but they’ve got a few gold and double-gold medals from the New York World Wine & Spirits Competition and the Los Angeles International Spirits Competition under their belt. And the story behind Rabbit Hole has all the makings of a good tale: intrigue, passion and… romance. So we sat with the distillery’s founder, Kaveh Zamanian, to get the scoop on his distillery and found ourselves falling down a rabbit hole of our very own...

Tell us more about Rabbit Hole.

Kaveh: I approached this project from a consumer standpoint. I started as an enthusiast of Wine and Spirits. When I started getting into American Whiskey, one of the things that left me high and dry was the feeling of not really knowing clearly, and truly accurately, who the makers were behind the products.

I felt that I could contribute something to the industry. Something that Rabbit Hole came to stand for: transparency and authenticity.

That lack of transparency was, in part, the beginning of Rabbit Hole. There was a lot of frustration, and maybe even some agitation, around buying a product by brand rather than the content.

As I started digging into it, I realized that there was a lot of consolidation post-prohibition. And through that process, there were only a handful of distilleries making Whiskey. That was the light bulb moment for me. I felt that I could contribute something to the industry. Something that Rabbit Hole came to stand for: transparency and authenticity.

So, I started digging in and learning everything that I could about the industry — from the distillation process to other aspects of the business. The first thing I wanted to do was try to come up with my own recipes. I started experimenting, not much different than the craft Beer guys. I immersed myself in taking courses, reading books and finding these amazing masters of the industry.

After that, I had the challenge of finding a distillery that would make these products, because from a business standpoint, there's a lot of expense in getting a distillery facility up and running, and then having to wait three to five years before you have a product. I wanted to make sure that instead of buying sourced products from various places, I had a distillery that would be open to true contract distillation, where they would make my recipes under my supervision. I was fortunate enough to find a distillery like that in 2014. That was the beginning.

Why and how did a trained psychologist end up in Louisville setting up a distillery?

Kaveh: I was actually born in Iran. And honestly, I don't know a whole lot of people from Iran coming to Kentucky and making Whiskey.

There was a bit of a raised eyebrow. For one, I wasn’t from the region. And second, I didn’t have the pedigree or background industry experience

My connection to Kentucky is actually through my wife. I met my wife, who is from Louisville, in Chicago about 16 years ago. And that was probably the earliest in terms of getting really excited about Bourbon. We'd make frequent visits down there and I just fell in love with it. I think, in some weird way, Kentucky is very reminiscent of Tehran—at least for me. There are four seasons, so you got a beautiful fall and spring, and you have cold but moderate winters, and very hot summers. From that standpoint, it really felt like home.

Having lived in Chicago, there’s also a beautiful mix of Midwestern work ethic and a nice touch of southern hospitality that's very reminiscent of home. That friendliness and open community. All of it together just made me fall in love with Louisville and Kentucky.

It’s also Bourbon country. And I thought that if I was going to pursue this business, Kentucky was the place to be. It just made sense. Whiskey is in a lot of ways synonymous with Kentucky.

1. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I would probably say flying. Yeah, flying.

2. How would you describe Rabbit Hole in three words?
Authentic, creative and innovative.

3. What is your favorite music and what drink goes with it?
I'm a big fan of R&B and old-school rock and roll. I'd love to have a neat glass of Bourbon. I mean, that's basically my go-to these days. Mick Jagger is coming back on the scene. Unfortunately, I missed the concert because I was out of the country. But I love listening to the Stones and having a glass of Whiskey neat.

4. What would you eat and drink for your last supper?
My last supper would probably be a four-course meal. I'd start with maybe a Prosciutto on Melon. A hearty pork chop would be great. And then follow that up with a little sorbet and a cheese platter. As an after dinner drink, I'd love to have the sherry cask that we make.

5. Assuming Rabbit Hole’s is your favorite, what's your second favorite Bourbon?
There are a lot of Bourbons that I love. I think that Russell's Reserve is one of my recent favorites. I also like Willett — some of the Willett Pot Still. It’s a nice expression. So if I'm not drinking Rabbit Hole, I order the Russell's or a Willet, just off the top of my head.

I'm also really high on the Japanese Whisky these days as well, so Nikka is another one that I love to drink when the occasion calls for it.

How have your innovations been received in Kentucky?

Kaveh: You know, it's been an interesting process. I think early on, there was a bit of a raised eyebrow. For one, I wasn’t from the region. And second, I didn’t have the pedigree or background industry experience.

And when renditions came out, there were even more raised eyebrows from a standpoint of, “what is this?” Is this someone or something that’s just trying to capitalize on the wave? Or is it a bit more genuine, authentic and caring about our native Spirit and our region?

I think over time, we've actually become part of the fabric of the community, and have been very much embraced by everyone. Not just in Louisville, but in Kentucky.

There was an assumption that I just wrote a check and started the distillery—which couldn't be any further than the truth. The reality is that I closed my practice, put my life savings on the line and started with the typical entrepreneurs, family and friends. From there, I had to hit the road and try to see if I could get folks to see the vision and want to join us from an investment standpoint.

One of the things that has been lost in that historical narrative has been the fact that there have been a lot of minorities involved in this industry.

As part of that process, I went all around Kentucky, meeting with everybody you can imagine, demographically speaking and otherwise. But it had an amazing reception. Which was surprising. I mean, you had a guy named Kaveh going around Kentucky asking for money to make Whiskey.

What about your cultural background? What’s your take on diversity in the spirits industry (esp. in Bourbon land of Kentucky)?

Kaveh: Historically, there has been a huge cast of characters involved. From my perspective, the industry started on the backs of immigrants. Initially, there were a lot of Scottish and Irish immigrants heading west for a better life. Then, there were people coming from Eastern Europe, all the way to where we are today.

I think one of the things that has been lost in that historical narrative has been the fact that there have been a lot of minorities involved in this industry — from the African-American slaves to women, to, as I mentioned, immigrants.

I think the industry took up this Madison Avenue philosophy of presenting what they thought was going to appeal to the broader American populace. In that process, a lot of folks that have been part of the business have been lost in the pages of history. I think that's changing. I am hoping that we are really representative of that change, and are able to bring those voices back to life.

I'll give you one example where we're very actively trying to integrate that in part of our experience here at the distillery. I think creative people are really an important part of what Rabbit Hole represents, and I integrate that. So I reached out to an artist, his name is Gary Simmons. Gary is originally out of Brooklyn but lives in Los Angeles. In my opinion, he is one of the most incredible African-American artists currently out there.

Gary visited the distillery and we talked about this very topic. The piece that he's making for the distillery is a homage to the women and minorities that have been part of this industry. The ones that nobody knows about, or very few people know about. This is our effort to really bring those folks back to life, be able to tell their story, and help people really understand the true nature of the spirit industry. It’s about celebration. It’s about bringing people together.

Tell us about the Rabbit Hole Straight Bourbon Whiskey. What makes it special?

Kaveh: Just to keep things in context, the reason I got into the business was to see if we could expand the range of expressions, right? So, for me, part of what's exciting about the industry is revitalizing and bringing to life either old or new recipes. Not just focused on finishing or blending, which I think, obviously, blending and finishing are really important parts of this process. But I wanted to see if we could begin distinguishing our products on the mash bill side.

I'm a big fan of malted grains, from a standpoint of what they bring to the table in terms of flavors.

We currently have four different Kentucky straight Bourbons in the works. What we have on the market right now is our four grain straight Bourbon. It’s 70% corn, 10% malted wheat, 10% malted barley and 10% honey malted barley.

So, yes — 30% of the mash bill is malted grains. I'm a big fan of malted grains, from a standpoint of what they bring to the table in terms of flavors. That's one of the signature pieces of all the straight Bourbons that we do here.

I also think it's really important to put it in the barrel at a lower proof. We put it in at 110 rather than 125. We always age our products in toasted and charred barrels. Recently, some brands have started highlighting if they have toasted barrels. Historically, most barrels have been aged and charred barrels.

We believe that our partner here in Kentucky, Kelvin Cooperage, is hands-down the best cooperage in the country. I think the toasting process is really a value proposition here that takes our mash bill to whole other level, from a maturation standpoint.

It's a very approachable Bourbon. I think it's a Bourbon that could be an everyday sipper, but it also goes wonderfully in a cocktail because it goes in the bottle at 95 proof. And we did that intentionally so the flavor doesn't get lost.

Last but not least, we never chill filter our products. It’s all about how much of the spirit’s flavor we can preserve in these bottles.

When it comes to the Kentucky Straight Bourbon, what are some great food pairings?

Kaveh: I’m partial to different types of meat. I just had a wonderful dinner with an amazing pork chop. That pork chop and the Bourbon just went hand in hand. When I pair the Kentucky Straight Bourbon with either a nice, hearty steak, or in this case, a pork chop, it’s fantastic.

The Bourbon really complements those types of hearty meals with its subtlety. It softens it and brings out a certain sweetness and richness. It's that combination of sweet and savory that really go well together.

How did the Pernod Ricard partnership happen and why?

Kaveh: Well, it allows us to get a step closer to my dream, which is taking Rabbit Hole to the world. Outside of the U.S., everyone is familiar with Scotch and even Irish Whiskey, but there isn’t a whole lot of penetration when it comes to American Whiskey and Bourbon in particular. I think it's a growing market, and you need the right partner to be able to take your products, not just domestically, but internationally.

One of the things that this partnership allows us to do is to scale. And that's something that's really important. In our business, scaling means you have to have the right partners from a standpoint of sales and distribution. And that distribution district network is key, domestically and internationally.

It allows us to be able to grow Rabbit Hole in a thoughtful way that's consistent with our DNA.

Also, part of the reason we partnered with Pernod Ricard is that even though they’re obviously a very large company, they operate like a family. I had the pleasure of being in Paris and meeting with the leadership there, most importantly, Alex Ricard, who's their CEO. And I can tell you that that experience was the reason that I decided to make this move. At the end of the day, there's cultural alignment, which is really important to me. It allows us to be able to grow Rabbit Hole in a thoughtful way that's consistent with our DNA.

That’s all part of our future and it's really exciting for us.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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