A Tale of Two Men

A Tale of Two Men

The times are a changing at Heaven Hill

Production | 20 Mar 2015 | Issue 126 | By Fred Minnick

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Bourbon's heart stopped when Parker Beam publicly announced his battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). Such a gentle soul, Beam was never the loudest distiller and certainly not the most braggadocios. But the long-time Heaven Hill master distiller has always been one of the most - if not the most - beloved distiller of them all. When Parker walks into a room, no matter who's there, he flashes that smile - that endearing smile! - and people, especially the ladies, just flock toward him. They want a hug, to sign a bottle, or just to be in his presence.

The day the world learned of Beam's predicament, his fellow master distillers, longtime friends, young women with secret crushes on the cute 72-year-old teared up a little. He officially stepped down in 2013 as master distiller, the title his father, Earl, had before him. The great man handed the full-time duties over to his son, Craig, who later moved into a consultancy co-master distiller role to spend more time with his ailing father. (The Beam family has influenced more than 70 bourbon companies, including Heaven Hill).

Today, for the first time since Heaven Hill's 1934 founding, a Beam will not be leading the company's bourbon production. Rather, a baby-faced industry veteran named Denny Potter runs Heaven Hill's workhorse distillery - Bernheim Distillery in Louisville - and longtime Heaven Hill production employee Charlie Downs operates the illustrious Evan Williams Bourbon Experience downtown Louisville. The duo come from strikingly different paths.

Potter, a distiller journeyman of sorts, worked for Maker's Mark, Jim Beam and Cruzan Rum, becoming known for his uncanny engineering strategies and environmental forward thinking. Downs, sporting a classic chevron moustache, is a throwback distiller of Beam's past, having worked with Earl, Parker and Craig Beam.

Potter does things the innovative and edgy way; Downs performs all tasks just as the Beams did before him. Although they both have their own way, Potter and Downs enjoy a unique aspect of working for Heaven Hill. "We don't have to go through 49 other corporate heads to make a decision," Down says.

"Executives rely on our experience and knowledge to make decisions."

The Potter Way

Prior to earning co-master distiller at Bernheim, Potter essentially did the same job under the 'distillery plant manager' title. Before this, he served as operations manager at Beam Global's Frankfort facility, general manager of Cruzan Rum's distillery in St. Croix, and director of distillery and environmental operations at Maker's Mark.

Potter entered the picture when Heaven Hill needed him most in 2012, in a time of expansion and increased bourbon interest. Under his reign, Heaven Hill has added fermenters, increased capacity and now operate 24 hours, seven days a week, minus holidays. Known for getting the most out of his equipment, Potter is something of an operational processes nerd with a specialty in environmental concerns. Now that his name is accompanied with 'master distiller', there's more to his job than just making whiskey, as the contemporary master distiller is a hybrid of distiller and marketer. Consumers want to meet the people behind their beloved brands. Potter says he looks forward to this challenge, but there's no doubt he's an engineer at heart. When talking about his Bernheim facility, his enthusiasm spilleth over as he discusses the distillery's youth (it was built in the 1990s). "It's young by bourbon distillery standards it is. We have good operators and good equipment, and they've invested the capital," Potter says. "It's just a fantastic distillery."

Bernheim is also a stone throw away from the downtown Louisville Brown-Forman Distillery, making further expansion a difficult move for the Bernheim facility. But it's a topic fresh on Potter's mind. "We're a bit landlocked down there, so we've got to think outside the box a little bit on how we expand but this next expansion will, probably, carry us for a while," Potter says. "We're in the midst right now of planning our next expansion."

Time will tell what happens at the Bernheim facility, but Potter, 41, is most certainly its leader for a long time. Potter says he finally found his distilling home. "I'm here for life," Potter says.

The Downs Way

In stark contrast with Heaven Hill's Bernheim Distillery, Downs, who's in his 50s, is only producing one barrel of whiskey a day at the small distillery inside the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. Bernheim is automated; the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is completely manual all the way down to the weekly copper still polishing regimen.

In a way, Downs believes this small facility is a lot like Heaven Hill's former distillery in Bardstown, which burned to the ground in 1996. "In the old distillery, we started putting some automation in the late '70s and early '80s, but everything there was done manually by hand, as it is here," Downs says.

It's these old days, and the old ways that taught Downs how to make whiskey. He worked with the last three Beams and is a magnificent storyteller.

"Parker learned from (his dad) Mr Earl, then Craig and I learned from Parker. He didn't change anything whatsoever. You did it the way Mr Earl said to do it," Downs remembers. "Mr Earl was always the one who did the yeast. He had a left-handed monkey wrench that when he placed on his yeast jug it had to be pointing a certain way.

Although Downs no longer practises this mysterious monkey wrench method, his ways are Parker's ways. Unlike the automated Bernheim, The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience takes on the unique mission of experimentation and super small batched products bottled specifically to sell in the Experience's popular gift shop. "Five to eight years down the road, we'll start bottling what we make here," Downs says. "We are sized out to just make one barrel a day. We can't expand."

In a sense, the distillery was not built to expand. It was made to honour the Heaven Hill legacy. From Harry Shapira, the venerable Heaven Hill executive who championed the Experience, to Parker Beam, every drop off the still is a tribute to them, a look at the Heaven Hill legacy.
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