Bourbon Loses a Legend

Parker Beam, who made whiskey at Heaven Hill for more than 50 years, died Sunday at the age of 75.
courtesy Robb Report
courtesy Robb Report

“He was bourbon.” Writer Fred Minnick said it best in his tribute to Parker Beam, who passed away Sunday night at the age of 75. Why are any of us drinking bourbon at all these days? It has a lot to do with Mr. Beam, who led Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky out of a time of darkness and into what has been termed a “golden age” for the category. “Small batch,” “single barrel,” “premium” – he had a lot to do with how we drink, classify and understand bourbon now, having created the Evan Williams, Elijah Craig and Henry McKenna and their special releases, all named for legends in the early bourbon industry, as well as many other brands for the Heaven Hill distillery.

Parker Beam was named for his grandfather, Park Beam, brother of James Beauregard Beam, more popularly known as “Jim” Beam. (So yes, the Beam name is of the same relation between the distilleries up the road from one another.) His father Earl came to Heaven Hill in the 1950s, and having grown up and apprenticed with his family, he began working with his father in the 1960s. Parker took over the position of master distiller (as Minnick points out, this was a term he didn’t much care for as he considered the job something that is essential and earned rather than one that is looked upon as one does royalty) from his father in 1975.

The 1970s were a dark time for American whiskey, with the popular palate more drawn to clear liquids and substances that easily mix with processed fruit flavors at the push of a blender button. Beam persevered and Heaven Hill was one of the few distilleries producing bourbon and rye for the people who needed it, and also, likely, to ward off American whiskey’s extinction. In the 1980s, the premium labels that are now considered the pride of the distillery were in incubation, all set for what would become an American whiskey renaissance in th next decade. Though he came to the job pretty much by right, carrying the mantle of what is considered the most famous last name in bourbon, Parker Beam’s forward-thinking, wise and pragmatic approach to whiskey making exceeded all expectations. It also helped that people enjoyed working with him so very much and he was by all counts an excellent mentor for future generations of distillers.

Cats. What do they know about good whiskey? Photo by Amanda Schuster
Cats. What do they know about good whiskey? Photo by Amanda Schuster

Beam was honored over the years with every award you could give him, deservedly so – hall of fame, lifetime achievement, etc. Enjoying his emeritus status at the distillery, he consulted on projects often, even as his health deteriorated from the effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, a.k.a. “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” with which he was diagnosed in 2010. His son, Craig Beam, who joined Heaven Hill in the 1980s, is now one of their master distillers. 

Reading everyone’s social media tributes and obituaries, a common thread emerges – Parker Beam was a nice guy – patient, nurturing, warm and genuinely interested in those with common enthusiasms. I met him several times over the years, starting with my stint at Astor Wine and Spirits around the mid 2000s, either at guest appearances at the store or at events like WhiskyFest. He seemed to approach his affliction the way he did whiskey – an essential task, one he was going to see through the best way possible. He didn’t disclose his illness to the public till 2013, and those of us who had met him before then wouldn’t have guessed there was anything wrong, but it was hard to find anyone in the whiskey world who didn’t tear up when discussing it. As Minnick reported, up until early last year he was still exercising regularly and available for counsel to the distillery.

I had the privilege of meeting him one last time during a visit to Heaven Hill during the Kentucky Bourbon Affair in June of 2015. When I first learned he was making an appearance, I was upset, thinking, “Why are they trotting out this poor old man at a time he should be resting?” Boy, was I wrong. Sitting down with him, it became strikingly clear he wanted to be just where he was at that moment. The event, what many refer to as “bourbon fantasy camp,” was all for people who love and respect bourbon. He simply wanted to be with what he considered his people. His speech was slow and a little slurred, but but his mind was still sharp, which is one of the most devastating effects of the disease. It seems to go after those who are all too aware of what’s happening to their bodies with almost no control over it. He didn’t remember my name, but he knew who I was, “New York, right? What are you doing all the way out here now?”

“I came to drink bourbon,” I said.

“Well, you came to the right place.”

the author with Mr. Beam in 2015, photo courtesy Amanda Schuster
the author with Mr. Beam in 2015, photo courtesy Amanda Schuster

I sure did.

For the past several years, Heaven Hill has made it an annual tradition to release Parker’s Heritage – special selections of limited edition whiskey that was made by Beam. Starting in 2013, a portion of proceeds from these releases support ALS awareness. You can still find these Promise of Hope bottles, or donate to the Parker Beam Promise of Hope fund in his memory.

It’s been a sad time for legends these days, but what makes them so is their legacy. Thanks for the delicious whiskey and for being such a great teacher, Mr. Beam. I’m guessing those barrels are going to have a little less bourbon in them now, and you deserve your share.  

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