Milwaukee may be where I found a way to express my love for food and drinks, but Louisville is certainly where it all developed. From the Bourbon Trail to the burst of new restaurants that emerged in NuLu and on Frankfort Avenue during my two years there, it was hard not to fall in love with the tastes that have come to define the city. There’s a part of me that’s felt a twinge of regret since starting Chews and News because I haven’t found a way to express my passion for what I learned, ate and drank in Louisville.
So, when a friend of mine there told me she was working for a new bourbon distilling company, Rabbit Hole, and that the founder would be stopping in Milwaukee to showcase Rabbit Hole’s bourbon and rye, I was thrilled. After all, how often do you get to talk in-depth about bourbon in Brew City?
Whereas the founder of Maker’s Mark, T.W. Samuels, was the third generation of a family of distillers, and Woodford Reserve’s James Christopher Crow’s name is synonymous with the sour mash process, Kaveh Zamanian poured himself into the bourbon industry with something a little more unconventional on the Bourbon Trail: a glass of wine and a PhD.
“My passion for the bourbon and spirit industry started when I was in my late teens, early 20s in California and saw what happened in the wine industry, “Zamanian says, referencing the wine revolution of the 1970s. “My family is pretty conservative, so we’re either in law or medicine. I ended up going the psychology route.”
Zamanian calls his career in psychology a 24-year “detour” before returning to his initial love of wine and spirits. When he moved to Louisville, where his wife’s family is from, he saw an opportunity to jump into the bourbon industry and seized it… while still tying in his first career in psychology.
“For me, psychology is – especially in what I did clinically – about being able to help people find their dreams and get the crud out of the way to be able to pursue it.”
I ask Zamanian what the most interesting part of his transition from a medical field to the bourbon industry. He immediately draws a parallel between the two businesses.
“Part of it is the realization that it’s about human relationships,” Zamanian explains. “I think at the end of the day, we’re in the business of not just making whiskey, but bringing people together. From a practical side, being able to bring a team together and create a culture that people can really embrace, and doing that, I think, is part of psychology. From there, thinking about how that all applies to consumers. We have people behind the bar, behind the restaurant, or the folks that are actually purchasing the product. To be able to connect with those guys in a genuine, authentic, transparent way, that’s also an important part of psychology.”
Zamanian’s leap from one career path that took years of time, effort and investment, to a bold new path absolutely resonates with me, and should resonate with a lot of people, whether you’re into the bourbon scene or not. Who hasn’t wondered what it would be like to try something different? Even if you love your job and feel passion for the work you’re doing, every decision you make is going to bring the inevitable question of, “what if?”
Even the location of Rabbit Hole, which is expected to open in time for the 144th Kentucky Derby in 2018, is synonymous with the idea of professional rebirth and revitalization. Rabbit Hole describes itself as being “in the heart of Louisville’s urban bourbon trail,” but that’s only part of the story.
Rabbit Hole is on E. Market Street in the NuLu neighborhood. For those who are unfamiliar with the area, during the early 1800s, Market Street was a major commerce and industry hub, playing a critical role in helping to transfer livestock and other goods from the city down to the Ohio River. Restauranteurs, shop owners and residents of NuLu today have largely preserved the community’s past. Gorgeous old buildings line Market, with incredible architectural designs and, in many cases, cast iron detailing. The restaurants along Market were some of my favorite places to eat when I lived in Louisville, and whenever anyone tells me they’re thinking about a trip to Kentucky, I always mention NuLu as a must-see destination.
For any Milwaukee residents reading this, the Historic Third Ward absolutely reminds me of NuLu in many ways. But that’s not the only comparison to be made between the two cities. Zamanian highlights another connection that I wouldn’t have expected: bourbon and beer.
“One of the reasons I actually got really interested in bourbon the way I did was from watching the beer guys to see what they did,” he says. “I think they did a phenomenal job of opening up new offerings within the sector. You went from two or three big players to all these amazing smaller breweries and being able to taste all these different things. I think that was really an inspiration for me.”
Zamanian believes whiskey is on a similar trajectory to beer, albeit at an earlier stage.
“So, the next few years, there’s going to be a lot more types of whiskeys coming to the market, and for me, that has a lot to do with the beer guys,” Zamanian predicts. “Even our drinks are drawing on inspiration from how they worked with different grains. I think it’s just the beginning.”
Rabbit Hole was established in 2012, but it truly is just the beginning for the company, because bourbon is not born overnight. It takes years of sitting in barrels, in a state that experiences all four seasons, before a batch is ready to be poured.
For Zamanian and his team, that means the first batches of bourbon and rye whiskeys weren’t released until October 2016… can you imagine waiting for more than three years to determine whether such a monumental change in your professional life would pay off?
Zamanian says all of these experiences led to his distillery’s name, Rabbit Hole.
“My wife [Heather] came up with the name,” he explains. “When I was taking her to a lot of the distilleries, she kept referencing taking the family down the rabbit hole and that’s how it was born. It felt like a really good fit, because it’s an adventure going down the rabbit hole. You don’t really know where you’re going to end up, but you know that wherever you end up, you’re not going to be the same person.”