To say that the bourbon industry is in the midst of a boom is an understatement. With more than $8 billion in global sales (up from just $376 million in 2002), bourbon has evolved from being the “Southern Gentleman’s drink” to replacing Gran Cru Bordeaux and 40 year-old Glenfiddich as the must have spirit – and if you disagree, try to get your hands on a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle!
Behind the boom is a very close knit fraternity of master distillers whose lineages trace back to the very beginnings of bourbon production. These are the master distillers that dutifully guard the standards set forth by the originators whose names grace millions of bottles of bourbon. These are the 7 kings of Kentucky bourbon.
Harlen Wheatley of Buffalo Trace
Harlen Wheatley was named Master Distiller of Buffalo Trace in 2005, becoming the sixth Master Distiller of the operation since the Civil War. Despite skyrocketing demand, Harlen has managed to maintain the integrity of Buffalo Trace and all of the legendary brands within its portfolio.
His tenure hasn’t been without challenge; it remains to be seen how Harlen will stay the course after the death of Master Distiller Emeritus Elmer T. Lee in 2013. Elmer T. Lee’s signature bourbon remains one of Buffalo Trace’s signature products thanks to the ability of Mr. Lee to find and bottle the most select barrels for his bourbon. Without Elmer’s palate, refined after nearly three decades of production. There are also rumors that amid high demand,W.L. Weller is being discontinued, although Buffalo Trace President Mark Brown has denied such rumors.
Amid these challenges is the wildly successful Van Winkle line. Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, for whom the coveted bourbon is named, started selling whiskey in 1893 as a salesman for W. L. Weller. He would rise to the presidency of the company, and became the first in four generations of Van Winkle bourbon-making, followed by his son, Julian Jr. Julian Van Winkle Jr. ran operations at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery up until its sale in 1972, when he brought a pre-Prohibition label called Old Rip Van Winkle back to life using whiskey stocks from the old Weller Distillery.
His son, Julian III, took over in 1981 and continues to run operations with the Van Winkle brand at Buffalo Trace Distillery along with his son Preston.Never in the history of bourbon has one brand experienced as much craze as Pappy Van Winkle, and all this can be credited in no small part to the intelligence and dedication of its Master Distiller, Harlen Wheatley. (The Van Winkles have a partnership with Buffalo Trace which supplies them with much of their bourbon and bottles their product, and it’s long been known that the younger Van Winkle bourbons are distilled by Buffalo Trace.)
Within the past decade, Buffalo Trace has won more awards than any other distillery in the world, including an unmatched seven “Distillery of the Year” titles. Such performance can largely be attributed to Mr. Wheatley, a legitimate king of Kentucky bourbon.
Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey
James “Jimmy” Russell – the Buddha of bourbon – is the master distillers’ master distiller. No distiller in the history of American bourbon has served as long as he has. His recent 60th anniversary celebration coincided with the opening of a brand new 9140-square foot visitors center in 2014, and brought out the biggest names in bourbon. Even Kentucky’s Governor, Steve Beshear came out to toast Jimmy!
As only the third Master in the history of Wild Turkey operations, Jimmy has stood his post for more than half a century – sometimes seven days a week. “When I started here 59 years ago we were filling 70 barrels a day. Now we are filling 560,” Russell said. “We had four storehouses then, and now we have 26 that hold 20,000 barrels, and one that holds 50,000.”
When asked if he had ever considered retiring, his response was ” I don’t consider this a job. It’s one of the things I’ve been blessed with in my life. I enjoy coming to work: I get to taste bourbon all day. I only live six miles away, and a lot of the time, I come out on Saturdays and Sundays just to say hello to the people working.”
Under Jimmy Russell’s tenure, Wild Turkey has endured more changes in the past decade as the brand has since its birth in 1940. The demand for the “kickin’ chicken” from new markets and younger drinkers has led to an expansion of the original Wild Turkey bourbon into flavored whiskeys and liqueurs. Wild Turkey American Honey came on the scene in 2007, shortly before the company was acquired by Campari Group. Later, in 2012, Jimmy and his team released Wild Turkey Spiced, the worlds first ever spiced bourbon. Whatever your take on flavored bourbons, these new additions have taken Campari’s stock to new highs.
While it is speculated that these moves into the flavored bourbon arena where at the behest of Campari, Jimmy Russel has continued to do his thing on the traditional side of the house. Wild Turkey 81 proof, Wild Turkey 101, and Wild Turkey Traditional remain the number 1 premium Kentucky straight bourbon whiskeys on the market.
In recognition of his contribution to American heritage, Jimmy Russell has been honored with his namesake bourbon – Russell’s Reserve, and a limited edition mingling of 13 and 16-year-old whiskies, called Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary.
Fred Noe of Jim Beam
Fred Noe, Jim Beam’s great-grandson, is the seventh-generation master distiller at Jim Beam in Kentucky. He took over in 2007, and is a direct descendent of Jacob Beam, who sold his first barrel of whiskey in 1795. He was reared under the watchful eye of Booker Noe (whose namesake bourbon, Bookers, is one of my personal favorites) and tells some great stories about life as a member of the “first family of bourbon”;
“My first recollection of going to the distillery was when I was about seven years old. My dad Booker Noe was committed to the plant. It was like his other son and I was always curious as to what took up all of his time over there. I wanted to be part of what my dad was a part of. So when my dad first took me to the distillery, I was like a kid at Christmas. I remember standing looking up in awe at the rack houses full of aging barrels of bourbon.” – Fred Noe
Fred Noe ensures his family’s legacy is maintained with laser-like focus and discipline. He told The Economic Times that “Throughout the years, we’ve maintained a single-mindedness about us that has kept us on the right track. From the start, Jacob Beam stayed true to the task at hand and never lost sight of the goal: make the best whiskey. Seven generations later, I’m following the same mantra and Jim Beam Bourbon has become the world’s No.1-selling bourbon whiskey in the world.”
Jim Beam has been in the news lately as Suntory, the Japanese spirits giant, acquired Jim Beam, Inc for $13.6 billion in cash. Despite the acquisition, Fred Noe and the rest of the team are expected to stay in place and keep doing what they have been doing for generations.
David Pickerell of Makers Mark
We know that Greg Davis is the current Master Distiller for Makers Mark, and his absence from this list is in no way pejorative. Greg has had a distinguished career at Tom Moore prior to his current position, and we look forward to seeing how his current achievements will pan out.
…But Greg doesnt have a tattoo of George Washington’s still on his arm. David Pickerell does.
Dave served as the Master Distiller for Makers Mark from 1994 until he departed in 2008. During his time there, he grew Makers Mark from a craft distillery into a 1.3 million case per year operation.
David currently leads what has become the craft distillery movement. He told Whisky Advocate that “Part of my dream is seeing lots of new expressions of whiskey … good ones … from all over America… hit the market… representing a new sort of terroir, where true geographical differences in the U.S. can not only be expressed but also clearly differentiated. I believe that the effects of locality on grain, water, and climate can be best expressed in a micro-distillery. ”
His dream is coming true. On the heels of the bourbon boom, hundreds of craft distilleries – from California to New York- have launched in the past few years. David Pickerell has been a positive force behind this boom with his push to bring down the cost of equipment for micro-distillers, as well as his willingness to work behind the scenes with individuals wanting to try their hand at producing whiskey.
He teamed up with WhistlePig whiskey out of Vermont to serve as master distiller for the operation, and currently serves as a Managing Member and Senior Consultant at Oak View Consulting, LLC providing consulting services to the craft beverage alcohol industry. He is also behind the scenes serving as the Master Distiller for Hillrock Estate and George Washington’s Distillery at Mount Vernon, where he oversees the commercial production of George Washington’s Rye Whiskey.
Because of David’s work, Makers Mark has become a powerhouse in his own right, and untold numbers of craft distillers have been able to make their dreams of producing fine whiskeys come true.
Chris Morris of Woodford Reserve
Chris Morris is literally a rockstar in the bourbon community. When he speaks, the entire industry listens! When he headlines a tasting event or lecture, the rooms are filled to seating capacity. If bourbon making is part art and part science, Chris Morris is Picasso meets Einstein!
It is from Chris Morris (courtesy of the Woodford Reserve Bourbon Academy that he runs) that we have come to understand the 5 sources of bourbon flavor.
It is Chris Morris who pushed for the US Senate’s approval of September as National Bourbon Heritage Month – an observance in the United States that calls for celebration of bourbon as America’s “Native Spirit”.
It is Chris Morris who brings us the annual Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection, a 12,000 bottle limited bourbon release of once-in-a-lifetime bourbons that have a single, unique aspect. (For instance, the Four Grain is the only bourbon in the world to be distilled only in copper pot stills, and is made of a specially designed mixture of corn, wheat, rye and barley rye and fermented with a special yeast.)
Suffice to say, I am a big fan!
Chris Morris joined Brown-Foreman as an intern in 1976 at the ripe old age of 16 and worked his way up to Master Distiller in 2004. On his way to becoming a master distiller he performed in every capacity, from sweeping the floors to working in the company’s lab breaking down the chemicals in alcohol.
Chris Morris is a man who knows his craft inside out. According to an article published in the WSJ, “Mr. Morris takes extensive tasting notes. Over the past 15 years, he has filled 20 to 30 notebooks, in addition to countless files. Things like the aroma, taste and finish are extensively documented.”
His hard work shows, and has paid off handsomely for the brand. Sources say that Woodford Reserve experienced a record volume of nearly 250,000 nine liter cases and grew net sales by 28% globally in fiscal 2013.
Jim Rutledge: Mr. Four Roses
For 45 years, “Mr. Four Roses” has been bringing home the bacon for the Four Roses brand and the bourbon industry as a whole. Many older bourbon enthusiasts can remember a time before Rutledge when Four Roses was considered low brow and bottom shelf. He took on the task of turning the brand around with all the might he could muster, serving as a distiller, brand ambassador, and very serious business man all in one.
The reward for all his hard work (and one of the best turnarounds in bourbon history) is inclusion in the Bourbon Hall of Fame, Malt Advocate’s “Life Time Achievement Award” in 2007, an award for “Distillery of the Year” at WhiskyFest in New York City in November 2008 and an award for the industry’s “2008 Ambassador of the Year for American Whiskeys.” Today, Four Roses (a Kirin brand) continues to blow bourbon drinkers away.
Parker Beam of Heaven Hill
No list of bourbon royalty is complete without Parker Beam. According to the Bourbon Heritage Center, “Park Beam, Parker’s grandfather and namesake, was the brother of James Beauregard Beam, better known as “Jim” Beam. It was Parker’s father, Earl, who was the first to ply his trade at Heaven Hill. Earl, in turn, turned the reins over to Parker in 1975. In doing so, Parker became the sixth generation Beam to earn the title Master Distiller. With Craig Beam entrenched in the business of distilling, the family’s continued legacy of making Bourbon is assured. Parker Beam began working at Heaven Hill in 1960 while Craig began work with the company in 1982.”
Parker has been in the industry for more than 50 years and is considered Bourbon Royalty. He oversees the production of the fine bourbon that has made Heaven Hill the seventh-largest alcohol supplier in the United States, the second-largest holder of bourbon whiskey in the world, the only remaining family-owned distillery in Kentucky, and the largest independent family-owned and operated producer and marketer of distilled spirits in the United States.
He follows in the tradition of a long and distinguished line of bourbon makers – All of the Master Distillers at Heaven Hill since its founding have been Beam family members; from Joseph L. Beam (Heaven Hill’s original Master Distiller) to Earl Beam (Parker Beam’s predecessor).
In 2013, Parker Beam was diagnosed with ALS, often referred to as Lou Gehrig disease. After his diagnosis, Parker launched the ALS Promise Fund, donating $20 from the sale of every bottle of Parker’s Heritage Collection Bourbon to the fund. Parker’s Heritage Collection Bourbon is an annual release that celebrates Parker’s tenure as Master Distiller. The barrels usd for Parker’s Heritage are all hand selected from prime locations in the rick house—each with the age and proof Parker feels are just right for such a rare offering.If you would like to support the ALS Promise Fund directly, we encourage you to do so directly at the address provided below.
The ALS Association Kentucky Chapter
2815 Amsterdam Road
Villa Hills, KY 41017
P: (800) 406-7702