Bourbon Industry Mourns The Death Of Legendary Distiller Parker Beam

Thomas Phippen | Reporter

The whiskey business lost a legendary distiller when Parker Beam passed away Monday, and distillers everywhere now strive to continue the legacy of the king of the bourbon barrel.

Beam’s colleagues, customers and even his competitors credit him with reviving the bourbon distilling industry through dogged pursuit of quality with a commitment to keep the drink affordable.

The Beam family is an unmatched dynasty in the Kentucky bourbon industry. It’s said that you can’t make a decent bourbon without a member of the Beam family behind the still.

Heaven Hill, the 82-year-old distillery behind the classic bourbons Evan Williams and Elijah Craig, as well as newer favorites like Larceny and Fighting Cock, is no exception; it has had a Beam family member at the still since its start in 1935.

Beam, who started working at Heaven Hill in 1960 and succeeded his father, Earl Beam, as master distiller in 1975, died Sunday evening after years struggling with ALS, also known as Lou Gherig’s disease. Though his death was not a shock, his passing left a hole in the bourbon industry, and his legacy sets an example to the next generation of distillers.

“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,” Max Shapiro, president of Heaven Hill, said in a statement.

Like many great men, what made Parker Beam a legend is a combination of mastery and a commitment to his craft in a time of adversity. Beam believed that “no matter what the market conditions are, good or bad, you do your job the best you can,” Chris Morris, master distiller of Woodford Reserve told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Bourbon has not always enjoyed the hip fan base it has today, and the industry struggled for decades as vodka other clear liquors took center stage. In the past decade however, bourbon companies have seen explosive growth, and many whiskey insiders say Parker Beam was key to keeping bourbon pure through the slump.

Beam was “dedicated to maintaining the high standards of our product at a time when the industry in decline and our distilleries were closing,” Morris said.

As a man, Beam personified the ideal of the southern gentleman. He’s been honored in Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame and the Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame, and received the first-ever lifetime achievement award from the Kentucky Distillers Association.

When he received a lifetime achievement award from the Kentucky Distillers Association in 2015, Beam told the room filled with his colleagues “how grateful he was to the industry, and to us as individuals,” Morris said. The awards ceremony was the last time Morris saw Beam, who “was always a true gentleman, very soft-spoken; he wasn’t boisterous.”

The man who spent his entire career as a distiller at Heaven Hill was also a considerate mentor. Beam took over Heaven Hill’s distillery from his father, and mentored his son, Craig, into the position as well. But Parker also inspired a new generation of distillers, even those who would compete with his own brands.

“Once we got together, it really wasn’t a competition,” Morris said of interacting with Beam over the years. “Quite often, it was’ I’ll have a glass of your whiskey, and oh my gosh, you’re having a glass of my whiskey.'”

Beam’s legacy to the next generation of distillers is critical at this point. The new generation of distillers are rushing the process, not giving bourbon the proper time to age.

“Beam focused on the true whiskey drinker,” Bill Thomas, proprietor of Washington, D.C.’s premiere bourbon tasting room, Jack Rose Dining Saloon, told TheDCNF. Even in recent years when the average price of bourbon began to increase, Heaven Hill kept its prices lower, but at the same time maintained standards that made bourbon popular in the first place.

“We’re losing that,” Thomas said. “The younger distillers don’t approach it from that way. They don’t start out with solid brands or they’re bringing out whiskey too young.”

Thomas also remembers how committed Beam was to the art of creating bourbon. Even in recent years, when he struggled against the effects of his disease, Beam made an effort to attend the Kentucky Distillers Association’s Bourbon Affair. “Even though ALS had taken quite a toll on him, and he wasn’t particularly verbal, he was there,” Thomas said.

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