Meet the Maker: Rabbit Hole

Meet the Maker: Whiskey Chef de Cuisine Kaveh Zamanian, Founder of Rabbit Hole

In just over a decade, Rabbit Hole founder Kaveh Zamanian has put his brand squarely on the map for anyone on a serious bourbon journey.

By David Zivan

The Rabbit Hole Distillery sits in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, between Main and Liberty streets – roads otherwise known as Route 60 East- and West-bound – and the location seems perfectly chosen.

The striking contemporary building is surrounded by Southern city architecture of an earlier era. However, it’s in the NuLu neighborhood, a much-touted section of town that’s brimming with good food and hip retail. “Industrial-chic” isn’t far off as a descriptor.

Still, given the facility’s abundance of natural wood (a nod to that material’s irreplaceable function in the creation of great whiskey), the distillery seems to embody forward-thinking and tradition at once.

It’s no coincidence: the elevated experience at the facility is the brainchild of Rabbit Hole’s founder, Kaveh Zamanian, who is part disrupter, part classicist, all whiskey lover.

The former clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst’s story is well known in bourbon circles: Always loved whiskey, fell in love with a woman from Louisville, moved there, and saw a big opportunity.

In the grand scheme of things, it all happened rather quickly: Zamanian started distilling about a decade ago, and the tasting room and distillery facility opened in 2018. Then, seeing a good thing, the big international firm Pernod Ricard became majority owner in 2019, but Zamanian still runs the day-to-day.

The brand produces about 27,000 barrels a year, mostly its core offerings of Cavehill Four Grain Triple Malt Kentucky Straight Bourbon, Boxergrail Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, Dareringer Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in PX Sherry Casks, and Heigold High Rye Double Malt Kentucky Straight Bourbon.

The catnip for collectors? The ever-evolving Founder’s Collection series, small batch creations released twice a year with sometimes radical mashbills and always intriguing results. The most recent is the April 2024 release of a 15-year-old Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey aged in the hard-to-source and difficult-to-wrangle Japanese Mizunara Oak.

Mizunara Oak barrels, taken from trees that need 200 years to reach maturity, have long intrigued whisky makers worldwide – and it’s fair to say that such a rarity is actually the norm for this maker: To have no house style is the house’s style.

“When crafting [the Mizunara-aged bourbon whiskey], I chose barrels from my personal collection of Kentucky straight bourbon – each aged 15 years,” Zamanian told Watchonista, “and finished them in Mizunara Oak for more than 11 months.” At about $1,500, it’s a rare bunny indeed. 

Here are some highlights of Watchonista’s conversation with Zamanian, touting not only the future of Rabbit Hole but also his tasteful blend of favorite timepieces.

In the past, you’ve said there were “cobwebs” on the American whiskey category, but there was plenty of good juice out there. What was it about the space that looked like an opportunity to you?

There was whiskey out there, but there was no differentiation. How many brands would rely on whiskey from the same usual suspects selling barrels on the open market? I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing.

The beauty of bourbon and American whiskey is the possibility of creating genuinely unique expressions – not by focusing on blending but by focusing on the grains.

The reality is that if I gave my grandmother a handful of barrels with “good juice,” she could blend a nice batch, so what’s the challenge in that?

What has surprised you about entering the spirits business?

The spirits’ business is multifaceted and complicated. The easiest part is making the liquid; the most challenging part of the business is managing all the other moving parts, such as the regulatory hurdles, varied distributor networks, building relationships, and assembling a team that can deliver on all fronts.

Does Rabbit Hole’s offerings have a signature style?

Bourbon is 51% corn and 49% possibility. What that means is making whiskey American-style requires a culinary-like approach. It is one of the most versatile and exciting whiskey expressions in the world because the recipe and the combination of different grains lead to the creation of unique expressions. So, our signature style is to let our recipes guides us.

I decided on this approach because, within the parameters of what constitutes bourbon, there is so much room for creativity. That’s what is exciting. Like a chef, I always start with the grains and see how the ingredients complement each other to create a harmony of flavors. As a result, our four core offerings will give you four unique whiskey experiences.

Your company has seen remarkable growth. How close are you to the actual making of the whiskey?

I’m intimately involved with every aspect of our operations. However, I am also a member of a team of professionals who bring our whiskey to life. We have a collective approach with four sensory teams that work on different projects, from our core to specialty releases.

My strength is in the creative process – coming up with the recipes – and tasting the liquid at various stages of its development, from inception to bottling. Over the years, with practice, my palate has developed and matured. But I rarely make decisions in a vacuum. Our collective approach is an important part of Rabbit Hole’s approach. My mantra is, “We have no master; we are a collective.”

The distillery and the visitor’s experience are unusual and special. How does that fit with your overall vision?

The distillery is our home. It is also a place that we host our guests. It is a craft distillery designed to scale. We produce only 22 to 23 barrels in each batch, which means each bottle of Rabbit Hole comes from a genuinely small batch. However, collectively, the distillery can produce 27,000 barrels a year.

It is also a culinary kitchen showcasing every step in the process, from grain to bottle. That is why this glass and steel structure was designed the way it was. The intention behind the raised staircase in our manufacturing atrium is similar. It was inspired by a staircase I designed for a house in Chicago. This one is meant to provide our guests with a bird’s eye view of the manufacturing floor so they can enjoy a full sensory experience without interrupting our distillery operators.

It is a cathedral that brings together the art and science of whiskey-making with hospitality.

You’ve been at this long enough to have some barrels with more age on them. What can we look forward to in the near term from Rabbit Hole in the long term?

We now have a very sizable inventory with a range of whiskey expressions. So, in the coming years, as part of our Founders Collection, you will see our products released at 10 to 15 years of age.

You will also continue to see incredibly unique whiskey profiles like our five-grain double chocolate bourbon, along with a host of other whiskeys finished in interesting secondary casks.

The best years of Rabbit Hole are ahead of us.

Speaking of time: Do you wear watches?

I do. My daily is a Rolex Submariner, but I also love my Daytona and Yacht-Master. I’m also a huge fan of Vacheron Constantin’s Patrimony line, absolutely beautiful timepieces.

To learn more about the maker, check out the Rabbit Hole website.

(Images © Rabbit Hole)

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