By Maggie Kimberl

What's in a name?

Who gets to choose what constitutes a family-owned distillery?
It always amazes me when people maintain that a distillery can’t be family owned because it’s so big, or the family is wealthy, or the product is so popular, or [insert caveat here].

In Kentucky, there are a lot of family-owned distilleries. When you look at the quintessential distilling family in Kentucky, you look at the Beams. There are Beams at distilleries not just in Kentucky, but dotted throughout history in various distilleries.
The Beams owned a distilling company up until Prohibition. Some of the Beams stayed in the distilling business, though. Joseph Beam went to Juarez, Mexico during Prohibition with Mary Dowling, owner of Waterfill & Frazier, to set up the distilling shop outside the borders of Prohibition-era America and make Bourbon.

In Kentucky during Prohibition, one of the six distilleries that had licenses to distribute medicinal spirits, the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery, had to hire Elmo Beam to run the stills during the distiller’s holiday that allowed distilleries to replenish their dwindling stocks.

Shortly after Prohibition five Shapira brothers founded Heaven Hill Distillery with Joe Beam as their distiller. Joe Beam turned the reins over to Earl Beam, who eventually did the same to his son Parker Beam, whose death of ALS in 2017 left his son Craig Beam in charge of distilling at Heaven Hill.

Somewhere along the way the Dant family married into the Beam family, combining two major whiskey families.By the end of Prohibition, the Beams couldn’t start their family business back up without outside support. Investors helped the Beam family get back into the distilling business, and the Jim Beam company remained partially family-owned until 2011, when Suntory bought it, keeping the Beam descendants, the Noes, on to run the American side of the business.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of the Beam family’s ownership in the business, though. All those other Beam and Dant descendants who were involved in other distilleries kept the knowledge of the family line of work alive, and today one of the smaller craft distilleries in Kentucky, Limestone Branch, is partially owned by two Beam brothers who had a Dant mother. Another Dant descendant has purchased what was known as the Head & Beam Distillery and has plans to bring it back as the Log Still Distillery.

Family businesses can be tough. Descendants of founders may not want to stay in business, as was the case with Stitzel-Weller Distillery. The descendants of Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle barely got away with the Van Winkle name by reviving the then-defunct Old Rip Van Winkle brand, eventually expanding it to include the Pappy Van Winkle line.

Names on bottles don’t always correspond with the owners of the distilleries that produce them, but they still often tell a story about a family.

Many of those old Kentucky brands have been kept alive by family-owned Heaven Hill: J.T.S. Brown, Bernheim, and Henry McKenna were all real people who made a mark on the distilling industry, while Old Fitzgerald, Cabin Still, and T.W. Samuels are brands that were started by other distilleries that would have been lost to time.

Names on bottles don’t always correspond with the owners of the distilleries...


Families like the Shapiras, Samuels, Beams, Dants, Noes, Ripys, Wellers, Browns, Willetts, Joneses, Thompsons, Taylors, and more built distilling in Kentucky. But there were also families that worked for generations for the same companies, such as a three-generation family of Coopers at the Brown-Forman Cooperage or the famed Johnson family at Buffalo Trace.

Some of the family-owned distilling companies that started in Kentucky are still owned by descendants. For many people in Kentucky, Bourbon is the family business in one way or another. It’s our biggest industry, our greatest supplier of tax revenues, and our greatest supplier of good-paying jobs.

In this context, parsing out what constitutes a family-owned business seems fickle. Yes, distilleries like Heaven Hill and Brown-Forman are family owned. Yes, also distilleries like Jeptha Creed and Kentucky Peerless are family owned. One day maybe the latter group, all founded within the last decade or so, will be enormous family-owned companies run by descendants. We can surely hope.