The whiskey industry is, at the end of the day, about the power of humanity.
It is a somber moment for me as I write this column. Returning from a trip to New York I happened to check my email through my iPhone just prior to boarding my flight. An emailed statement put out by Heaven Hill stopped me dead in my tracks and made me lose my breath – whiskey industry legend Parker Beam, one of the last of a generation of distillers that were truly masters of their craft, had passed. And in that moment I felt great pain in my heart.
Much will be said of Parker Beam in the coming days. Those who are in the industry, particularly those few who are left from his generation as well as his family and the many individuals at Heaven Hill, will mourn his loss. He was one of the greats, and it will likely be years down the line before we see others of his stature. Yes, I know – there are many up and coming distillers of a younger generation – but the true legends are now one less star in the sky.
For all the whiskey industry has become, with hundreds upon hundreds of distilleries around the world now doing whiskey and other spirits in various methods and ways, it is still the power of the human spirit which drives what distillers and their kin do. It may seem glamorous to those of us who look at it from the outside, but I can tell you from countless discussions with those who do this job it is a labor of love done over countless hours, an extension of themselves which sees every ounce of liquor that is distilled, every ounce of whiskey that goes into a barrel, as a child they call their own.
Now it is true a lot of distilling these days at the level of a Heaven Hill is done in amounts which lose some of that human touch. It is not always a distiller any longer with just a few hundred barrels, spending time filling and draining each as they taste through aged whiskey potentially ready for bottling. I’ve been inside a range of what would easily be considered industrial distilleries where much of what happens is, in some fashion, a push button experience. There is still though, at the end of the day, a distiller, or distillers, accountable to what is the final product. They use their knowledge, accumulated over hundreds of hours of trial and error in as hands on of a way as they can, to craft a product that becomes your much beloved brown spirit.
Yes, there is a lot of technology at the bigger distilleries, but it is also still something of an art form, something created by a team of individuals, perhaps led by the likes of Beam, who have a passion for the whiskey they make just as much as what you feel when you drink it.
Parker Beam began his journey into the world of whiskey in 1960, and until he semi-retired because of ALS issues back in 2014, was busy making whiskey at Heaven Hill. Consider that for a second – he had over 50 years of crafting experience. Few today can say that, though what they do as distillers in our modern era nonetheless follows in the footsteps of one like Beam. Someday we may well see many of them having had such an illustrious career as he.
So raise a glass to Beam, and in doing that raise a glass as well to the countless other distillers out there who do what they do. They are, after all, just as human as you and I, and in that and whiskey we all share a common bond.