Battle with ALS inspires a tribute by bourbon makers

jpatton1@herald-leader.comJuly 15, 2013 

Parker Beam, master distiller at Heaven Hill in Bardstown and Louisville, was diagnosed with ALS last year.


Kentucky's bourbon makers are banding together to support one of their own and to raise money for research into ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Seven distilleries are creating a one-time only special blend of their best stuff in tribute to Heaven Hill master distiller emeritus Parker Beam, who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis last year.

As a sixth-generation distiller from the storied Beam family, Parker Beam has made a mark on Kentucky bourbon that extends beyond the bottle.

"I admire Parker and respect him for everything he's accomplished in nearly 54 years at Heaven Hill, but most of all he's a true gentleman and friend," said Jim Rutledge, master distiller at Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg. "For years, I felt like he was more than a friend, felt like he was a brother, and I'm probably not the only one who feels that way."

Bourbon from Four Roses, Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey, Jim Beam and Maker's Mark will be blended together with Parker's selections from Heaven Hill for Master Distillers' Unity, as it will be known.

"I think the overall intent is to raise awareness of ALS and raise money for the foundation and the search for a cure. We all believe that's very important. That's the practical reason," said Chris Morris, Woodford Reserve master distiller. "But the camaraderie of our companies, the high regard we hold Parker in, also is a great inducement for participation, to show our regards for him."

Buffalo Trace master distiller Harlen Wheatley said his company was honored to be asked to participate in such a worthwhile project.

"The brotherhood of the bourbon industry runs deep in Kentucky, and when one of us needs help, we are all eager to pitch in. "

The effort is unusual because so many bourbons will be blended together.

"Blending whiskey isn't something we've ever done at Maker's Mark, but since it's raising money in support of an industry icon and for a great cause, we're honored to be part of Parker's effort," said Rob Samuels of Maker's Mark. "We're not sure what it will taste like, but maybe just this once there's something more important than taste."

For Fred Noe, who also is Parker Beam's cousin, the chance to create a "family blend" was extra special, and he predicted that the bourbon will taste pretty good, too.

"It was a pleasure to step up," said Noe, master distiller at Jim Beam. "It will be good because everyone gave good stuff. We pulled some good barrels, gave them some good stuff, extra-aged bourbon. Everybody involved makes good bourbon. Put it all together and it will be very, very special."

Two bottles in crystal decanters with silver closures of Master Distillers' Unity will be sold together at the annual Bonhams Whisky, Cognac & Rare Spirits auction, Oct. 13 in New York. One is to keep and one is to drink, if the buyer is so inclined.

This 100 proof straight bourbon will make only one other appearance, Kass said: at a special tribute toast to Beam at WhiskyFest in New York that same weekend.

Heaven Hill has made a video of Parker Beam visiting all the Kentucky distilleries and reminiscing with his fellow master distillers to show at the event.

Many of them plan to be there to honor him.

"There won't be a dry eye," Rutledge said.

The Unity bourbon won't be available to customers, but there will be another opportunity to buy something special and support the fight against ALS.

Heaven Hill will release the seventh in the Parker's Heritage Collection this fall — the Promise of Hope 10-year-old, 96 proof edition — and will donate $20 for each bottle. The fund is expected to generate at least $250,000 from the Promise of Hope bottle and other fundraising efforts, according to Heaven Hill.


For more on the Parker Beam Promise of Hope Fund:

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.

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