Whiskey lost its bravest soul. After a six year ALS battle, Parker Beam passed away last night.
He was 75.
The longtime Heaven Hill master distiller was the golden palate of the bourbon industry and beloved by all. At 2013 WhiskyFest, his competing distillers honored him with a special “Unity” bottling that raised more than $10,000 for ALS research. Since his diagnosis, many distillers were brought to tears when publicly talking about Parker. He meant so much to American whiskey.
His life was one of pure joy and these traits showed in his whiskey. Every drop of Evan Williams, Elijah Craig and Heaven Hill’s other brands were Parker’s toil.
In 1960, Parker joined his father Earl, the master distiller. Heaven Hill credits Parker for much of bourbon’s comeback. “It was Parker who saw us through Bourbon’s first golden age in the 1960s, its subsequent decline in the 1970s 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, Whiskey 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 company said in a statement. “At this time, however, our thoughts and prayers first go out to his family.”
Parker cared about you as a person and treated you like family.
When I started covering whiskey in 2006, Parker took an interest in my life and didn’t see me as just another media hit. He really liked the fact I talked about the bloodlines of Angus cattle and my agriculture background.
Like many great distillers, Parker’s passions were whiskey and cattle. Well into his ALS battle, Parker drove his ATV to move cattle, and we talked about cattle prices during my last visit with him in May.
Aside from the occasional mention of the famous bull Sugar Ray, I mostly stuck to whiskey, and he talked about his brands as if they were his children. If you liked one of his whiskeys, well, you were practically family, and he’d sign anything you wanted. Ash tray? Sure, where’s the pen? Somebody else’s barrelhead? Um, you do know, “I’m not with Jim Beam,” he’d say, but he’d sign something else. Parker loved the rockstar status master distillers receive today, something he wished his father, Earl, could have enjoyed.
When I learned of his diagnoses, I knew there were not many medical advances to fight this crippling and horrible disease. For many, they just give up and die months after the ALS diagnosis.
But not Parker.
He fought ALS with the same vigor he had for life. He exercised daily, drove until he lost 100% control in his arms and still assisted Heaven Hill with its distilling duties. Parker was so valued and loved that production workers called him well into his sickness for questions about grains and equipment. He loved the drama with this year’s presidential election and still opined about the state of American whiskey.
One thing that bugged Parker was the term master distiller, a title he believed should be 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 told me last May.
Nobody ever questioned Parker’s title. He was bourbon’s master distiller. He was bourbon.
Fred Minnick is the author of Bourbon: The Rise, Fall & Rebirth of An American Whiskey