Young Guns

Young Guns

Charles K. Cowdery meets the next generation of America's master distillers.

Production | 18 Jan 2008 | Issue 69 | By Charles Cowdery

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In the modern era, on both sides of the Atlantic, a master distiller may have many roles. He may be a brand ambassador, a quality assurance officer, and probably will have something to do with making the whiskey too.Today, several of America’s best-known master distillers are semi or completely retired from day-to-day distilling, and also in their eighth or ninth decade of life.Increasingly, it is the next generation’s turn, both on the international stage and back home, presiding over the fermenters.There are seven of them, considered young in this field, even though they are aged between 37 and 50.Three are hereditary.All are college educated.Fred Noe, born in 1957, is the dean of this group and probably its best known member.He started to travel on behalf of Jim Beam about a decade ago, when his father, Booker Noe, became too ill.Fred Noe is the great-grandson of Jim Beam and the seventh generation of his family to make the whiskey now known as Jim Beam bourbon.Though born in Bardstown, in the house his great grandfather built, Noe left town at a young age to attend military school in Tennessee. “I was a knothead,” he says.Long stints in a couple of Kentucky colleges followed. “Finish college and I’ll put you to work,” was his father’s simple charge.Noe joined the Jim Beam Company in 1983, doing and learning a variety of jobs.“I never envisioned dad retiring and quitting doing it,” says Noe. “I was just looking for a job. I never thought about replacing dad, but the distillery was always a fun place.” Today, Noe travels the world when he isn’t at the distillery, and his portrait was recently added to the Jim Beam label.The next-oldest is Chris Morris, born in 1958, master distiller for Brown-Forman and its Woodford Reserve, Old Forester and Early Times whiskeys.Morris started with Brown-Forman in 1976 as a college intern, working in the lab for then master distiller Lincoln Henderson.He was in no sense the designated heir. One day, Henderson said, “Chris, you sure do talk a lot, maybe you ought to be in sales.” He became a sales trainee, then a sales representative, and while stationed in Georgia in the 1980s began to do whiskey seminars for local retailers. By 1997, he was working with Lincoln Henderson again and this time he was being groomed as the next master distiller, which happened in 2004.At Brown-Forman, the master distiller is primarily involved with selecting, tasting and approving whiskey for bottling. Morris is also the company’s official historian and spends about 40 per cent of his time making public appearances. “People want to talk to the person who knows the product 360 degrees,” says Morris. “As master distiller, you should know everything about your brands.” Born in 1959, Craig Beam shares the master distiller title at Heaven Hill with his father, Parker. He is the great-grandson of Park Beam, Jim Beam’s brother and life-long partner in the Beam family distilleries.With his father, grandfather, great-uncle, and two cousins all distillers at either Jim Beam or Heaven Hill, Craig Beam was always aware of the whiskey business, but intended to be a veterinarian, or maybe a meteorologist. In 1980, he took a summer job cleaning out some warehouses Heaven Hill owned at the old T.W. Samuels Distillery in Deatsville, Kentucky.He never left.Most of Craig Beam’s early lessons in the craft came from his grandfather, Earl, who made the leap from Jim Beam to Heaven Hill in 1946. Earl emphasised yeast-making, a three-day process. After sterilising everything, mixing up the special yeast mash (a mixture of malt, rye, hops and other ingredients, but no corn), and inculcating it with jug yeast, Earl would cover the vessel with an old hops sack, tie it down, and set an old monkey wrench on top, “just to make sure nobody messed with it,” says Beam.Heaven Hill makes the only straight wheat whiskey, Bernheim Original, and Beam enjoys trying new things, “but I don’t want to wander off too far into the deep end,” he says. “You have to be careful not to lose focus on what you’re supposed to be doing.” Born in 1960, Eddie Russell is the youngest child of Wild Turkey’s iconic master distiller, Jimmy Russell. Growing up in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, “everybody you knew, at least one person in the family worked at a distillery,” says Russell. Like Craig Beam, he came for a summer job and never left. As he recalls, “I knew after two weeks this was where I wanted to be.” Also like Beam, his professional training began with yeast-making, but his focus soon shifted to maturation.At Wild Turkey, each day’s production, about 400 barrels, is tasted and graded every two years. Aging is all natural, with no heaters or fans in any of the company’s barrel houses.“We open the windows in the spring and close them in the fall, ” says Russell. “That’s about it.” After Eddie Russell, there is a nine-year age gap to Harlen Wheatley, of Buffalo Trace.Born in 1969, Wheatley graduated from the University of Kentucky with degrees in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering.He joined Buffalo Trace right out of college in 1995, working under master distiller Gary Gayhart, who retired in 2005, leaving Wheatley in charge.He is the first member of his family to make legal whiskey. A Kentucky native, he knows of several relatives who dabbled in the other kind.To keep his eye on operations during the inevitable marketing trips, Wheatley installed a computerised remote monitoring system that gives him an hourly report of every data point for every distillery operation. It’s the latest technology used to support a timeless value, consistency. “We’re always looking for ways to use new technology to make sure we don’t change anything,”says Wheatley.As a young distiller, Wheatley relies on the experience of his crew. His fermenter operator has been there 34 years. His still operator has been there 46 years. So have his two warehouse supervisors.Born in 1970, John Lunn (George Dickel) and Greg Davis (Barton) are America’s youngest master distillers, with Davis the actual youngest, leading him to be dubbed “the baby” by his peers. Lunn is only the third master distiller since Prohibition at George Dickel in Tullahoma, Tennessee. A chemical engineer with a degree from Vanderbilt, Lunn joined the distillery in 2004.He got the job by answering a newspaper ad.Greg Davis, like Chris Morris, began as a college intern in the lab at Brown-Forman.Always good at biology, he thought he wanted to be a brewer, attending the Siebel Institute in Chicago and, later, running a brew pub in Nashville.Joining Barton in 1998, he trained under Bill Friel, with whom he developed the company’s super-premium Ridgemont Reserve 1792 bourbon. His office is right next to the still and he loves the sensory experience of working there, from the aroma of the dry house to the vibration and sound of the still. “I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do,” he says.His passion is fermentation, and he considers himself a yeast chef. “All of the flavour that’s going to be in the whiskey is in the fermenter, the still is just there to extract it out,” he says.Twenty years ago, the very survival of American whiskey-making was in doubt.Today, just about every distillery in Kentucky and Tennessee is expanding, and a new generation of American master distillers is looking confidently into the future.
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