Among great bourbon families it doesn't get much bigger than the name Beam. And as Charles K.Cowdery reports, another generation is considering its options
One day you’re driving through Ohio, on the interstate highway, just minding your own business. You pass a flatbed truck. It is hauling something strange, unfamiliar.It looks like a big copper pot, but it is huge, the biggest copper anything you have ever seen.And it is not alone. There is a second truck and a second, smaller copper pot, also gleaming in the sun, and what look like two copper chimneys, and another big pot that is some kind of grey steel, and some massive wooden tubs.One, two, three of them.And other stuff too; pipe, tanks, motors. Mostly pipe. Lots and lots of pipe.You try to keep your mind and eyes on the road, but glance inside the truck cabs as you pass and also into the cars that follow close behind.The men inside seem a little giddy.This scene was repeated perhaps hundreds of times that day because motorists who happened to pass this strange procession were witnessing something rare, perhaps unprecedented in modern American history; a complete whiskey distillery in transit.If the men in the vehicles seemed giddy it was because they were having an improbable adventure involving something that comes as naturally to them as breathing air does to the rest of us.These were not ordinary men. These were Beams, direct descendants of pioneer Jacob Beam and kin to Jim Beam. Not all of them, but the others were friends, industry veterans too, also with red whiskey where their blood should be.In the year of the grand procession, 1996, David Beam had just retired after a long career as distiller at the Jim Beam Brands Company, which his family had not owned since Prohibition, but where he and his brother had practised their peculiar craft and made a nice living.David’s brother is Baker Beam, who has a bourbon named after him. Baker, the older brother, retired in 1992, but when they were both employed at the Jim Beam Clermont distillery they split the 24-hour-day between them; Baker on days, David on nights.Whiskey-making is definitely not a nine-to-five profession.Their father was Carl Beam, who everybody called ‘Shucks.’ He made Jim Beam whiskey from the end of Prohibition until he retired in 1974.Shucks, Edna and their kids lived in that big white house above the distillery, the one the tourists go through today, so the master distiller could always be there when they needed him at the plant. That is where Baker and David grew up and it is how they grew up too.Their grandfather, Parker Beam, was Jim Beam’s younger brother and partner, both before and after Prohibition.Their second cousin, Booker Noe, was the third student in their dad’s bourbon-making school.While Baker and David ran Clermont, Booker ran the company’s second plant, in nearby Boston, Kentucky. Their first cousin, Parker, son of their dad’s brother, Earl, makes the whiskey over at Heaven Hill with his son, Craig.Did you follow all that?There are other families with deep roots in the bourbon-making business, but none like the Beams. They are bourbon royalty, its first family.Besides David, the other Beams in the 1996 procession from Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania, to Bardstown, Kentucky (637 miles), were his three sons; Bill, Troy and John Ed. This equipment is to be their legacy. Maybe. Sort of.Another Beam, a distant cousin, was responsible for it being in Pennsylvania in the first place.His name was Everett, whose father was Joseph L. Beam, Jim Beam’s first cousin. Everett had six brothers who all made whiskey too. Most of Everett’s career was spent far from the bluegrass, at the Pennsylvania distillery best remembered by the name Michter.In 1976, in honour of the American bicentennial, his employers had him install a small distillery such as might have been used back in 1776.Its centrepiece was a 550 gallon copper pot still. The small distillery, which Michter’s ran from 1976 until the entire place closed 12 years later, made one barrel of whiskey per day.After Michter’s stopped producing, the property went through several owners, all of whom dreamed of reopening it. By 1996, that dream had died and everything was for sale. David Beam bought the small plant. It included three wooden fermenters, a cooker, a condenser, various tanks, a large beer still and a smaller doubler or spirit still.When they got the distillery to Bardstown, David, his sons and their friends unloaded and set it up in a small building next to a motel the family owns. Troy, the middle son who runs the motel, could keep an eye on it there.They put labels on everything. It looks real nice. But it has been there for eight years now and hasn’t made any whiskey. Bill, Troy and John Ed still hold on to the dream, but they all have full lives that don’t include whiskey-making.Bill, 40, is a quality engineer. Troy, 38, runs the motel. John Ed, 34, is a salesman. Bill and Troy have families, John Ed is newly wed.Their dad is of two minds on the subject of starting up the mini-distillery. Some days he says that is why he went to all the trouble of bringing it to Kentucky, so his sons could regain their family birthright.On other days, David says they would all have to be crazy to start a distillery. On those days, he says he just bought it because he likes to have it around, having grown up at a distillery the way he did.The big obstacles, of course, are money and time which, as we all know, are the same thing. You have to run a distillery faithfully for six or seven years before you can sell anything.With a production capacity of about 360 barrels a year, maybe as much as 1,000 if you run it full time, you’ll need rackhouses capable of storing about 7,000 barrels. And you will need to buy those 7,000 barrels at about $125 each. That’s an $875,000 investment right there.Then there is grain, maybe 15,000 bushels of corn per year, lesser amounts of rye and malt, and you will need silos to keep it in and mills to grind it.You also will need boilers, gas or some other fuel to fire them, a lot of water, chillers to manage your process water temperature, some way to dispose of spent grain and other waste, plus salaries for a minimum of four people per day, two each shift, more if there are tourists to entertain.Then, even after your whiskey has matured, you’ll have only – best case – maybe 20,000 cases of it to sell each year.Can you make a business out of that? How much can you charge for a bottle of six or seven-year-old bourbon, even if it is handmade by real live Beams? Maybe you can charge visitors $5 a head for tours. Maybe the gift shop will make some money.Bill, Troy and John Ed know too little to do any of this on their own. Their father and uncle probably know too much.None of them are shy about hard work. That is not the problem. They all know how demanding running a distillery can be.On the other hand, they are Beams. Something deep inside is telling them to make whiskey.Will it ever be enough to have the shell of a distillery in their possession without the fiery lifeblood coursing through it?The Beams are in a quandary and it’s not the sort of quandary that is likely to go away. Don’t you get the feeling that the end of this story has not been written yet?
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