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Dads, Sons & Bourbon: A Kentucky Tradition

Parker Beam and his son, Craig, pose in a bourbon warehouse at the Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown, Ky., Thursday, May 31, 2007. In Kentucky, where stills started churning out bourbon whiskey in the 1780s, before statehood, the craft has been passed down from one generation to the next. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)
AP Photo/Ed Reinke
The small group of men responsible for making Kentucky bourbons thinks of itself as a fraternity, where friendships seem as enduring as whiskey recipes. At some distilleries, those bonds are even tighter — connecting fathers and sons.

At Heaven Hill Distilleries, Craig Beam traces some of his earliest memories to his carefree days tagging along as his father carried on the family tradition.

His father, Parker Beam, had the same boyhood indoctrination — learning at his dad's side.

Now, Parker and Craig Beam share duties as co-master distillers at Bardstown-based Heaven Hill, an independent producer of distilled spirits owned by the Shapira family. The company's bourbon brands include Evan Williams and Elijah Craig.

In the heart of Kentucky, where making whiskey has been a way of life even before statehood, the craft has been passed down from one generation to the next. The Beam family traces its Kentucky whiskey heritage to 1795, when family patriarch Jacob Beam set up a still.

"If you were a Beam, you sort of were destined to follow in the footsteps of either your father, grandfathers, cousins or uncles," said Parker Beam, a grandnephew of Jim Beam.

There are other enduring bloodlines among some distilleries churning out the smooth, amber-hued whiskey in Kentucky bourbon country. While the bourbons are controlled by large liquor companies, making the product remains a quaint family tradition at some distilleries.

At the Pernod Ricard-owned Wild Turkey distillery at Lawrenceburg, longtime master distiller Jimmy Russell has been grooming his son Eddie in the ways of the craft.

Eddie Russell, 47, spent boyhood days playing in the distillery and the cavernous warehouses where bourbon ages in oak barrels. "Everything was just so big," he recalled. "For a little kid, it seemed like the whole world was there."

As he reached adulthood, he soon realized he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps.

"It has to be something in your blood or in your genes," he said. "I came here for a summer job and within two weeks I realized this is where I wanted to spend my career."

Now, in those same warehouses where he played as a boy, Eddie Russell oversees the aging of hundreds of thousands of barrels filled with Wild Turkey bourbon and has been groomed to one day succeed his father, who has spent more than a half-century at Wild Turkey.

At Jim Beam, Fred Noe promotes its brands as bourbon ambassador and is training to someday fill the role of his father — longtime master distiller Booker Noe, who died in 2004.

"I'm a chip off the old block," said Fred Noe, a great-grandson of Jim Beam.

As a boy, the younger Noe fished and hunted near the distillery. He bonded with his father while watching him meticulously check distillery equipment on weekends.

"He had sly ways of teaching as well as making it fun," Fred Noe said.

His father would get around to quizzing him to determine if his son had been listening to the lessons. "That was the part I didn't like too much," Fred Noe said.

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.