In the pit of my stomach I knew something wasn’t right.
Parker Beam, Heaven Hill’s legendary master distiller, seemed frail and not quite himself. While at first I was tempted to chalk it up to the collateral exhaustion of making whiskey for decades and the demands of his new role as a celebrity in our modern bourbon-obsessed world, I had a bad feeling that something was off.
I wish I had been wrong.
Several months after our conversation—in the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone during the 2012 Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans—Heaven Hill announced that Parker was battling ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). Over the next four years, as the disease robbed him of his profession and, this past Sunday, his life, he used the recent popularity of American whiskey to raise awareness and funds for ALS research. Heaven Hill, through its different initiatives, including its acclaimed Promise of Hope special bottling of Parker’s Heritage Collection, collected more than $500,000.
I think Parker was heartened by the outpouring of support. He had been making bourbon long enough to experience its transformation from commodity to artisanal craft. During the last 15 years, the Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, and Rittenhouse Rye he spent a lifetime producing won numerous (and well-deserved) awards and honors. He became a respected mentor to countless distillers and writers, and took his rightful place in the Bourbon Hall of Fame a couple years ago.
So what was a Beam doing at Heaven Hill anyway? Well, for a long time it was said you couldn’t have a bourbon distillery without a member of the Beam family. In fact, when the five Shapira brothers started Heaven Hill, back in 1934, right after the repeal of Prohibition, it wasn’t long before a Beam was making the bourbon. Parker’s father, Earl (who was Jim Beam’s nephew), was hired in 1946 and it only made sense that his son and grandson, Craig, would follow suit. The family trees of the Shapira and Beam families have grown ever more entwined over the ensuing decades as the two clans produced and sold millions upon millions of barrels of American whiskey.
While we all knew that Parker’s diagnosis was terminal, I still find myself struggling with his death, at the age of 75. My normal steel-trap memory has unexpectedly failed me and I can’t remember what we talked about on the aforementioned day in New Orleans, which was sadly the last time we had an extended amount of time to catch up. No doubt it was about some bit of bourbon history or technique, which is what we usually chatted about.
In a selfish attempt to spend a little more time with him, even second handedly, I asked our contributors and some friends for their favorite Parker memories and anecdotes. Here is what they shared:
My favorite Parker bit is the one I put in my book, Tasting Whiskey. Parker was grousing about how people talked about what they tasted in his whiskey. “People say they taste mangoes, and leather,” he told me. “I don’t put mangoes or leather in the whiskey. I put in corn, and I age it in oak barrels, and that’s what I taste: corn and oak!” He was not a man with a lot of patience for bullshit. But he taught me more about bourbon than almost anyone, except for maybe Wild Turkey’s long-serving master distiller Jimmy Russell, and he had a better sense of humor than almost anyone in the industry, except for maybe Jimmy Russell. And he taught all of us something about grit during the last few years. Most of all, though, he made great bourbon, at a fair price. Can’t ask for more than that. God bless, Parker Beam, God bless.
ALLEN KATZ, CO-FOUNDER OF THE NEW YORK DISTILLING COMPANY
Humble, generous, and genuine, Parker was always available with encouragement or instruction. In addition to offering my earliest education on whiskey distilling, my favorite memory of Parker will always be when he took time from his personal schedule to conduct a vertical tasting of Evan Williams Single Barrel and Parker’s Heritage for my friends and family the day before my wedding.
I first met Parker something like a dozen years ago, when I was fortunate enough to be in Louisville for a vertical tasting of the first 10 years’ worth of Evan Williams Single Barrel, one of my favorite bourbons. After the tasting, which Parker led with authority, dignity, and rectitude, there was a dinner. After the dinner, there were drinks. I can’t remember if they were in my room, Jim Murray’s room, or the room shared by Gary Regan and the late Mardee Haidin Regan, but there was bourbon and we all drank it. There I saw another side of Parker—not that he was anything less than gentlemanly, but he was also warm, just loose enough and very funny, with a fund of anecdotes that was deeper than the stash of barrels in the rickhouses he had filled. With him we have lost another big link in the golden chain that connects the modern whiskey industry to its anchor in the past. It needs that anchor, and people like Parker, more than it realizes.
Over the past 30 or so years, consumers have enjoyed a renaissance in what we eat and drink, from coffee to tea to craft beer. Quite simply, we’re drinking better and smarter. Just as a rising tide raises all boats, it must be remembered that the fruits of an incoming tide can be credited to individuals who’ve spent their careers making a difference, by following their ideals and pursuing a level of excellence that brought about the advancements and improvements that are the foundations of this renaissance. We lost one of those bright lights with the passing of Parker Beam. As a pioneer and visionary in the bourbon whiskey industry, particularly as one of the early apostles of the small-batch-bourbon field, his legacy will endure for many years to come, as an ambassador, an advocate and a gentleman.
Parker had the same qualities as the best bourbons, many of which he made: unfussy and accessible in a way that makes you forget how much hard work, skill and patience it all requires.