Jump to content
Sign in to follow this  
cowdery

Sam Cecil Talks About The Beam Family.

Recommended Posts

cowdery

I was digitizing some clips from my documentary, "Made and Bottled in Kentucky," and this one brought up a whole bunch of different memories, thoughts and feelings.

Sam Cecil talks about the Beam family.

The documentary was shot 20 years ago and making it was really the beginning of my bourbon education. I mean, I thought I knew a lot about bourbon and bourbon history at that point, but I really didn't. I know a lot more now.

This interview was only the second time I had ever talked to Sam. It was shot at his house. The first meeting also took place there. The first meeting was sometime in the second half of 1991. This was shot in late 1991 or early 1992. Sam had one of the bedrooms in his home entirely devoted to his collection of bourbon industry documents and memorabilia. There may have been a desk in there somewhere, but I remember it as mostly full of boxes and filing cabinets.

I'm the person he is talking to in this short clip, in which he extemporaneously lays out the Beam family tree, and it was the first I heard of it. I knew about Jim Beam, and that Booker was his grandson, and I had known since the late 70s that there were Beams at Heaven Hill too, but it was in this moment, caught on tape, that I got my first glimpse of the full scope of it.

Sam was a very nice guy, very humble and easy going, and he loved to talk about bourbon and its history, which had been part of his life from birth, as he was born and reared in Nelson County, Kentucky, and took his first distillery job in 1937. I talked to him many times after that 1992 interview and by the time of his death in 2005 my bourbon education had made significant progress, but I would have much better questions if I could talk to him now. I wish I could.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
mosugoji64

I find the influence of the Beam family on American distilling fascinating. It's almost as though American distilling is a family business. Would the Beam family influence have been as extensive if Prohibition had not shut down so many distilleries?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
cowdery

Obviously, there was a lot of hiring going on when Prohibition ended. The rep was that if you hired a Beam, you didn't just get him, you got the whole family. If he ran into trouble, his kin would fix it. The family won't let a Beam fail. That was known by all distillery owners. Hire a Beam and you also get the Beam yeast. And it wasn't just a legend. It's what actually happened. The name Beam was golden. It still is. It still opens doors in the industry, not just in Nelson County but throughout the state.

The Beam network also included an extended family of Dants and Wathens, and others from that original Maryland tribe. It was quite formidable long before Prohibition, so it's hard to say if Prohibition made a difference, but being from any of those well-known original families gave you an advantage, because many of them had that kind of reputation, that if you hired one you got the whole network.

Edited by cowdery

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
tmckenzie

Dick Stoll said that as long as Everett Beam was at Michters, they had yeast. Said one of his brothers would send it up in a copper yeast jug when they started up after a shutdown. After he was gone, they had to start using bought yeast.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
cowdery

Everett Beam's daughter, Mary, said the same thing. She remembers him calling them right after he took the job.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
shoshani
Hire a Beam and you also get the Beam yeast. And it wasn't just a legend. It's what actually happened.

Interesting. I wonder if Stitzel-Weller was using a Beam yeast, since Will McGill was a Beam in-law, plus there had been a father-and-son Beam team at A. Ph. Stitzel. If so, it would have branched to Maker's Mark when Pappy gave Bill Samuels the formula and the yeast, and sent his own master distiller to start things up at Star Hill.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
ebo

I've read many times on this, and other forums about the "Beam yeast funk" taste in Beam products. If Beam yeast was provided to other distillers, why is there never any mention of this in those products?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
cowdery

Historically 'yeast making' meant propogating a strain from a wild source. Although the Beams all started from the same place, with the same yeast mash recipe, and were all taught the same organoleptic standards, each distiller would have made his own subtle adaptations after years of practice, and would have passed his way of doing things onto his son. (I say 'son,' knowing that some Beam family distillers were trained by their grandfathers more than their fathers.)

When Earl Beam left the Jim Beam Distillery in 1946, he took the Jim Beam yeast with him to Heaven Hill, replacing the Joe Beam yeast Joe's son Harry was then using. Under Earl Beam, Heaven Hill's bourbon had a reputation for being oily, but not 'foxy' like Jim Beam. To me, the 'foxy' yeast characteristic is only noticable in the white label expression. It's hard to say what changed at Heaven Hill. It may have been the water. Yeast can change for very subtle reasons; different water, different atmospheric conditions, different airborne microorganisms, different mash temperature, a different amount of back set, etc.

David Beam was Earl's great-grandfather, and Joe Beam's grandfather. David Beam (1802-1852) is the common source from whom all 20th and 21st century Beam family distillers are descended, either through his son David M. Beam (father to Jim and Park); or his son Joseph B. Beam (father to Joe and Minor Case Beam). Those are two separate traditions that split more than 150 years ago, and there have been many other subdivisions since.

Will McGill, Pappy Van Winkle's first master distiller at Stitzel-Weller, was the brother of Joe Beam's wife, Katherine. It is known that Joe and Will worked together in their early careers, though it's unknown if Joe and Will became friends before or after Joe married Will's sister. Both of them probably worked for Minor at Gethsemane, who was 11 years older than Joe and may have taught both of them as much or more than Joseph B. did.

So, yes, the Stitzel-Weller yeast that made its way to Maker's Mark may have originated with Joseph B. Beam and may have gone through Minor Case Beam before arriving at Will McGill, from whom it went to Elmo Beam, first master distiller at Maker's, who would already have been familiar with his Joe's version, since Elmo was Joe's firstborn. That Pappy gave the yeast to Bill Samuels Sr. is known, but what Elmo actually used is not, at least not by me. Sam Cecil probably knew, since he followed Elmo as master distiller at Maker's.

Nobody is catching wild yeast these days and if distillers want to tweak their yeast, they do it in the lab, not on a back porch (as Jim Beam did).

The Stitzels were themselves distillers so I don't know anything about Beams there before Pappy Van Winkle took over. It was Pappy who hired Will McGill.

Edited by cowdery

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
shoshani

The Stitzels were themselves distillers so I don't know anything about Beams there before Pappy Van Winkle took over. It was Pappy who hired Will McGill.

In "But Always Fine Bourbon", Sally Van Winkle Campbell quotes her father as saying that when the A. Ph. Stitzel distillery fired up again on December 7, 1929 (apparently the first Legal Distilling Holiday), Joe Beam was the distiller and his son Roy Beam was his assistant. The quote (from a letter) goes on to say "At one time there were seven Beams working there".

She also quotes Stitzel-Weller alumnus Norman Hayden as saying "Pappy sent our master distiller, Andy Corcoran, down there to Loretto [Maker's Mark] to get them cranked up, and he brought their distiller up to Stitzel-Weller to give him an education." Which sounds a bit odd to me if he's talking about Elmo Beam, since my guess is Elmo would have already been taught the old Stitzel methods (which became the Stitzel-Weller methods) by his father Joe.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
cowdery

By 1929, although it was at the old Stitzel plant, Pappy had control by then and would have sent his guys, in this case Joe and Roy.

If you look at the picture on page 42, that's Roy Beam on the left. Don't know who the man on the right is, but he doesn't look like a Beam. Perhaps a Stitzel.

For anyone who is interested in this subject, this conversation inspired me to make a blog post that is a bit more detailed. It's funny, actually. I thought I would make a nice, short blog post out of the post above, but it got a bit out of control.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
p_elliott
By 1929, although it was at the old Stitzel plant, Pappy had control by then and would have sent his guys, in this case Joe and Roy.

If you look at the picture on page 42, that's Roy Beam on the left. Don't know who the man on the right is, but he doesn't look like a Beam. Perhaps a Stitzel.

For anyone who is interested in this subject, this conversation inspired me to make a blog post that is a bit more detailed. It's funny, actually. I thought I would make a nice, short blog post out of the post above, but it got a bit out of control.

Very nice blog Chuck I find how they did the yeast very intriguing.

Edited by p_elliott

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
fussychicken

Great post Chuck. Many thanks for sharing the information with us. It is pretty amazing to think how many of today's bourbons have some sort of Beam yeast in it. And yes, while I know it isn't all the same, it sure sounds like there is at least some sort of similarity between them all.

As you mention in your blog post, it seems like the sctoch guys have even less variation. I wonder why this is. In the beer world, yeast is a HUGE part of the "formula." While 4 Roses talks about their 5 different strains, it doesn't seem like many bourbon producers experiment with this much. Maybe an area for innovation?

Speaking of 4 Roses, your post mentions that the Beams were involved there as well. Do you know if their current 5 yeast strains are mutations of the original Beam yeast? Or maybe this was something they developed during the Seagram's years?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
p_elliott
Great post Chuck. Many thanks for sharing the information with us. It is pretty amazing to think how many of today's bourbons have some sort of Beam yeast in it. And yes, while I know it isn't all the same, it sure sounds like there is at least some sort of similarity between them all.

As you mention in your blog post, it seems like the sctoch guys have even less variation. I wonder why this is. In the beer world, yeast is a HUGE part of the "formula." While 4 Roses talks about their 5 different strains, it doesn't seem like many bourbon producers experiment with this much. Maybe an area for innovation?

Speaking of 4 Roses, your post mentions that the Beams were involved there as well. Do you know if their current 5 yeast strains are mutations of the original Beam yeast? Or maybe this was something they developed during the Seagram's years?

I think I can answer that the 5 yeast strains that four roses uses are left over from the Seagram years. I believe if I'm not mistaken Four Roses has many more strains of yeast in their lab.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
cowdery

Four Roses has something like 300 proprietary yeasts. I'm sure Beams were involved with some, but not all, of them.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
camduncan

Thanks for the great blog and post here Chuck - very interesting, and very informative! A question though.... how do you propogate yeast from a wild source?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
cowdery

Yeast is everywhere. Old time distillers all had their own recipe for a yeast mash that they believed would capture the right kind of yeast. They would mix it up in a bucket and set it outside or, as in Jim Beam's case, inside a screened porch. Some would choose a particular spot, under an apple tree, for example. Then they waited. When a yeast took hold it would begin to ferment. If the fermentation looked right (seemed robust enough) and smelled right, a portion of it would be transferred to a fresh bucket of yeast mash. If it continued, then it would be used to make a batch of whiskey. Think of it as sourdough starter. The principle is the same. "Jug yeast" is preserved in this way, transferring it to a fresh medium before the fermentation completes.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
HighInTheMtns
Thanks for the great blog and post here Chuck - very interesting, and very informative! A question though.... how do you propogate yeast from a wild source?
Edited by HighInTheMtns

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  

×
×
  • Create New...