When Rabbit Hole Distillery founder Kaveh Zamanian began his whiskey journey, he was one of the industry’s ultimate outsiders. A native of Iran and a career psychologist with numerous academic appointments, Zamanian and his wife Heather moved to Louisville in order to be closer her family. Proximity to bourbon soon turned to passion, and soon Zamanian had his sights set on building a new brand.
The result is one of Kentucky bourbon’s most recent and now-famous success stories. Zamanian founded Rabbit Hole in 2012, and after seven years of growth and scaling, sold the majority to Pernod Ricard in 2019. He remains with the brand today, driving both innovation and operations behind Rabbit Hole’s existing and upcoming expressions.
On a recent trip to Kentucky, Drinkhacker recently sat down with Zamanian to talk about his journey from outsider to Hall of Famer, in addition to how he’s looking at the future of American whiskey.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for readability.
Drinkhacker: How did it feel to present an inductee at the Bourbon Hall of Fame compared to being an inductee yourself a year earlier?
Kaveh Zamanian: It felt phenomenal. It’s been a kind of Cinderella ride for me. To come as an outsider, be part of the Kentucky Bourbon family now… The Kentucky Distillers Association is an extremely special organization. And to be able to not only be part of the group, but also be able to contribute to bringing other folks that I think are phenomenal to the fold, it’s a privilege, honestly.
Drinkhacker: How do you think bourbon and the surrounding community in Kentucky has evolved over the last few years?
Kaveh Zamanian: There have been contributions from what I consider to be the craft side, folks that are coming from outside of those traditional heritage families. It’s been a really important way of pushing the envelope for American whiskey and bourbon in particular. And I think it’s elevated the game across the board.
Drinkhacker: Where do you think bourbon is headed in the next five years, through the lens of a producer?
Kaveh Zamanian: The reason I got into bourbon in the first place was that I realized that bourbon is 51% corn, 49% possibility. I think it’s the most beautiful and versatile whiskey in the world, simply because it’s the closest to the process of being a chef. So organically you can use different ingredients to bring some phenomenal notes to to the whiskey, which is very different than a lot of others. I used to be a Scotch drinker, and I love good Scotch, but for me the action over there is on the blending side. Here, for me, the action is on both the front and the back end. And the front is really exciting to play around with different ingredients. And I think where bourbon is heading is probably more and more mash bill distinction, more differentiation across the board between producers. At least that’s what I hope happens, in addition to those secondary finishes,
Drinkhacker: Where do you think Rabbit Hole sits right now in the ecosystem of brands? Where would you like it to move?
Kaveh Zamanian: Within the circle of Kentucky and the people who are bourbon connoisseurs, we are beginning to get a really good swell of excitement around what we’re doing. I think people are discovering our mas bill approach, our kind of craft distillery that’s designed to scale kind of idea and model. And that we don’t compromise, those are all things that I think consumers are discovering and know about us. But I think the challenge for us looking ahead is, how do we actually get a broader audience? Rabbit Hole is still very small in the grand scheme of things. My hope for Rabbit Hole is really the country and then ultimately even internationally, we’re able to get people to discover our whiskeys.
Drinkhacker: What’s one realm of innovation that you are most excited to push the envelope on a little bit more?
Kaveh Zamanian: As a whiskey maker, my real basic philosophy is just shoot me if I only have one idea. We’re doing more and more of these kind of creative mashbills as well as on the finishing front. I think right now we’ve got about 12 to 14 different finishes. We’re releasing one out of the distillery every quarter. That’s a realm that I’m finding fantastic. But the other area is actually American Single Malt. So we’ve produced different recipes for that category or subcategory as well.
Drinkhacker: Is there another producer who you think is pushing the envelope in a way that inspires you?
Kaveh Zamanian: The short answer right now is no. Very candidly, if I was going to follow what everybody else has done, Rabbit Hole would not be Rabbit Hole. My inspiration really has come more in the direction of culinary craft beer, even wine producers. I think one of the challenges that I’m looking to hopefully crack, and this is where I would look to other people for guidance, is how do we come up with a nomenclature that helps consumers differentiate our bourbons the same way wine producers have with varieties? Right now a lot of consumers are still buying by the brand rather than by the liquid. And I want to be able to push the industry to the direction where consumers are discovering what’s in the bottle rather than just the brand.