September 18, 2017
The Taste of Tradition: Parker Beam & Heaven Hill
Parker Beam was 5 years old when his father, Earl Beam, became Master Distiller at Heaven Hill in 1946. He tailed his father throughout the Heaven Hill Distillery campus in Bardstown, Kentucky, learning distilling first by watching Earl and later by doing the dirty work of scrubbing fermenters, washing windows and building rickhouses.
“I kind of cut my teeth on walking around that plant with him,” Parker told us, several years before his death. “It was if I knew that someday I was going to be involved in the business.”
Earl was a traditionalist who was taught the right way to make whiskey by his family members who had long been involved in the business. Parker didn’t dispute his father’s hard-earned wisdom, but he gradually discovered ways to improve on Earl’s techniques.
“Back then, Master Distillers were all about tradition,” said Larry Kass, Heaven Hill’s Director of Trade Relations. “But all those years that he followed Earl around, he saw things he thought might work. He shelved those ideas in his mind until he got older, when he started to assert himself.”
Earl Beam retired in 1975, making Parker Master Distiller. But despite his father’s departure and subsequent death, he remained Parker’s product quality conscience. Many years after Earl’s passing, Parker still thought, “Not only do I have to report to the Shapira family, I still report to my dad.”
The same year Parker became Master Distiller, Bourbon sales nosedived. Vodka’s lighter taste profile and cocktail versatility lured drinkers away from brown spirits and left Bourbon distillers wondering how to compete. Despite the challenge, Parker remained bullish on Bourbon. He didn’t believe it was possible to produce too much Bourbon. So he continued putting up as much whiskey as possible across a broad array of mashbills, always thinking about what demand might be 20 years down the road.
Kass saw Parker’s insistence on keeping production high as prophetic. When Bourbon’s rebound began in the mid-1980s, Heaven Hill had ample supplies of long-aged stocks that positioned the company perfectly to create new and premium Bourbon lines.
By the new millennia, drinkers were not only clamouring for brown spirits, they sought to learn how they were made and to meet the people who produced them. Master Distillers like Parker were pulled away from their stills and into the spotlight.
Throughout Bourbon’s resurrection, Parker continued to innovate, developing annual releases of the Parker’s Heritage Collection line of specialty whiskeys well after being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Kass said Parker “loved being able to do different whiskeys” and saw distilling as “a wonderful little petri dish in which he could do cool things.”
Prior to his death in 2017, Parker logged 56 years at Heaven Hill, a term that distillery President Max Shapira said demonstrated a rare ability to adjust constantly to drastic industry changes that spanned decades.
“He saw the company go from a pretty small company to a pretty good-size business today,” said Shapira. “It takes a very special person to be able to adapt along the way.”