Sunday, March 4, 2018

Remembering a Family Champion



When Booker Noe, Jim Beam�s grandson, retired as Beam's master distiller and became a brand ambassador for the company, the image makers seemed to decide there were no Beams except for Jim Beam and his descendants.

They found their plan stymied by a tiny woman filled with family pride. She was Jo Ann Beam, daughter of Harry Beam, and granddaughter of Joseph L. �Joe� Beam.

The Beams were prominent Kentucky whiskey-makers even before Joe and Jim came along, and there are other whiskey-making branches too.

Jim Beam had one son, Jeremiah, who joined him in the business but was not a distiller. He had no children. Booker was the son of Jim Beam's daughter, Margaret.

Joe Beam had seven sons who all became distillers, touching nearly every company in the industry. Jo Ann Beam�s father, Harry, was the youngest of the seven brothers. Although not a distiller herself, Jo Beam made Beam whiskey for 38 years as a bottling line worker at the James B. Beam Distillery in Clermont, Kentucky. After she retired in 1995, she devoted herself to serving as a volunteer at the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in Bardstown, and to researching her family�s heritage. She especially championed the �forgotten history� of her grandfather, father, and uncles.

Rifling through the attics and basements of her relatives, Jo uncovered rare bottles, hand-written bourbon recipes, and other priceless objects associated with all of the whiskey-making Beams. Many of her finds are now on display at the Oscar Getz Museum. She compiled two books of Beam family press clippings, personal documents, and family tree diagrams.

I got to know 'Aunt Jo' during the last few years of her life. She generously shared her research and stories, and took great delight in doing so. She was funny, salty, boisterous, irreverent, all of my favorite qualities. In 2001, Malt Advocate Magazine (now known as Whisky Advocate), published an article by me about the Beam family, prominently featuring Aunt Jo's 'forgotten Beams.' She was thrilled and showered me with praise, but the real credit belonged to her.

In 2002, Jo Beam achieved some notoriety when she and her twin sister, Jean Hall, appeared on national television in the two-hour History Channel documentary, �Rumrunners, Moonshiners and
Bootleggers.� In a segment near the end of the program they revealed that their father, Harry Beam, was caught making illegal liquor in 1949. They were teenagers and remembered the bust vividly.

The incident had long been an open secret in the community, but never admitted to. When it happened their grandmother used her influence (and $1,000) to keep it out of the newspapers.

No family is more important to the heritage of whiskey in the USA than the Beams, and no one did more to preserve that legacy than Aunt Jo. Next week, on her 85th birthday, join me in a silent tribute and toast.

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