Kentucky bourbon distillery, 14th largest in world, selling for $600 million

A decade-old Kentucky craft distillery has been sold in a deal valued at $600 million.

The Italian spirits company Campari Group, which already owns Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, announced on Monday that it is buying Wilderness Trail Distillery in Danville.

In a news release, Campari praised Wilderness Trail’s “skillfully handcrafted and fast-growing super premium bourbon and rye whiskey brand with world-class distillery facilities.”

The move is part of a deliberate doubling down on bourbon, particularly at the premium end of the market, according to the company, which expects to shift Wilderness Trail’s product away from bulk spirits sold to others.

Campari, which is a publicly traded company in Italy, is buying an initial 70 percent stake for $420 million with plans to buy the remaining 30 percent interest in 2031. The transaction is expected to close before the end of the year.

Wilderness Trail Distillery opened in downtown Danville in 2012 and moved in 2016 to a larger location outside of Danville, Ky. The distillery is being purchased by Campari Group for $600 million.
Wilderness Trail Distillery opened in downtown Danville in 2012 and moved in 2016 to a larger location outside of Danville, Ky. The distillery is being purchased by Campari Group for $600 million.

Wilderness Trail Distillery history

Wilderness Trail Distillery launched in 2012 when founders Shane Baker and Pat Heist leveraged long years of experience in commercial ethanol production to create their own craft distillery in downtown Danville.

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The company quickly outgrew its modest facilities and now has opened a much bigger location just outside of town that is now ranked as the 14th largest bourbon distillery in the world.

Distillers and co-owners, Shane Baker, left, and Pat Heist, right, spoke during the grand opening ceremony at Wilderness Trace Distillery (now named Wilderness Trail Distillery) in Danville, Ky., Friday, December 6, 2013. The grand opening featured a ribbon cutting and barreling ceremony along with a celebratory toast.
Distillers and co-owners, Shane Baker, left, and Pat Heist, right, spoke during the grand opening ceremony at Wilderness Trace Distillery (now named Wilderness Trail Distillery) in Danville, Ky., Friday, December 6, 2013. The grand opening featured a ribbon cutting and barreling ceremony along with a celebratory toast.
Distiller and co-owner Pat Heist tapped the ceremonial bung in a barrel of bourbon whiskey that was filled yesterday, during the grand opening ceremony at Wilderness Trace Distiller, 445 Roy Arnold Dr. in Danville, Ky., Friday, December 6, 2013. The distillery was subsequently renamed Wilderness Trail. Beside him was Jerod Smith, left, and fellow distiller and co-owner Shane Baker, middle.
Distiller and co-owner Pat Heist tapped the ceremonial bung in a barrel of bourbon whiskey that was filled yesterday, during the grand opening ceremony at Wilderness Trace Distiller, 445 Roy Arnold Dr. in Danville, Ky., Friday, December 6, 2013. The distillery was subsequently renamed Wilderness Trail. Beside him was Jerod Smith, left, and fellow distiller and co-owner Shane Baker, middle.

According to a Wilderness Trail spokesperson, Baker and Heist will remain the faces of the brand and will stay in their roles at the distillery as fermentation experts.

“This is huge for Wilderness Trail and our family of employees,” Baker said in an email. “Wilderness Trail has been growing leaps and bounds over the years and we found ourselves with an opportunity to grow our brand further into a iconic brand known around the world. We know how to make excellent whiskey and now with the expertise of sales and marketing and distribution with Campari, we believe we can grow the brand a lot more rapidly and solidify Wilderness Trail Bourbon in Kentucky history for a long time to come.”

In 2018, Wilderness Trail released its first two expression, Wilderness Trail Bourbon and Wilderness Trail Rye Whiskey. They also sell 6-year and 8-year bourbons, all priced at or above $55 a bottle.

Wilderness Trail Distillery released a 6-year-old bottled-in-bond bourbon in June 2020, priced at $75 or above.
Wilderness Trail Distillery released a 6-year-old bottled-in-bond bourbon in June 2020, priced at $75 or above.

The future of Wilderness Trail and Campari

Last year Wilderness Trail Distillery had net sales of over $40 million, including $7 million in sales of its bourbon and rye, according to Campari’s news release. The rest came from bulk sales and storage fees and its visitors’ center. This year, Wilderness Trail is expected to generate overall sales of $57 million, up 39 percent, according to the news release, as the sales shift to more of its own bourbon and rye brands rather than bulk sales.

Campari indicated it plans to continue shifting the output to its own premium portfolio.

Wilderness Trail founders Pat Heist, left and Shane Baker will be staying with the distillery and the brand they created after it is sold to Campari.
Wilderness Trail founders Pat Heist, left and Shane Baker will be staying with the distillery and the brand they created after it is sold to Campari.
Wilderness Trail Distillery is just outside of Danville, Ky.
Wilderness Trail Distillery is just outside of Danville, Ky.

“We are very excited to take a controlling interest in world-class Wilderness Trail Distillery,” said Bob Kunze-Concewitz, Campari Group CEO in a news release. “By adding the fast-growing super premium Wilderness Trail brand we further expand and premiumize our bourbon offering, priming it to become Campari Group’s second major leg after the aperitif portfolio. ... In addition, we have the opportunity to significantly expand our production capacity and aging inventory to satisfy the future growth of our premium bourbons, such as the high potential Whiskey Barons range, currently capped due to capacity constraints. We are very excited to partner with such a strong team of industry pioneers and distilling experts allowing us to accelerate and significantly expand the innovation platform for our bourbon portfolio.”

Campari bought Wild Turkey in 2009 and has worked to create premium versions of the whiskeys in its portfolio, such as Russell’s Reserve and Longbranch, that sell at much higher prices. The company also in August 2022 acquired an initial minority interest with plans to take over Howler Head, a banana flavored Kentucky bourbon.

According to the news release, American whiskey is currently among the hottest spirits category in the US market, leveraging the continued positive trend across brown spirits, accounting for 13 percent of the total US spirits markets in 2021, up 7 percent over the previous year with sales in the super-premium price segment up 17 percent.