New Riff Distilling founder, co-owner and chief executive officer Ken Lewis announced he plans to retire in the spring of 2024, coinciding with the distillery’s tenth anniversary. After 50 years in the beverage alcohol industry, Ken’s impacts range from revolutionizing the beverage retail experience to changing Kentucky’s Sunday liquor sale policies to successfully lobbying for distilleries to sell their own products by the drink on their premises. A three-person leadership team — all current employees — will lead the distillery into its next phase.
“From the beginning, New Riff has been about innovation — about trying new things, about growing and exploring what we could do in the whiskey space,” Ken said. “In that spirit, it is time for a new chapter at New Riff. Although it is hard for me to leave, I am excited to see what’s ahead and to celebrate the distillery’s successes in the future. I could not imagine a better group of people to take the helm and they are the reason I know it is the right time for me to step back.”
New Riff will be led by Hannah Lowen as chief executive officer, Mollie Lewis as president and Denny Gorman as chief operating officer. Hannah will transition from her role as vice president of operations. Currently the company’s director of sales, Mollie will become the second generation to be a part of the New Riff leadership team when she succeeds her father in his role as president. Denny is transitioning from director of engineering and logistics.
A part of the team since before the distillery opened, Hannah established New Riff’s operating systems, company branding and distillery programs as the company launched. For the past decade, she’s worked to shape the company’s mission, optimize operations and propel the company forward.
Mollie has served as sales director since the company’s founding, a perfect fit following time spent as an international export manager in Italy. Prior to that, she attended the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley and worked in different channels of the wine and spirits business from sommelier to distributor.
Denny, a professional engineer, joined the team in 2019 after more than a decade at The Boston Beer Company in Cincinnati, where he held roles in engineering, maintenance and project management.
Since opening in 2014, New Riff has seen continual, steady and intentional growth. The distillery is well-known for its commitment to Kentucky’s sour mash method and the bottled-in-bond standard, which are used to produce award-winning whiskeys that are new riffs on an old tradition. Production and storage facilities have expanded in recent years, with a new barrel warehouse added this year and a distillery expansion that increased production by 50% in 2021. New Riff has also increased its distribution, currently available at retail locations and via direct-to-consumer shipping in a total of 31 states. The Newport distillery is undergoing additional renovations this year to improve the visitor experience, including a new gift shop and enlarging The Aquifer, the distillery’s cocktail and tasting bar.
Ken got his start in the spirits business essentially by accident. While working as a high school English teacher in Louisville, Ky., Ken’s father offered him the chance to turn around a small liquor store business for a year and then return to teaching. At 24, he began learning the industry from the bottom up and, more importantly, how to deal with and motivate people.
Ken saw what others did not: beverage alcohol retailing was ripe for innovation. While creating what would eventually become the Party Source, Ken created a store that looked like a bright and welcoming supermarket. He focused marketing around gatherings and parties, and devoted half the floor space to non-alcoholic products and fun, festive offerings like party supplies and gourmet foods. Combined with unbeatable prices, the approach was wildly successful and The Party Source (then known as “Liquor Outlet”) eventually expanded to six stores.
His retail experience also led to disrupting Kentucky’s antiquated liquor laws, including successfully lobbying for Sunday sales. A court case Ken initiated also allowed credit cards to be used to purchase alcohol and he pioneered the sale of fine wine in the state.
But to become a spirits producer, Ken had to divest completely from retailing due to the three tier system governing beverage alcohol. In doing so, he wanted to share his success with the employees who had helped him succeed so he sold The Party Source in a forward-thinking stock ownership plan (ESOP) to his employees. Meanwhile, New Riff is offering its employees a benefit almost unheard of in this century: a traditional pension plan.
“Values and company culture are important to me,” Ken said. “New Riff is a 100% family-owned business and will stay that way. It’s the only way we have the independence to eschew the exclusive drive for profits, share our success with our career employees, and live up to our values. Career employees give their best years to taking care of our company and in return we will take care of them in their retirement. My life has meaning because of these values — how hollow a life that is selfish and greedy.”
Those values have driven Ken throughout his career along with his passion for entrepreneurship. “I founded New Riff for the entrepreneurial challenge — and to create a world class brand, enrich my community through bourbon tourism, and make a huge difference in the lives of many employee families for decades to come,” he said.
From filing lawsuits to being active in politics on behalf of his industry, Ken’s work to modernize Kentucky laws regarding the spirits industry greatly impacted the state’s economy and his retailing innovations reverberated beyond the Bluegrass state and set the tone for spirits retailing. For five decades, Ken has influenced the state’s beverage alcohol industry across every facet — certainly some of what has allowed Kentucky to capitalize on bourbon’s popularity would not be possible without his work. Now, he says, it is time for the next generation to take the torch.