Unlike Bourbon, which has a very specific legal definition, the term Master Distiller has none. Many distilleries starting up today have young guns that may just be starting in the distilling world that call themselves Master Distillers. They may in fact be distillers and many are really good distillers but most have not earned the stripes it takes years to acquire to earn the title of Master Distiller.
On the other hand, Heaven Hill Distillery’s Master Distiller Emeritus Parker Beam who sadly lost his six year battle on Sunday, January 8, 2017 with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease has earned that title. Parker joined Heaven Hill alongside his father in 1960, where his baptism into the distilling industry began by washing windows and scrubbing lime scale out of the cypress fermenters. “It wasn’t glamorous,” Parker used to say, “But I learned how everything worked in the distillery, because back then you had to be chief cook and bottle washer.”
Cover image L to R: Master Distiller Parker Beam and his son Master Distiller Craig Beam. Parker Beam and his dad Master Distiller Earl Beam.
“You can make bourbon anywhere but, if you want to sell it, you better damn well make it in Kentucky.”
~ Parker Beam, Heaven Hill Master Distiller Emeritus, 1941-2017
– Heaven Hill Master Distiller Parker Beam Passes Away After Courageous Battle with ALS
– 10th Edition of Parker’s Heritage Collection Limited Edition 24 Year Old Bourbon Released
– Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame Welcomes 4 New Members & Lifetime Achievement Honoree
Parker learned how to culture his family’s 6-generation old proprietary yeast strain under his father’s tutelage, and eventually began to put his own unique fingerprint on Heaven Hill’s American whiskeys—it was under Parker’s supervision that the company raised barreling proof to 125, it was Parker who first created the industry’s first Small Batch Bourbon when Elijah Craig was introduced in 1986, and Parker who oversaw the launch of the company’s Single Barrel Bourbons in 1994.
Earl Parker Beam was born into Kentucky Bourbon royalty in 1941(ironically, the same year Lou Gehrig died from ALS)—his grandfather, Park Beam, was brother and colleague of James Beauregard “Jim” Beam at the original D.M. Beam & Co., predecessor to Jim Beam Brands. Parker’s father, also named Earl, was a brother to Carl “Shucks” Beam, Master Distiller at the Jim Beam Brands Company. Parker’s father Earl left Beam to become Master Distiller at Heaven Hill in 1946, ushering in an era of Bourbon category leadership and critical acclaim under the Beams, first through Earl, then Parker, and then Parker’s son Craig.
“Parker has certainly etched his name, and that of Heaven Hill, deeply in the annals of Kentucky Bourbon history,” noted Heaven Hill President Max L. Shapira, “But he has done so with a humility and grace that will forever be admired. His dedication to his craft, to his family, to Heaven Hill, and now to battling the scourge that is ALS, will live on far past his time.”
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After being diagnosed with ALS, Parker and his wife Linda met their newest challenge head-on by creating and curating the Parker Beam Promise of Hope Fund through the ALS Association. The fund established a research and treatment endowment that has seen millions of dollars generated through contributions, events and on-going sales of Parker’s eponymous line of super-premium American Whiskeys.
Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame Inductee & Lifetime Achievement Award Winner
In a statement issued by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, President Eric Gregory noted that “Parker Beam wasn’t just a name on a bottle – he was the living embodiment of the whiskey inside: authentic, classic, well-seasoned and distilled from old-fashioned hard work and gentlemanly integrity. His place in our industry’s rich distilling history is beyond reproach, as few can match his 56 years of passionate service and leadership, charter selection to the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame and award-winning Bourbon portfolio crafted under his watch as Master Distiller.
KDA President Eric Gregory, Wild Turkey Distillery Master Distiller Jimmy Russell and Heaven Hill Distilleries Master Distiller Emeritus Parker Beam.
It was that esteemed legacy, combined with his tireless spirit and outstanding devotion that led the KDA Board of Directors to name the industry’s Lifetime Achievement Award after Parker Beam in 2015.”
A Collection of Short Stories
Like any good bourbon what makes it taste best and what makes you remember it isn’t just the drinking part of it, it’s the smell, the flavor, the journey, the experience and the friends you choose to share it with. Straight bourbons must remain in their new charred white oak barrel for at least two years. To earn the name Kentucky bourbon it must also be produced and aged in Kentucky. To be a bourbon legend, a distiller has to earn the title. Parker Beam earned his title. Here’s a collection of videos about Parker that give you a glimpse into the life of a man that helped to save an industry – the bourbon industry.
The Legacy of Master Distiller Earl Parker Beam
“He’s seen a whole lot going. He’s seen the company go from a pretty small company into a pretty good size business today. He grew with that and it takes a very special person to be able to adapt along the way. But, the one thing that was absolutely a constant was, this is the way we produce our whiskey and we’re not changing this. A fanatic in terms of quality assurance of making certain that the right things are done day in and day out.”
“I can tell you, he is one of the most instrumental people in helping with what has been the resurrection of bourbon whiskey over the last 10 to 15 years. Most outside analysts were ready to consign bourbon whiskey to that great liquor store in the sky and he was one of those leaders who helped to transform this industry from one that was sort of on the ropes to one that is now the darling of the entire alcohol beverage industry both domestically and worldwide.”
~ Max L. Shapiro, President of Heaven Hill Distilleries on Parker Beam
The Bourbon Industry Caught Fire When Single Barrels Were Introduced in 1986
“I think when the single barrels were introduced, that’s when the bourbon industry caught fire, or at least for Heaven Hill.”
~ Bill Osborne, Materials Manager at Heaven Hill Distilleries
Parker agrees that the introduction of the single barrel was the start of bourbons rebirth. “That’s when it really started to shine. That was kind of the high light. I thought we really got the recognition and probably the most rewarding for me.
The legacy that you’d like to leave behind is to being able to produce a quality product and hopefully, people have enjoyed that product that you were the Master Distiller. That’s the bottom line.”
The Importance of the Master Distiller
“You really put your name on the line and your profession and what you’ve been able to accomplish when everybody samples that single barrel product. That’s when they really came into recognition of the master distiller. Which was back about 1986.”
What Makes Good Bourbon?
“Every step has to be precision and quality. You have to always keep that in mind. As I’ve said, everything that runs off the still today, you never know where it’s going to wind up so you can’t jeopardize that quality standard from day to day. Because it’s going to be in a premium 18 years from now, 12 years from now, maybe even 20 to 21 years. You never know where it’s going to wind up.”
Why is Kentucky Famous for Bourbon?
Proving to a Skeptic that a Master Distiller is a Real Person
“I was pouring a guy a drink. He looked at me, I noticed him kept looking, kind of staring me down. Every time I’d make eye contact with him he’d be starting right at me. And he said, ‘You know, you are a real person aren’t you, that made this product?’ And I said, yeah, I guess I’m about as real as they get. And he said, ‘You know, I always thought a Master Distiller was some fictitious character that marketing came up with.’ And said, ‘I didn’t think there was a real person behind the product.’ He said, ‘You are real aren’t you?’ And I said, yeah, I’m glad to know I am. Thank you for expressing that.”
Friendship Among the Distillers
“The distillers have, “always been very competitive I guess as far as trying to produce the best quality product. But they’ve always had a close relationship that we’ve always had with one another that, we were able to call on no matter what the circumstances were and you could always get a helping hand from them if need be. Now, not very much of that goes on in a lot of industries, that you could pick up the phone and say hey, I got a problem with this kind of equipment or that, do you have any spare parts and they’d be more than glad to help you out.”
Do the Master Distillers Really Sign All Those Bottles?
“Well, I didn’t expect the volume that I’m expected to do. I’ve had as high as 60 cases piled up at the house. They’ve even brought them to the house and I’d set when I’d come in off the farm in the afternoons and I’d have a bottle signing with Linda (Parker’s wife) toting them out and putting them back in the cases. So we had a lot of teamwork going there. I’d sign so many; I’d say that’s it for today, time to knock off. I’d get a few more each day then I’d tell whoever brought them, I’ve got them all signed now, bring me some more. The volume that I’ve signed is sort of unbelievable to what I thought I’d ever sign.”
Lou Gehrig’s Farewell Speech
And we’ll round out your day listening to a few simple words from another great one, Lou Gehrig. Here’s his July 4, 1939 speech from Yankee Stadium when he uttered the famous words at a home plate ceremony.
“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
~ Lou Gehrig, New York Yankees 1st Baseman, 1903-1941
Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Beam and Heaven Hill families. If you would like to make a donation to the ALS Association in Parker Beams name, please visit the The Parker Beam Promise of Hope Fund web site here or call (800) 406-7702.
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