An award-winning blend

By Sally M. Snell

The Shapira family owns and operates Heaven Hill Distilleries. Their master distillers are descendants of the legendary Jim Beam family.

In 1934, after Prohibition had ended, five Shapira brothers joined a group of investors to found Heaven Hill Distilleries on a farm outside Bardstown, Ky. “It was a real risky venture,” says second-generation company president Max Shapira. “It made the dot-com ventures of the late 1990s look like a blue-chip investment.” The Shapiras were sons of a Jewish immigrant who had turned a pushcart notions business into a small chain of dry goods stores within one generation.

The other investors had agreed to buy out the Shapiras as soon as the distillery got off the ground. But unrelated financial difficulties forced the other investors to withdraw, and the brothers—who “didn’t know the difference between a barrel and a box,” as Max jokes—took control.

In 1946 the Shapiras approached Earl Beam, a member of the legendary Jim Beam family and assistant distiller to his brother Carl at Beam Company. Carl encouraged Earl to become Heaven Hill’s master distiller “because ‘you’re probably not ever going to get my job at Beam,’” says Parker Beam, who is Earl’s son.

Today, Heaven Hill is the largest private, family-owned and -operated distillery in the U.S. and the second-largest holder of aging bourbon whiskey in the world. Its spirits are sold and distributed in about 60 countries.

Max, 67, and his cousin Harry Shapira, 64, own Heaven Hill today, along with Max’s two children, Andrew Shapira and Kate Latts, and son-in-law Allan Latts. Parker Beam, 69, and his son Craig, 52, share the title of master distiller.

Like the other members of his family, Max worked outside the distilling industry for several years. When he returned after a stint on Wall Street, he added products such as gin and vodka and expanded into premium spirits through acquisitions and internal development. Harry, the vice president, brought retail experience from the family’s department store chain, The Louisville Store, which ceased operations in 1995.

Andrew, now 37, worked in investment banking for 11 years, while Kate, 40, and Allan, 42, worked for a multinational consumer goods company. Max credits his wife, Ellen, for “brokering the deal” that brought his children back to Heaven Hill.

Andrew Shapira says Heaven Hill’s status as a family business enables the distillery to respond rapidly to the market. PAMA Pomegranate Liqueur, introduced in 2006, is one Heaven Hill product that quenches consumers’ demand for new flavors.

The business gets in the blood at an early age, the Shapiras say. According to family legend, within weeks of Max’s birth, his father carried him up and down the bottling line. Kate and Andrew helped sort product rebates on their parents’ living room floor as children.

Parker Beam, a sixth-generation distiller, remembers listening as his father and uncles discussed their work during Sunday dinners. He knew at an early age that the business was his destiny. And the ability to monitor the quality of huge stores of bourbon has been transmitted to his son, Craig, who has experienced the challenges of fully automating the distillery, ramping up production and launching new lines.

The distillery celebrated Parker Beam’s 50th anniversary with Heaven Hill in 2009 by releasing the “Golden Anniversary” bottling of Parker’s Heritage Collection American Whiskey Series. It was named 2010 American Whiskey of the Year by Malt Advocate magazine—one of more than 80 awards the company has won. In addition to award-winning whiskey, the Shapiras and the Beams have blended the strengths of two families.

Sally M. Snell is a writer based in Lawrence, Kan.

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Issue: 
Summer 2011

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