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America’s First Family of Bourbon: The Beams

Members of the Beam family have worked at dozens of different distilleries and shaped the American whiskey category.

Lew BrysonUpdated Jan. 22, 2020 3:18PM ET / Published Jan. 22, 2020 5:17AM ET 

James Beauregard Beam was distilling bourbon well before Prohibition, and when Prohibition ended, he was eager to do it again. At the news of Repeal, Jim Beam (as he was commonly known) turned to his son Jeremiah, his brother Park Beam and Park’s two sons, Carl and Earl, and said, “boys, time for us to get back to work.”

But the Beams were broke. Prohibition had not been kind to them. A family knack for success in the distilling business proved to be less than translatable to other endeavors, including a rock quarry and an orange grove. So, Jim had to scramble and find investors in Illinois to fund a new distillery. Once he got the money together, with his son and two nephews, they built a distillery in 120 days, doing a lot of the work themselves. Even though Jim was 70-years-old, he was on site every day. The new distillery opened on March 25, 1935. 

After Prohibition, James Beauregard Beam A.K.A. Jim Beam, restarted his family’s whiskey business.

Before Prohibition, the Beam family brand had been Old Tub Bourbon Whiskey. To Jim’s dismay, he learned that the rights to the name had been sold during Prohibition. Despite this setback, he was undeterred and that’s when the whiskey officially became Jim Beam Bourbon. Real man; real whiskey; true story. 

It’s a great piece of whiskey history, but it’s only a small, small part of the Beams’ story. The family had a huge influence on distilling in America and helped build dozens of bourbon brands, including Maker’s Mark, Stitzel-Weller, Early Times, Four Roses, Michter’s, Barton, and, quite famously, Heaven Hill. 

The Beams can truly lay claim to being America’s first family of bourbon. Read on for more about the family’s incredible legacy.THE PATRIARCH

All of the branches on the Beam family tree lead back to a single man who was born in southeastern Pennsylvania to German immigrants in the early 1750s: Johannes Jakob Boehm. 

His friends would later convince him to Americanize his name and he became Jacob Beam. (Some records have him born in Germany, but it is most likely he was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1752. We think.)

Beam lived in Pennsylvania and Maryland, where he married a woman named Mary Myers before passing through the Cumberland Gap in the late 1780s and settling in Kentucky. Mary got 100 acres of land in Kentucky from her father in the 1790s; 100 acres on a stream, presumably with good distilling water. There are no records per se, but both Beam family tradition and company lore point to 1795 as the year when Jacob Beam first started selling his “Old Jake Beam” whiskey by the barrel. ADVERTISING

Jacob and Mary had a dozen children. Their eighth child, David, was born in 1802. When he turned 18, in 1820, Jacob was in his sixties, and apparently decided that David would take over the family’s Old Tub Distillery. He soon after married Elizabeth Settle and they had around a dozen children. All of the Beams who got into the bourbon business are descendants of David’s three sons: John “Jack” Beam, David M. Beam and Joseph M. Beam.TWO OF THE THREE SONS

Jack Beam worked at the Old Tub Distillery until his older brother David M. relocated it and named it for himself. (Put a pin in that; we’ll get back to David later.) Jack got the message and opened his own distillery, which he called Early Times. It became a huge success, and although Jack lost financial control of the distillery, he still did very well as its head distiller. His son, Edward Beam, took over in 1894. Tragically, Jack and Edward died within two months of each other in 1915. (Yes, this is that Early Times brand, which is still available and currently owned by Brown-Forman; they bought the remaining stocks and the intellectual property during Prohibition.)

Jack’s brother Joseph M. Beam and his wife Mary Ellen had fourteen children; we know of two who made whiskey. One was Minor Case Beam (and sadly, the origins of his unique name is a mystery), who would eventually run his own distillery, the M.C. Beam Distillery, in Gethsemane, Kentucky. His son, Guy, worked in the business, and would distill in Canada during Prohibition. 

Guy’s son Jack, in turn, worked at the Barton Distillery. His other son, Walter, Minor Case’s grandson, wasn’t a distiller, but almost every time I go to Kentucky I visit the business he started. Walter, who was known as “Toddy,” opened Toddy’s Liquors in Bardstown, Kentucky, which is still thriving. It’s a small store with a great selection of special bottles. Fred Noe even worked there when he was young…but I’m getting ahead of the story.

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Minor Case’s brother was Joseph L. Beam, who came to be known as “Mister Joe.” Mister Joe worked at the Stitzel Distillery, which would ultimately become the Stitzel-Weller Distillery of Pappy Van Winkle fame, and at the Old Heaven Hill Springs Distillery (the original name of Heaven Hill). 

That would start about 80 years of Beams distilling for Heaven Hill. After Mister Joe, his son Harry became the first master distiller at the new Heaven Hill Distillery. He was followed by Harry’s second cousin Earl, who was master distiller for many years. He turned over the reins to his son, the revered Parker Beam who passed away in 2017. Parker is remembered in the ongoing Parker’s Heritage Collection of bourbon, and in the line of Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage Bourbon he created. I learned a lot from Parker. His son Craig was also co-master distiller at Heaven Hill with Parker for some time. 

But Harry wasn’t Mister Joe’s only whiskey making son. He had six other sons who went into the business! Wilmer worked at Taylor & Williams. Roy would work at the Frankfort Distillery; his sons Jack and Charlie would work at Taylor & Williams and Four Roses, respectively. Desmond also worked at Frankfort, and Otis worked at the Old Judge Distillery. Elmo worked at Maker’s Mark, and Everett Beam wound up at the original Michter’s Distillery in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania. THE DANT CONNECTION

Let’s go back to Guy Beam, Minor Case’s son, since that leads to a whole other branch of distillers. Guy married Mary Burch in a double wedding; her younger sister Cora married Michael Dant. If that last name sounds familiar to you, you’re a connoisseur of great value bourbon; Michael was the grandson of J.W. Dant, immortalized in the brand still sold by Heaven Hill, J.W. Dant Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon. 

Two great bourbon families tied the knot that day, but the families weren’t done intermarrying. Michael Dant’s cousin, Kathleen Dant-Bowling, had a daughter named Dottie Ann Bowling. She married Guy and Mary Beam’s son, James P. Beam. (Keeping track of the Beams is a full-time job, and the plethora of men named James doesn’t make it any easier!) Dottie and James had two sons, Stephen Beam and James P. “Paul” Beam, who are in the whiskey business today and co-founded the Limestone Branch Distillery. 

But stick with me, we’re not quite done here. In 2014, Stephen and Paul merged Limestone Branch with Luxco, the St. Louis-based bottler of Rebel Yell and Ezra Brooks. They are now making Yellowstone Bourbon, a brand originally begun by their great-great-uncle, J.B. Dant. Everything eventually comes back around in the bourbon world. DAVID BEAM & SONS

For the final chapter in this Book of Beams, let’s go back to David M. Beam, the third distilling son of David Beam. You’ll remember that he took over Old Tub and renamed it the D.M. Beam Distillery. His sons James B. “Jim” Beam and Park Beam would both distill there, and their brother-in-law Albert Hart would work there as well, and the distillery would be renamed Beam & Hart (although most people apparently still called it Old Tub). When Prohibition came along and shut them down, Jim Beam was 56-years-old. He would, fortunately, outlast the “Noble Experiment” and rise again.  

Jim Beam may not have owned the new post-Prohibition distillery with his name on it, but it was very much a Beam family operation. Jim’s son Jeremiah ran the company with his brother-in-law, Frederick Booker Noe. Park’s son Carl was the master distiller, and his two sons, Baker (the Baker’s” of the Small Batch Bourbon) and David would both distill there.

Frederick Booker Noe’s son, Booker Noe Jr., would become the famous big man who was the master distiller of Jim Beam through the lean years of the 1970s and ’80s, the man who developed the Small Batch Bourbons that helped save the industry. It is his name that is on the powerful uncut and unfiltered Booker’s Bourbon. His son, Fred Noe, has become the modern face of Jim Beam Bourbon around the world, a wise old head with a sharp palate. Booker’s grandson and Fred’s son, Frederick Booker Noe IV A.K.A. Freddie, is a promising blender who created the excellent “Little Book” series of blended Beam straight whiskies. THE BEAM FAMILY’S REACH

The Beam family represents an amazing generational influence on American whiskey. There are other great bourbon families with multi-generational connections to the industry–the Medleys, the Wathens, the Browns, the Samuels, the Moores, the aforementioned Dants, and others–but the Beams stand alone. 

Beams have been making whiskey in America from 1795 till today. Well, almost; they had to go to Canada and Mexico to continue making whiskey during Prohibition, but they did make the trek and kept distilling. At least 30 of Jacob Beam’s descendants were distillers or master distillers. At least 30 different distilleries in North America have run under a Beam at some point. And at least 40 different brands of whiskey were developed by Beams. No other family comes close to that kind of influence. 

The Beams are, of course, still making whiskey: besides young Booker Noe at Beam, Carl Beam’s great-grandson Ben Beam is working at Michter’s. This whiskey drinker hopes there will always be Beams making great whiskey in America. 

Carl Beam’s great-grandson Ben Beam is now working at Michter’s new Fort Nelson distillery.
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