Monday, February 5, 2024

Remembering David Beam and the Michter's Stills


Daniel David Beam, 1941-2015

I just happened upon this happy picture. It's from 2014, I think. That smile belongs to David Beam, the last Beam distiller at Jim Beam. (The last one with the last name of Beam, that is.) The picture was taken at Tom's Foolery near Cleveland, with two fermenters from the Michter's Barrel-a-Day Distillery. 

There is a lot to unpack in this simple picture.

David was the son of Carl 'Shucks' Beam, grandson of Park Beam. Park was Jim Beam's younger brother. When the Beams resumed distilling after Prohibition, Jim and his son, Jere, ran the business while Park and his sons, Earl and Shucks, made the whiskey.

David was born in the master distiller's house on the grounds of the Jim Beam Distillery at Clermont in 1941. He and his older brother, Baker, succeeded their father at the distillery, which ran on a 24-hour schedule. Baker had the day shift and David had nights. He worked there for 38 years, retiring in 1996.

Around the time he retired, David learned that the Michter's Distillery in Pennsylvania was being liquidated. He knew they had two nice Vendome pot stills, at 500 gallons and 350 gallons each, and associated fermenters and other equipment. It was a complete distillery capable of producing one barrel (53 gallons) of whiskey per day. 

David decided he wanted it, though he wasn't sure why, so he went to the auction, bid on it, and won. Then he got his three sons and some buddies, borrowed a couple trucks, and trekked to Pennsylvania to bring it all back to Kentucky. He set it up in a shed at the My Old Kentucky Home Motel in Bardstown, which he co-owned and managed with his wife, Belle. He had an apartment there too, where he lived when he wasn't at his farm outside of town.

Although he and his sons talked about it, David never put the equipment to use. In 2011, he sold it to Tom and Lianne Herbruck and helped them set it up and operate it at their craft distillery in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. They made bourbon and applejack. This picture was taken during one of David's visits there. David's grandson, who the Herbrucks hired as an apprentice, was there too.

In 2015, the Herbrucks sold the Michter's equipment to the new Michter's (i.e., Chatham Imports), for installation at their Fort Nelson facility in downtown Louisville, where it has been ever since. The Herbrucks got another old still. They still make whiskey and applejack in Chagrin Falls. On June 29th of that year, David Beam died peacefully at his farm outside of Bardstown. He was 74.


Bill said...

Always interesting to see how many different non-Beam places the Beams touched upon. And now i need to find a bottle of that applejack! My late father was a fan of Laird's (the basic blended version, not the all-apple version) and I like the idea of trying different producers and wondering if their applejacks would meet with my father's approval.

Richard Turner said...

Cool how this 'old', once-abandoned equipment has had a couple useful subsequent lives... possibly because David Beam found out it was to be auctioned and knew its potential. And VERY Cool to know it's once again making Michter's distillate, even if the 'new' Michter's has little to do with the original family.
As always, Chuck; Thanx for this!

Sam Komlenic said...

Chuck, to perhaps provide some clarity, if I may. I did a web piece for Whisky Advocate last year on the history of the Michter's stills and spoke with Tom Sherman at Vendome, who said, "A guy in eastern Kentucky bought the stills and was going to open a distillery with David Beam as the master distiller. That fell through and Beam wound up with the stills."

So it seems there initially may have been someone else driving the deal, with David along for technical and distilling support.

David never actually distilled on the system, to my knowledge, so PA Michter's Dick Stoll also traveled to Ohio to do what I would consider primary instruction on their operation. Those stills made Dick likely the only man alive in the U.S to have run both pot stills and a column still at the same distillery since the enactment of Prohibition.

I say none of this to diminish David's part in the entire process you describe. David Beam is one of my all-time heroes for having saved this treasured system from who knows what potentially ignominious fate? I bring it to provide more detail to the story. I would have loved to have seen it in his shed!

I also agree with Richard Turner...this story couldn't have had a happier ending.

And welcome back, Cowdery. It's good to have you back in the saddle. The blogosphere wasn't the same without you!

Chuck Cowdery said...

Sam, maybe, but my information comes directly from David and his three sons, who never mentioned the story Tom Sherman told you. But in 1996, there weren't a lot of new distilleries starting up, so who knows who talked about doing what?

Sam Komlenic said...

Tom also mentioned that this particular job was no big deal, as it might seem to be today; it was just another fabrication job for Vendome at the time