Heaven Hill master distiller Parker Beam was jogging his normal three-mile route when he lost control of a leg.
In the months to come, muscles gradually started “slowing down,” Beam remembers. “It was really weird.”
Doctors tested him for Parkinson’s. It was negative.
They checked for Alzheimer’s, asking memory questions. He passed.
Then, Beam underwent an incredibly painful nerve conduction test. “They stick needles in every muscle in your body,” he says in slurred speech.
Six years ago this December, Beam was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a horrible disorder that affects nerve cells in the brain and spine.
When Parker publicly announced his illness in 2013, it sent ripples of sadness to the whiskey community. Many distillers, writers and fans have since raised money and awareness in honor of Parker, who is so revered and loved that we often cannot hold back the tears when discussing his plight. Heaven Hill, which continues to employ Parker and pay his benefits, misses him every day and started the Parker Beam Promise of Hope Fund with the ALS Association.
Parker helped bring bourbon back and now, he fights for his life.
By his side every day is his wife, Linda, offering Parker the love and compassion we all hope to find. She never leaves the house and hasn’t been to a restaurant in two years, a devotion of choice, she says. I visited their Springfield, Kentucky, farmhouse one day after the Beam’s 38th marriage anniversary.
Parker can’t move his arms, but still has minimal control of his hands and legs. He can move with assistance. As I arrive, Linda gently places his hands on the walker. He grips with all his might and walks to and sits in a medical-grade recliner. He greets me, slightly raises a finger for a handshake.
I hugged him. He was stiff, only a slight move of the hand.
Hours before, Parker pedaled a Schwinn stationary bike for eleven miles, an everyday activity that sometimes requires two sweat bands. He can’t scratch his head, pull his bed sheets, feed himself or hold his head up for long periods of time. But there’s one thing he can do—and that’s pedal. In the times Linda attempted to pull a struggling cyclist away, Parker fired back: “I’ve got to finish my bike!”
It’s this bike, Linda, kids, grandkids, 400 head of cattle and of course, the distillery that keep him going.
Heaven Hill workers call three to five times a week. You might think they just want to hear his voice, but they’re really calling for his knowledge. Parker is still that important.
Parker and Wild Turkey’s Jimmy Russell are the last of the old school master distillers, a term Parker believes is reserved for only the best. “When I came up, you had to be a mechanic, fix a pump, a hammer mill, prepare the yeast. You had to earn ‘master distiller,’” he says.
If anybody earned the title, it was Parker, who watched his beloved Bardstown facility burn to the ground in 1996, the second worst day of his life, he says.
After the fire, Parker rebounded with one of the greatest all-time bourbon decades, making the Evan Williams Single Barrel and the Parker’s Heritage Collection famous for their rich flavor profiles. He appeared in national media and became a whiskey rock star admired by fans from Australia to Zimbabwe. Even though he lived it, he still can’t believe it. “I didn’t know people would agree with my taste. That recognition was very rewarding,” he says.
And Parker misses it. As Linda feeds him applesauce, Parker talks about how he loved the people, looking down into the fermenters, tasting barrels and the camaraderie of all master distillers.
These days, Parker found similar friendships in ALS and has become a beacon of hope in the ALS community, talking to newly diagnosed sufferers. “I am proud of what we’ve done in ALS even though I wouldn’t wish this honor upon anybody,” he says.
Every day is a struggle. As we’re talking, he breaks, pushes his hand up with his knee and wipes his face. Even though I prepared myself for this interview, I had to restrain the tears in that moment.
Parker is a fighter, right down to the last speck of applesauce on his face.
He still endures the painful tests and tries new treatments, such as one that raises his uric acid levels. Parker jokes he’d rather have gout than ALS.
“He’s not given up,” Linda says.
Neither have his fans.
Note: Due to the personal nature of this story, I shared it with Linda and Parker Beam. It was published with their permission. If you’d like to send Parker well wishes, please comment below or send an email to be forwarded to his family. Learn more about the ALS Parker Beam Promise of Hope Fund. The featured photo is of Parker Beam’s “Parker Heritage” collection.
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