Last week brought news of the passing of a bourbon whiskey legend: Parker Beam, master distiller emeritus of Heaven Hill Distillery, at the age of 75, after an arduous and public battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).
Born Earl Parker Beam in 1941, he was son of Earl Beam, himself a master distiller, who was the son of William Parker (“Park”) Beam (1868-1949), a renowned whiskey producer, and the brother of Col. James Beauregard (“Jim”) Beam (1864-1947). It was Jim and Park Beam who, after Prohibition, launched the modern Beam whiskey dynasty at the original D.M. Beam & Co. distillery, precursor to today’s Jim Beam Brands.
Parker Beam’s father, Earl, had left the family company in 1946 to become master distiller at the Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, Ky. Heaven Hill was founded in 1935 with the help of Joseph L. (“Mr. Joe”) Beam, one of Jim Beam’s cousins, and a member of the Shapira family. The Shapira family bought out the other investors and quickly turned the business around. “Mr. Joe” Beam stayed on to produce the whiskey. The proudly Jewish Shapira family, still owners of the company, made the Heaven Hill Distillery into one of the great American whiskey distilleries — with a Beam running whiskey production throughout.
By 1960, Parker Beam joined his father at Heaven Hill — beginning humbly with window washing and scrubbing lime scale out of the cypress fermentation tanks. He rose through the whiskey production process and took over from his father in 1975, becoming the sixth generation Beam to earn the title “master distiller.”
Parker’s son, Craig, joined Heaven Hill in 1982, eventually matriculating to master distiller, alongside his father.
Parker Beam was a transformative figure in the industry, and most especially to Heaven Hill. As Max L. Shapira, president of Heaven Hill Brands, noted in his public statement: “Parker’s leadership established the foundation for our company and our Bourbon heritage. It was Parker who saw us through Bourbon’s first golden age in the 1960’s, its subsequent decline in the 1970’s and who led us to today’s new Golden Age, helping pioneer our first premium small batch and single barrel Bourbons.”
Indeed, Heaven Hill Distillery, which has over 1.2 million barrels of whiskey aging in 53 warehouses in Nelson and Jefferson counties in Kentucky, is known for its award-winning collection of American whiskeys. These include Elijah Craig Bourbon, Larceny Bourbon, Evan Williams Bourbon, Pikesville Rye Whiskey, Rittenhouse Rye Whisky and the Parker’s Heritage Collection.
Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, called Parker Beam “the living embodiment of the whiskey inside: authentic, classic, well-seasoned and distilled from old-fashioned hard work and gentlemanly integrity.”
As I write this, I’m drinking a glass of one of the higher end Elijah Craig Small Batch bourbons, and toasting the memory and legacy of Parker Beam.
Elijah Craig 18 Year Old Single Barrel Kentucky Bourbon (45% abv; $150): This is a complex, elegant, well-rounded, really outstanding whiskey offering layered notes of creamy vanilla, almonds, toasted oak, caramel, honey, maple sugar, butterscotch and a little toasted oak. The finish is pleasing and lingering. Beautiful and delicious. L’chaim!