Podcast Episode: Steve Beam of Limestone Branch and Yellowstone
Steve and I talk about the Beam and Dant family histories, Yellowstone's legacy, and discuss how he and his brother Paul started a distillery.
Listen to the Episode
Steve Beam is the President and distiller at Limestone Branch and loves history. In this episode, he helps us understand the family tree of Dants and Beams as well as telling us about his journey into distilling.
- The Charles Townsend Yellowstone story
- T.J. Pottinger, Captain Sam, and Walnut Hill
- Lost history and hauntings
- The Dants, the Burch, and the Bowlings
- The Limestone Branch of the Beam/Dant family
- Minor Case Beam at Early Times
- Olene Parker's Old Maid and Francis Head at Gethsemane
- Where Minor's name came from
- How the Dants lost Yellowstone and how it came back to the Beams
- Yellowstone distillery in Louisville
- Yellowstone's popularity in Kentucky
- Heaven Hill and LuxCo
- The fate of Henry McKenna, J.W. Dant, Yellowstone, Rebel Yell, Ezra Brooks, and David Nicholson
- Getting the Yellowstone name back in the family
- There's a Beam everywhere in Kentucky
- The J.W. Dant distillery and the whiskey in the 50s
- How Steve became interested in distilling
- The New Hampshire man's yeast bucket advice
- Dry Fly and American Distilling Group in the
- Learning on a small scale
- Focusing on something unique
- Waiting on that first batch as a master distiller
- The Beams secrets at Thanksgiving
I hope you enjoy the history!
This episode of Whiskey Lore is brought to you by Whiskey Lore's Travel Guide to Experiencing Kentucky Bourbon - all the tips and insider information you need to plan the perfect distillery getaway to Kentucky. With each of the 32 distillery profiles, I'll give you my top reasons to choose each as well as things to look for when you visit.
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Way back in July, just after I had released the season 2 finale featuring the story of the Dant family and New Hope, I went back to revisit the area - mainly because I wanted to follow up on the story of Yellowstone Bourbon, which I had briefly mentioned in that episode. The details were a bit sketchy and I was having trouble nailing things down.
And I had gone to Limestone Branch Distillery on one of my earlier trips to Kentucky, and I remembered them talking about the Yellowstone story, mainly because they make Yellowstone whiskey there now.
It had a really interesting history because it went from J.B. Dant to a bunch of different places before it finally ended up at a place called LuxCo in St. Louis before finally coming back to decendents of the Dant and Beam families, Steve and Paul Beam at a distillery called Limestone Branch.
I wanted to talk to Steve, well Wally said if you want to talk history Steve Beam is the guy you want to talk to. So I got an interview all lined up with him and it started out as a fact finding mission on Yellowstone, but it turned into a full-fledged interview that - for some reason, I've held onto since July. I think part of it was I anticipated doing a full fledged Yellowstone story - Steve does a great job of telling us how the brand bounced around before landing back in the family's hands, that I’ll let him do it. We also talk about some of the names we discussed in the New Hope episodes, including Minor Case, Olene Parker, and T.J. Pottinger - as Steve fills in some more detail.
If you haven't heard episodes 9 and 10 from Season 2, it could probably help to go back and listen first, but this conversation definitely develops legs of its own a few minutes in. We'll talk about his road to becoming a distiller and find out how Steve and Paul's family ties not only into the Beams, but into brands like Early Times and J.W. Dant.
I think you’re really going to enjoy this. It was a nice summer day, sitting in the sunshine on the lovely front porch at Limestone Branch, if you haven’t been to that distillery, they do a nice job on history. And if you can, take a picture of the family tree at Limestone Branch, then do the same at the Jim Beam American Stillhouse and see if you can fit the puzzle together. Enjoy my conversation with Steve Beam of Limestone Branch Distillery.
Talking a little bit about Yellowstone because this one's been interesting for me as well. I'll let you tell the story first the Charles Townsend story, and then I have some questions about it.
Yeah, the The Story Goes that Bernard was selling whiskey from Cold Springs to Taylor and Williams who was the distributor and that they had a salesman on Taylor Williams had a Salesman who went out west and came back and I've heard a couple different things. I heard that there was like a lottery or you know people submitted names and that Yellowstone came up or that he came back and was very excited about the park and everybody knew that the park was, it was the first national park and that he said that they should name the bourbon Yellowstone after the park and that's the that's the story that has been propagated and continued for as long as I can remember.
And so the park opened in 1872 and I've read that he left his earliest 1871 which would be a really long vacation. But of course getting out west
I don’t think he was he was on vacation. I think it was working it was He's out out selling.
Okay? Okay. Yeah, and so did he come straight back and immediately they started creating the whiskey or Was that
They had the whiskey. Yeah because they have been distilling for a while. So it's brand that they created.
Okay, so it would have been probably around 1872 that they would have been able to do that that quickly and get it out.
Yeah, because it would have been it would have been a brand not the will, you know, there's not like they're having a started the story and make whiskey because they have the whiskey and then they've also want to do it quickly before anybody else did it? So there would be a tight that you know an urgency as well, you know, because later on they would be a Mammoth Cave brand. Yeah, you know, so they it was the national parks were used in Distillery names. So
Another brand that's actually tied to you guys. I saw when you I guess when you first open you started selling moonshine and a sugar shine because I was over at Oscar Getz Museum and I saw a bottle of TJ Pottinger that looked like it had been typed on there and I thought at first when I looked at it I said, oh man, that's you know, that's what they did back in 1890 whatever and
That's what the look we were going for. Yes, and yeah it so TJ Pottinger Thomas Jefferson pottinger who was a descendant of Captain Sam Pottinger really who kind of founded this that area around New Hope, that's where my family all were from and Captain Sam came. He was actually served in the Revolutionary War and he came to that area with Harrod and one of the guys from Louisville. I don't know if it was Oldham one that Shelby maybe one of the County's another County name - okay and kind of claim that area for the Revolutionary War and then he came back, right after the Revolution, yeah,
And that's when he set up the fort right and then he built Walnut Hill which was a house that we were talking about is unheard of at that time period this far out west be building this Maryland style house, but unfortunately
The first brick home east west of the Alleghenies.
Yeah. Yeah, so would have been impressive to see I guess it got knocked down in the 1940s or so.
Yeah, actually my mother's Uncle bought the property and the house was already in disrepair. And so they tore the house down and built a new house back then everybody, you know, one of the new modern they didn't want those old cold drafty houses, but the meat house is still there. The Meat House is still there and my mom remembers going into that house before they torque down and she said there were of course, she said it was her and her fever girlfriends. They were early teens and there's rumors that somebody had hung themselves, you know committed suicide in the closet. And so they were you know, it's all haunted type thing. But she said they remember going she remembers going into a room and she said a whole closet was just filled with correspondence letters and that you know, they talked about the the Native Americans and all the different things and but all that was burned.
Oh, you know It's painful
It is if because it would have been from the very beginning of Kentucky. Yeah, and so it is really sad that, you know, things like that just weren't valued and we're just
Disappeared. So it would be five it was an accident. Right? No, but you know just letting go. Yeah, I think that's what disappoints me a little bit about our history is that I don't think people really got accurate with history or wanted to preserve history until the late 19th century early 20th century and all of the stories that probably could have been told from New Hope and that whole area are just gone because there weren't there. They're not even tax records to chase after that's the hardest part about doing bourbon history is you can't always find records because when we're going back to the early days, they weren't documenting things or if they were we've not seen any of that
The one thing that one group that did keep good records for the Catholic Church. And so a lot of a lot of things come through the church records as well. And of course three sides of my family came to Pottinger Station. Hmm. So the Dant’s, the Burch’s and the Bowling's, three of the original 25 families that came with Basil Hayden. To pottinger station.
So, how does your Beam family, and I know it gets very difficult to nail this down, but I'm sure you've had to do it enough times. How do you travel down to where you meet up with a Dant’s?
Okay. So Jacob Beam was the original Beam who traveled into Kentucky and then he had a grandson Joseph. And that's the branch that we came off of there was actually split into three different branches of distilling Beams at that point. You had Joseph was the oldest David was the the middle son and John Henry or they called him Jack was the youngest. John Henry started Early Times. David was Jim Beam’s father. And he moved his distillery out over by Nazareth. Parts of it are still there.
Is that where Clear Springs was south of sort of between Bardstown and Clermont?
Well, it's right in right behind Nazareth. Right there in Bardstown.
And that's where his Distillery was that the one that was around till the 1940s or
I think so still warehouses there. Okay. All right, Heaven Hill owns it now then. Our ancestor was Joseph and we don't have a whole lot of distilling history on him when his father died. Which was David? Yeah coming up again. But David when David died he died young I think in his 50s without a will so his property was sold in on the Washington County Courthouse. And we have a record of where Joseph bought the still that of his father still. So we're thinking that you know, he either stayed at the original distillery site or had a small distillery there as well. He bought the still and some of the distilling essentials and and then also I was reading and see I read these things and you know, and then I can get worried. I've read these right little tidbits. You know, but I remember reading that Elmo Beam who was the distiller at Maker's Mark said someone had called him, you know a master distiller and he said “no. My grandfather was a true master distiller” and his grandfather would have been that Joe. That's who because his father was Joel L. Beam, and then his grandfather would have been Joe M. Beam.
So when we get down to Minor Case Beam is the son of
Joel L. no Joe M. Beam.
Yeah, Joe M. yeah, but he actually went to work for Jack Beam. So Kind of family tying in together. Very close with Jack. Okay.
Yeah so Minor Case was Joe Joe M, Joe the older Joe's son. Okay, and he went to work for his Uncle Jack at Early Times. And when he was 28, he bought into the distillery in Gethsemane. Okay with Francis Head.
That it was Parker and Head before.
Okay. All right new one for me. I didn't know that only in
Olene Parker, it was Francis Head’s partner and Olene Parker's a character unto himself. He's in Cincinnati based out of Cincinnati. And he was evidently like a PT Barnum of Cincinnati. And so so Beam bought Parker's interest out of that and only in Parkers brand was Old Maid. And that might be that pops up every once in a while. Minor bought him out and then eventually bought Head out. So then ran that distillery from the 1880s and I guess I could do the math from when Minor was born 28 to when he bought the distillery and then I know that he they said that he sold an 1810, but I I've seen records of whiskey from 1811. So right Right in that area 10 1810 date.
We've been 1810 or 1910. Okay.
1910 Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, we just went from the 17th.
He lived a long time. He has an interesting name. I often wonder whether he was named after a like like as I walk through the churchyard Holy Cross church yard. I saw the last name Minor right and it made me wonder whether his name really was a name that just came about because of a previous marriage.
That's what we think that either, you know, they were named after a good friend or you know, someone there's a lot of people if you look back? There's a lot of people in this area that were named after people they receive people wouldn't have to necessarily be a relative but someone that they respected our ago in prominent in the in the community. So yeah, we actually my cousin has a theory and she does most of our genealogy for the Beams, but she kind of she believed that the Minor and Case were to earnings. Okay, we're put together.
Yeah. It's very interesting
And I always ask my dad later in life and I was like dad didn't anybody ever think that a think to ask, where'd that come from?
Yeah, maybe even he didn't know.
Yeah, he always went by M.C.,
And then it was M.C. Head was the company after I mean MC Beam & Company after Frances Head right passed away or left the business,
Yeah. And then after did he live to see the end of Prohibition?
He died shortly after prohibition like around a hundred fifty days after prohibition ended he died.
So you're at that point Yellowstone was under Taylor and William
Right and owned by the dance.
Okay. So what happened to Yellowstone after that? How did it get back to you?
Okay, well After Prohibition Mike Dant had all right. So JB had several sons. I think the round 7 at least that were all distillers not to be confused with JW who had all those sons who were to write and actually the generations kind of mix because JW had so many children that some of the younger children were almost the same age as as a chill of the oldest?
Yeah, it's so it gets very
Yeah, so Mike Dant became president of Taylor and Williams after Bernard died. And so Mike Dant and his brothers ran that ran it through actually through Prohibition because they license that the name to Brown-Forman. And so Yellowstone through Brown-Forman and that's how it survived Prohibition. Okay, and that's how they managed to keep money flowing and we're able to build a massive distillery after Prohibition. So they built the distillery after Prohibition and then in 1944 Mike who had two daughters and a son but the son was a special needs son. And so I guess he just figured that it would be best to sell the distillery and he sold us The Distillery to Glenmore the Thompson family. And so then the Thompson family ran Yellowstone from 1944 until about 1992-1993 right in that area right in that time. It was sold to United Distillers. Okay shortly after United bought Yellowstone, they merged with Guinness and became Diageo and then they the powers that be in England decided that they didn't want to have anything to do with the bourbon. So they shut the distillery down and sold off all the brands.
So this was the end of the Cold Spring Distillery
No, that's that's the big distillery in Louisville on 7th Street. That was the Yellowstone distillery in Louisville.
Okay, and I so I missed that when did it move they built after Prohibition right after Prohibition. Actually my grandfather have check from him at the end of Prohibition. So they were working there getting everything ready. They had that distillery up and running at right at when Prohibition ended they were okay. So so they took that time during Prohibition and moved it down there.
So it's interesting to me that and I learned this while I was on what your tour here about Yellowstone's popularity in the state of Kentucky. Now I after doing all of these other whiskeys that I've been chasing everybody seems to say, okay we were the most popular your whiskey Four Roses was most popular after World War II and the Old Crow was still very popular in the 40s and 50s and Yellowstone is also very popular, but it was actually in Kentucky in case that was the biggest seller in Kentucky in the 1960s and 70s. That's been collaborated by several different people and one of the people who worked in the shipping department of Yellowstone at that time came in he was talking he said a third of all the whiskey sold in Kentucky was Yellowstone.
And and I know that I talked to Bill Samuels and he said when he started he said Yellowstone was not only the most popular but he said it was the most popular by far.
But he didn't give percentages. But he said by far. Yeah. Yeah,
And so the next move after Diageo took it over and they weren't really interested in Bourbon, right?
Heaven Hill and Luxe Co which was the David Sherman Company at that time worked out a deal between them to buy the brands and then kind of divvy them up. And so Heaven Hill got JW Dant at that time. I believe Henry McKenna was in that as well. Heaven Hill gotten several of the brands and LuxCo got Yellowstone, Rebel Yell and Ezra Brooks. Okay, and maybe it maybe
The David Nicholson I think is that
So who was making Yellowstone during those years
The 92 from 1992 until 2015 and actually until even we're still sourcing from Luxco stocks, right? And that's where that's where so we get everything we source comes from LuxCo stocks.
How hard is it to negotiate getting a famous brand like that into your your new distillery?
Well, you know when bourbon lost favor and started losing favor in the 70s and 80s. Yeah, Yellowstone fell really hard as well. And so it was kind of just one of those lost lost brands, so LuxCo was happy to partner with us and they like what we were doing and we brought the brand over to Limestone Branch
Was that in the early idea that you had when you started The Distillery that that's a brand you wanted
That what either JW Dant or Yellowstone. I'm okay really wanted to hit. Yeah and JW Dant was probably a little bit more of a difficult, you know, yeah would have been much more difficult, but Yellowstone. It's It worked out well because Yellowstone was actually the brand that touched my family the most on both sides. Yeah, because the Beams and the Dants collaborated. My grandfather was a distiller there. A couple of the Beams were distillers there up until the 40s and 50s. So it definitely across both of the families
With all the heritage of the beams in the world of distilling. Does it seem strange that you and Paul are the only two that actually are owning a distillery under the Beam name?
Yeah, you know it was yeah it there was such so prolific at one time and to be to come down to just us and that but there are you know, Ben Beam has gone through
Right. Yeah this also there
It's like everywhere I go I bump into a Beam.
So so, you know, there's there's more of course, you know, like I said the 70s 80s things had been there wasn't a lot of opportunity. So a lot of people moved on as well. But now that the opportunities and to be able to open on a scale that it isn't so massive. I think you may see more as well. Yeah, and just like, you know, we're talking to the Dants my cousin with the dance out of the family to that was one of the most prominent families and in Kentucky's distilling that just completely disappeared.
Yeah, you know, it's that's the amazing thing of seeing a pop back up and the ability to to kind of tell the story of that side of the fam.. because the first time I was here and I saw JW Dant picture in here, I had no clue who he was. And I don't know that JW Dant the brand is widely available. I've never seen it in my end of the country.
It's a regional brand. I'm not sure where they place it, but it's in certain regions.
Yeah. Yeah. And so the tough part has to sometimes be see down the bottom shelf.
Yeah it gets. Reviews people love it. Yeah, they really do even though it's there. They do they talk about it being a great value brand, you know, so that I like
I will say that even though Heaven Hill seems to own all a whole plethora of Legacy brands the stuff that they sell that is bottom shelf usually is pretty decent. So that that helps.
Yeah. Yeah, they but it's good to see people, you know enjoying JW Dant, and that tell you if you can get some JW Dant and from the 50s 40s or 50s from the Gethsemane Distillery. It's really really good stuff.
Really good stuff?
So you've had you've had a chance to take that chance to taste that?
Tt's great. And so I'm excited to see what while I can do over there.
Yeah. So how did you get into the business? What were you doing before Limestone Branch?
Oh so I had always been interested in getting in the business since gosh like my mom took us around. You know, when I was a kid to the old distillery sites kind of like what you did today and different things and it's I have to credit my mom more so than my dad with getting me interested in the distilling history, and she was very proud of being a descendant of JW Dant and So she talked about it a lot. And so I did a fair amount of research and we had old bottles and labels and different memorabilia. So I guess I was bitten by the bug but at the same time I was always interested in Horticulture too that just coming up. That's was just kind of my passion when I was younger. And so I went to school for landscape architecture and after I graduated, I looked into opening in the story. But at that time you still had to have a gauger on site. So I mean it was just crazy insane. So I kind of put the thought away and but thought I you know, I may come back to it someday then actually at Jim Beam's 200th anniversary, we went over and I was talking to a distributor actually, he was work for the state because it was New Hampshire and he worked for the State of New Hampshire and we were talking and I said, well, you know, I have the recipe, you know, JW Dant’s yeast recipe and talks about, you know, use a bucket of this and you know the and he said we you you should open a distillery and tell people you make it with a bucket, you know, like this that again then that kind of read lit the fire a little bit and I kind of kept putting my foot in and eventually - people forget, there wasn't an internet. So things we're not easy to find our yeah.
No, no YouTube videos check out and you know, you couldn't Google something and have you know, everything about clap but but I do remember back in the old dial-up days, you know starting to see things and then actually I saw Fritz Maytag out in San Francisco and Dry Fly.
And they had opened and that kind of really got me interested and then Bill Owens with American Distilling Institute had started that group and so they started getting hits on that. Like I said, this is all the infancy of the the internet and so they had a lady I had a conference here in Louisville. I guess that was 2008 and I went to that and I told my brother its like it's now or never, you know, so when I didn't look back
Was he hard to convince?
He took a little bit of convincing you talk to him. He doesn't say he was a little long longer to convince, but it yeah, he came around and it's been great.
So you had to quickly learn how to be a master distiller.
Right? And I what I you know, I read everything that I could possibly get my hands on visit a couple of small two stories that I took classes. I took a class in Chicago and different places than I had a friend Sherman Owen and his family have been involved in unrecorded distilling for a long time.
They call it elicits still distilling over there in Scotland.
Yeah, and And he was very helpful because he - you could talk to people who'd worked in the distilleries here in Kentucky and they're used to 10,000 gallon mash tubs.
But when you're talking about a hundred gallon Mash tub, it just you know, its a whole different animal. So yeah, so Sherman was able to teach me on that scale. And so that would that that was invaluable knowledge.
And I see you at the pot still correct. So that was really your interest was let's not we're not looking to be the biggest around while you're looking to create something unique
Something unique something that reflected our heritage and history and and the beginnings of it. Yeah, so the pot still plus over and there was also Not a lot of distilling equipment back in 2008 when we were, you know, the choices were very limited. There were just three or four manufacturers. Vendome wasn't even really making small Stills at that time. I remember talking to David Sherman Rob Sherman, and he was said, well, you know, I don't know. This is the even when I was just thinking about going to this listen either, you know, I do We'll see if the these smaller stories make it or not. You know,
Pumping you full of confidence.
Yeah, it's been a good journey and and it just so happened to coincide with the bourbon boom because I didn't plan it that way.
Yeah, you know who knew? Yeah, I've been dead for
Yeah in 2008 it was starting to shine some? Yeah, but not anything like you know what it would become four years later. Yeah.
Yeah, so what was that first batch, like were you terrified as you're sitting here putting together because there's a lot of expense that goes in and you have to kind of wait right to find out if it's going to be any good and you're talking about what had you already started the process on Yellowstone the name at that point.
Okay. So you were going to do this under your own banner until TJ Pottinger and then yeah, eventually probably minor case we would use and yes, so that Yellowstone was you know, I thought that was kind of a goal eventually. But it happened quicker than I thought as well.
So how long was it before you said? Okay. I think we got something here.
But you know it was a struggle in the beginning, you know, could we were out in the middle of nowhere and you know and and people didn't know what a craft distillery was and there were just a few others here in the state. So, you know, it wasn't, you know, an immediate success. So we struggled along and but it didn't really make too much difference because we were enjoying what we were doing and that was what we wanted, you know, and we figured if we enjoy what we do and and put out a good product then we'd be as successful as we need to be. So here we are.
So what happened to TJ Pottinger sugar shine?
When we do we have such limited capacity that when we partner with LuxCo and bought the Yellowstone name on board we devoted all of our time just to Yellowstone and yeah bourbon
Making bourbon. Okay.
Yeah, and we can't make enough for what our projections are now so, you know, we can't take the time to make other other products right now.
Yeah. Was there ever a time? Were because to me what I love about this industry. Is that whether it's in Scotland or here all the other distillers seem to be a helping hand if you need it.
So you find that here and then plus you've got Beam in the name. You would think that there's a few family members you might be able to tap on the shoulder.
Everybody has been really helpful, The small distilleries, especially when we are all first starting, you know, there's five or six of us. Yeah. We were met on a regular basis and shared information and things so but still everybody is very supportive the whole industry from large down and it's been like that and they everybody's welcomed us from day one. So it's been good. That way, And we were lucky because I hear other states, you know, that doesn't necessarily work that way so it's been good. But then it's a tradition here in Kentucky and you know, I tell people you know, fifty years ago. Everybody was related that was working in the right side.
Yeah, you still have that advantage.
That's a Buddy and we I was fortunate to meet Buddy Thompson about a year before he passed away. He was with Glenmore. Okay, we were talking and he said yeah, he said everybody talked about their their recipe their secrets and all that and he said and then we all knew that the Beams got together at Thanksgiving and there was the secrets ha ha ha.
It's crazy. It's it's fun learning about though for sure definitely is. Well, I appreciate the time and great great talking history always great talking is great.
I hope you enjoyed that journey through the history of Yellowstone and Limestone Branch. And if you want to learn more, Steve was recently a guest on the Bourbon Pursuit podcast where one of my favorite bourbon historians Fred Minnick had the opportunity to dive deep into their story as well - I highly recommend giving it a listen. And for show notes and archives of all of our interviews and storytelling episodes head to whiskey-lore.com
Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life, LLC
I'm your host Drew Hannush and until next time, cheers and slainte mhath