Remembering Parker Beam, Heaven Hill Master Distiller and Bourbon Legend
This week, the spirits world was stunned and saddened to learn that Parker Beam, the beloved long-time master distiller at Heaven Hill, passed away after a hard-fought battle with ALS.
After working alongside his father, Earl Beam, in the distillery for years, Mr. Beam became Heaven Hill’s Master Distiller in 1975, making him the sixth-generation Beam family member to oversee the family’s bourbon legacy. As Susannah Skiver Barton of Whisky Advocate writes, “Parker’s prowess as a master distiller became legendary over the course of his career.” His tenure was marked by a Whisky Advocate Lifetime Achievement Award, in addition to the dozens awards garnered by the bourbons he and his Heaven Hill colleagues made together.
Over the decades, Mr. Beam became known not only for his talent, ingenuity and passion for the American bourbon industry, but also for his love of mentoring others. “As bourbon’s popularity grew, Parker became the face of the Heaven Hill brand, and he spent time traveling around the world to represent American bourbon and inspire a future generation of distillers,” writes Margarett Waterbury of The Whiskey Wash. “Watching the bourbon industry recover and blossom was one of Parker’s great joys.”
His impact on the bourbon industry is profound, but Mr. Beam’s legacy is known outside the spirits world, too: he also used his talent to help fight his disease, for which there is no known cure. After sharing his ALS diagnosis publicly in 2013, Beam created the Parker’s Heritage Collection, a series of Heaven Hill whiskeys benefitting the ALS Promise Fund by donating $20 for each bottle sold. According to the Bardstown Whiskey Society, the funds raised from this initiative exceed half a million dollars.
Fred Minnick, award-winning whiskey writer who wrote a deeply moving profile of Mr. Beam last year in the midst of his battle with ALS, describes him as “the golden palate of the bourbon industry, and beloved by all.”
“Why are any of us drinking bourbon at all these days?” asks Amanda Schuster, Senior Editor-in-Chief of Alcohol Professor. “It has a lot to do with Mr. Beam, who led Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky out of a time of darkness and into what has been termed a ‘golden age’ for the category.”
“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 gentleman integrity,” the Kentucky Distillers’ Association said in a statement. “His place in our industry’s rich distilling history is beyond reproach, as few can match his 55 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.”
Max Shapira, Heaven Hill Brands President, shared the following statement about the loss:
I, along with our entire Heaven Hill family, am saddened to share that our Master Distiller Emeritus, Parker Beam, passed away last night after a long and valiant battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS. All of us within the company, and the general public, watched with awe and admiration as Parker and Linda waged a much publicized war against this terrible disease, using their courage, his standing as one of the industry’s great Master Distillers and his wide sphere of influence to generate international awareness, and millions of dollars, for ALS research and treatment.
Starting in 1960 when he joined his father Earl here, and continuing through his appointment as Master Distiller in 1975, succeeding his father, 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, and paving the way for Heaven Hill to be the category leader we are today. There are no awards Parker has not won—charter member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame, Whisky Advocate Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame, they go on and on—but what we will remember most about Parker was the leadership, the can-do attitude, and the kind and selfless mentoring he did to his son Craig and a whole new generation of Bourbon distillers.
"The Tales of the Cocktail team sends our heartfelt thoughts to Parker Beam’s loving family, friends, colleagues, and the many people impacted by Mr. Beam’s life and craft over the years," says Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales of the Cocktail. "We are deeply saddened to lose a special man who contributed so much to our industry."
If you’d like to pay tribute to Parker Beam’s legacy, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association lists both the ALS Promise Fund and the Nelson County Humane Society as the organizations Mr. Beam was most passionate about.