At Heaven Hill, Bourbon's Still in the Family The Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown, Ky., is the state's last family owned whiskey maker. Master distiller Parker Beam, 63, makes sure the bourbon is up to snuff.
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At Heaven Hill, Bourbon's Still in the Family

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At Heaven Hill, Bourbon's Still in the Family

At Heaven Hill, Bourbon's Still in the Family

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This weekend, Bardstown, Kentucky, is hosting the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival, drawing bourbon aficionados from all over the world. In recent years, there's been a revival of interest in bourbon whiskeys and sales of the small batch or single barrel bourbons are booming. We're not sure if he did any sampling, but NPR's Jack Speer did drop by one of the Bardstown distillers and sent this report.

JACK SPEER reporting:

They say it takes three things to make good bourbon: limestone water, barrels charred on the inside and made from white oak, and weather that changes with the seasons. It also helps if your master distiller comes from a long line of whiskey makers.

(Soundbite of distillery machinery)

Mr. PARKER BEAM (Master Distiller, Heaven Hill Distilleries): I followed in my father's footsteps in learning the trade and, of course, I was following him around here when I was five or six years old.

SPEER: Parker Beam is the master distiller at Heaven Hill Distilleries in Bardstown, Kentucky. And, yes, he is related to bourbon legend, Colonel Jim Beam. He's 63 now and he's never wanted to do anything else. Beam is passionate about the distiller's art.

(Soundbite of bottles clinking)

SPEER: Stopping at one of Heaven Hill's bottling lines he pulls off a small bottle of bourbon and gives it the sniff taste.

Mr. BEAM: A little early to taste this morning, so I just--I nose it.

SPEER: Beam says the bourbon business hasn't changed much. He says they still ferment the grain using a strain of yeast that's been in the family for generations.

Mr. BEAM: It goes back to using some of the same formulas that were taught to me by my grandfather and my father and, I guess, what I'm saying is you don't fix it if it isn't broke.

SPEER: Until recently, distillers labored mostly in obscurity. But as sales of premium bourbons have taken off, some have become minor celebrities. Max Shapira, president of Heaven Hill, says surprisingly the recent revival in the interest of specialty bourbons began abroad.

Mr. MAX SHAPIRA (President, Heaven Hill): It's the strangest thing. The phenomenon that we are seeing here in the United States of the rebirth of a category, i.e. the bourbon category, did start in Japan, has actually come back to the United States and helped restart the industry here.

SPEER: Heaven Hill makes a variety of premium bourbons including Elijah Craig, 12- and 18-year-old. The company also makes single barrel bourbon, which, as the name implies, comes from a single barrel handpicked by the master distiller rather than from dozens or even hundreds of barrels mixed together.

Bourbon is aged in large warehouses called rick houses. The barrels are stacked three high and there are seven floors. Beam says in the summer the warehouse heats up and on the top floors more than half the whiskey inside a barrel can be lost as it ages. He says in the bourbon business they've got a name for that loss.

Mr. BEAM: In some cases, on real old product, you may only have a third. So the evaporation is what we call the `angel's share.'

(Soundbite of piano playing and crowd noise)

SPEER: Down the road from Bardstown at Louisville's historic SeelBach Hotel Bar, they are expecting plenty of bourbon drinkers this weekend.

(Soundbite of a drink being made with ice)

SPEER: Cindy Kebble(ph) works behind the bar where she dispenses bourbon and advice.

Ms. CINDY KEBBLE (Bartender): First, I ask them if they are a bourbon drinker, because most of the times they're not. So that's when I go to--I recommend the single-barrel bourbon. They're smoother and they don't have that bite and that kick to it.

(Soundbite of piano playing)

SPEER: But no matter which bourbon they choose, chances are it won't have traveled far. Ninety-five percent of all the bourbon sold in the US comes from Kentucky.

Jack Speer, NPR News.

(Soundbite of piano playing)

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