Image: Parker Beam, Craig Beam
Ed Reinke  /  AP
“If you were a Beam, you sort of were destined to follow in the footsteps of either your father, grandfathers, cousins or uncles,” said Parker Beam, a grandnephew of Jim Beam. He is passing the trade along to his son Craig.
updated 6/17/2007 3:21:01 PM ET 2007-06-17T19:21:01

The small group of men responsible for making Kentucky bourbons think of themselves as a fraternity, where friendships seem as enduring as whiskey recipes. At some distilleries, those bonds are even tighter — connecting fathers and sons.

At Heaven Hill Distilleries, Craig Beam traces some of his earliest memories to his carefree days tagging along as his father carried on the family tradition.

His father, Parker Beam, had the same boyhood indoctrination — learning at his dad’s side.

Now, Parker and Craig Beam share duties as co-master distillers at Bardstown-based Heaven Hill, an independent producer of distilled spirits owned by the Shapira family. The company’s bourbon brands include Evan Williams and Elijah Craig.

In the heart of Kentucky, where making whiskey has been a way of life even before statehood, the craft has been passed down from one generation to the next. The Beam family traces its Kentucky whiskey heritage to 1795, when family patriarch Jacob Beam set up a still.

“If you were a Beam, you sort of were destined to follow in the footsteps of either your father, grandfathers, cousins or uncles,” said Parker Beam, a grandnephew of Jim Beam.

There are other enduring bloodlines among some distilleries churning out the smooth, amber-hued whiskey in Kentucky bourbon country. While the bourbons are controlled by large liquor companies, making the product remains a quaint family tradition at some distilleries.

At the Pernod Ricard-owned Wild Turkey distillery at Lawrenceburg, longtime master distiller Jimmy Russell has been grooming his son Eddie in the ways of the craft.

Eddie Russell, 47, spent boyhood days playing in the distillery and the cavernous warehouses where bourbon ages in oak barrels. “Everything was just so big,” he recalled. “For a little kid, it seemed like the whole world was there.

As he reached adulthood, he soon realized he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“It has to be something in your blood or in your genes,” he said. “I came here for a summer job and within two weeks I realized this is where I wanted to spend my career.”

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Now, in those same warehouses where he played as a boy, Eddie Russell oversees the aging of hundreds of thousands of barrels filled with Wild Turkey bourbon and has been groomed to one day succeed his father, who has spent more than a half-century at Wild Turkey.

At Jim Beam, Fred Noe promotes its brands as bourbon ambassador and is training to someday fill the role of his father — longtime master distiller Booker Noe, who died in 2004.

“I’m a chip off the old block,” said Fred Noe, a great-grandson of Jim Beam.

As a boy, the younger Noe fished and hunted near the distillery. He bonded with his father while watching him meticulously check distillery equipment on weekends.

“He had sly ways of teaching as well as making it fun,” Fred Noe said.

His father would get around to quizzing him to determine if his son had been listening to the lessons. “That was the part I didn’t like too much,” Fred Noe said.

The fatherly advice imparting the intricacies of bourbon making went on for years. “Up until almost the day he passed away, he was still telling me stuff,” he said.

Maker’s Mark President Bill Samuels Jr. is a seventh-generation bourbon maker in Kentucky who as a child played at the feet of an aging Jim Beam. The family tradition is being carried on by Samuels’ son, Rob, who is working as global marketing manager at Maker’s Mark.

Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark are owned by consumer brands giant Fortune Brands Inc.

John Hansell, publisher and editor of Malt Advocate, a consumer-whiskey magazine, said the father-son tandems help preserve the traditions of bourbon production. “It’s one of those things that’s very special and treasured about the bourbon industry,” he said.

Those close ties among bourbon makers extend beyond family.

Unlike rival sales and marketing staffs, where competition is fierce among liquor companies, the master distillers have forged close friendships through the years.

Parker Beam said he considers Jimmy Russell “a great friend” who would do anything to help him out of a bind. Beam said he would gladly do the same for Russell or another master distiller. Fred Noe said when his father was ill, Russell called frequently to check on him.

“We’re all buddies,” Fred Noe said. “We enjoy hanging out together, tasting bourbon together, seeing what each other is doing.”

Still, the industry patriarchs relish the chance to hand down the tradition to their sons.

But they didn’t take it easy on them.

Eddie Russell put in long days working alongside distillery crews. He moved bulky bourbon barrels in and out of warehouses and worked on the bottling line.

It was part of his father’s plan to acquaint him with every phase of making bourbon.

“The first thing he told me was, ‘You’re my son, you need to work twice as hard as everyone else,”’ Eddie Russell said.

Jimmy Russell, 72, said he was careful not to prod his son into the business.

Craig Beam, 48, had his own humble start. On one summer break from school, he cleaned pigeon droppings in a vacant warehouse purchased by Heaven Hill. He later drove a truck for the distillery and worked in the bottling operation.

As a teenager, he suspected he’d end up working at the distillery, though he harbored thoughts of becoming a veterinarian or meteorologist. Now he oversees daily operations for Heaven Hills’ bourbon production.

“I’ve got a whole lot to live up to with my father and grandfather,” Craig Beam said. “I’ve got a lot of weight on my shoulders.”

If another Beam generation carries on the tradition as master distiller at Heaven Hill, it could result in a gender breakthrough in the decidedly male vocation. Craig Beam’s two children are teenage daughters. Right now, though, they have other priorities, he said.

“They’re interested in cars and boys,” he said. “But you never know.”

Booker Noe, whose career spanned more than a half-century at Jim Beam, learned the trade from an uncle who was a son of Jim Beam. The uncle had no children of his own, “so when it came time to bring somebody into the business, he looked to my dad,” Fred Noe said.

Fred Noe, 50, cherishes his fathers’ lessons. Foremost was his insistence on consistency in making bourbon — a lesson he taught by example at the distillery he spent much of his life.

“When I walk through there, I can remember the days me and dad were there and I can almost feel him being there with me,” he said. “He’s looking down on us making sure everything is going the way he wanted it to go.”

Hansell said he hopes those family traditions endure amid giant liquor companies with global business strategies.

“Let’s just hope that they’re wise enough to continue to allow the families to stay in the business like that,” he said.

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