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Life, distilled

Growing up in Kentucky’s bourbon families

It may come as a surprise to you, but growing up in a Kentucky “bourbon family” isn’t as splashy or spectacular a life as you might think. Because of what distillery owners and master distillers do for a living, family and business have always been and will continue to be “family business.”

Fred Noe and Freddie Noe, Jim Beam, seventh and eighth generation distillers.

Clermont

Life in a distilling family wasn’t extraordinary in Bardstown, especially during the bourbon doldrums of the 1960s and ’70s. Distilling was just another job when he was growing up, Jim Beam’s Fred Noe says. 

“Back then, so many different families were connected to distilleries,” says Noe, whose company is served by Salt River Electric. “Being the son of a master distiller didn’t come with any celebrity status in Bardstown.”

But misbehavior that could be tied to “the distiller’s son” may have drawn a bit more scrutiny.

“There was no social media to spread any news, but there was a system,” Noe says. “If one mother saw you smoking a cigarette or worse, she told another who told another mother, and your parents knew about it that afternoon.”

It was never a foregone conclusion that Fred or his son, Freddie Noe (now being groomed to become an eighth generation master distiller) would become distillers. Yet when the distilling bug did bite, neither was handed the job on a platter. Each started working the 4 p.m. to midnight shift alongside veteran co-workers who treated them like anyone else, regardless of their standing as Beam family descendants. Both call the experience essential and formative.

Freddie, nicknamed “Little Book,” recalls how “Granddaddy (Booker Noe) talked about inspiration, nothing about obligation,” when discussing career options. “Until I showed that I wanted (to be a distiller), they never tried instilling those ideas in me.”

As bourbon took off and the Noe family’s prominence grew, Freddie Noe also witnessed the endless hospitality practiced by his elders. “There was always someone at the house on weekends, and Granddaddy always invited them to stay for dinner,” he says. “I learned that a connection to people is what’s really important in this business.”

Freddie Noe, known as “Little Book” after his grandfather, Booker Noe, made his own decision to enter the family business. Photo: Jim Beam
Max Shapira, president of Heaven Hill Distillery. Photo: PhotoSculptor, LLC/Kentucky Distillers’ Association
Max Shapira, president of Heaven Hill Distillery. Photo: PhotoSculptor, LLC/Kentucky Distillers’ Association
Both Bill Samuels Jr., left, and Rob Samuels carry on the family tradition.

Max Shapira, president, Heaven Hill Distillery, second generation owner

Bardstown

The five Shapira brothers had zero experience in the spirits business when they invested in a start-up distillery named Heaven Hill in 1935. But when their operating partners fell on hard times two years later, the family bought them out and rushed to learn the whiskey business for themselves. Overseeing daily operations fell to Ed Shapira, father of Max Shapira, Heaven Hill’s current president.

“My dad, as we often said, didn’t know a barrel from a box,” says Shapira. “But he was very smart, and a very hard worker who spent morning, noon and night learning what this thing might be all about.”

Talk over breakfast, lunch and dinner always centered on Heaven Hill, chatter Shapira describes as more like unique family language than a hail of business lingo. “It was my parents’ and uncles’ livelihood, and it was interesting to us,” he says.

Growing up, Max Shapira was given a range of jobs at the distillery, including plant messenger in those pre-email days, and work in the bottling plant “tossing around 35-pound cases onto trucks…until somebody from the office said, ‘Would you like to go over to the administrative office to work there for a while?’ It was air-conditioned, so that sounded like a pretty good deal.”

Being part of the Heaven Hill family was only somewhat different for Max’s children, Andy and Kate. Though he and his wife, Ellen, moved the family from Bardstown to Louisville, he says the kids still heard “the whiskey talk around the table,” and caught their parents’ enthusiasm for the spirits business.

Instead of Andy and Kate working at the distillery, Shapira brought jobs home to them. Back then, Heaven Hill, served by Salt River Electric, attached “$2 off” coupons to bottles, and consumers returned them to the distillery by the thousands to redeem their discount. The kids’ job was to sort through them and reject any customer attempts to exceed the “one per household” limit.

“Nothing would give the kids more pride than saying, ‘Dad, we found some that sent in two or three,’” Shapira says. Today, daughter Kate Latts is vice president of marketing, and son Andy Shapira is western division sales manager and director of corporate analysis. “That my children are working for our company and are part of our succession plan is more meaningful to me than any success we’ve had with any product,” Max Shapira says.

Rob Samuels, chief operating officer, Maker’s Mark Distillery

Loretto

Rob Samuels grew up knowing the passion his grandparents and parents had for Maker’s Mark and what eventually became “bourbon tourism.” But until he went to college at the University of South Carolina, he didn’t know how few outside Kentucky shared their enthusiasm for the brand.

“My first year in college, Maker’s Mark could be found at only two accounts in Columbia (South Carolina): a fine dining restaurant and a live music venue,” Samuels says. “There wouldn’t be any meaningful interest in Maker’s outside of Kentucky for a couple of decades.”

Like any kid growing up under whiskey-making parents, Samuels worked at Maker’s Mark, served by Inter-County Energy. Yet his elders never insisted he make distilling his life’s work. Still, a career with the family brand gnawed occasionally at his thoughts.

“I had to ask myself whether my own passion for Maker’s ran deeper than just admiring a family legacy,” Samuels says.

Not only did he not rush back to Loretto after graduation, he says he went to work for another liquor conglomerate to see the spirits business “outside of the shadows of Maker’s Mark. … That made a lot of people scratch their heads, but it was an important chapter of my life.”

His father and Maker’s icon Bill Samuels Jr. is in a perpetual state of semi-retirement, but Rob Samuels doesn’t view carrying the family tradition forward an intimidating challenge.

“I don’t see it that way, but I do see it as exciting,” he says. Bearing the standard of Maker’s Mark is a group effort, he adds: “We have a team here who loves and respects Maker’s Mark as much as I do. If you spent time with us at the distillery, you’d feel the engagement, love and commitment to excellence and our founders’ vision.”

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