Chewing My Way Through the Jim Beam Distillery

by Keith Savage · 4 comments

Jim Beam Distillery

Half an hour south of Louisville in the lush hills of Clermont, Kentucky stands the multi-million dollar complex that is Jim Beam, the world’s largest producer of Bourbon whiskey. It’s a rainy weekday morning as Sarah and I drive through vaguely Scottish terrain to Jim Beam’s American Stillhouse, which is the site of their craft brand production in addition to some of their flagship Bourbon. Less than a minute into our tour I learn that Jim Beam has multiple sites around Kentucky pumping out 15 million cases of Bourbon each year, but more on that later.

My first impression: This is a different animal from Scotch distilleries, a Brontosaurus stomping along next to iguanas.

Everything is brand new in the Jim Beam visitor’s center, the result of a $30 million expansion that had a grand opening just a month prior to my arrival. I can almost smell the fading whiff of cash as I browse around the undeniably beautiful souvenir and information displays while waiting for our tour to begin – the first time Jim Beam has ever offered guided tours of their facilities. Brand heritage is clearly at the heart of Jim Beam given the massive family tree of their master distillers hanging over the entryway, and in this respect there is much in common with the family pride that still exists in many Scotch distilleries.

It is the Beam Way: The master craftsmanship handed down from father to son for the past seven generations and 217 years. Jacob Beam founded the empire in the 1780s, and by the time of his grandson, David M. Beam, the business had moved to Bardstown and begun using rail. But the business truly took off with the next man in line: Jim Beam. He sustained the business through prohibition, WWI, and the Great Depression. The legacy continued with the introduction of the Noe’s, Booker and Fred, the current master distiller, and their vision for Beam’s so-called “super premium” products and flavored whiskies. Brands like Booker’s, Basil Hayden, and Red Stag. This train shows no sign of stopping.

It isn’t long before our tour guide, Kyle, shows up and ushers our group outside. This site is so large we need a bus to travel among the various points of interest; not even Glenfiddich or Macallan can say the same. Our first stop is Jim Beam’s craft distillery. This is where they produce all those super premium brands many consumers don’t realize are products of Jim Beam. Ever heard of Knob Creek? Jim Beam makes it. Baker’s? Jim Beam makes it. Old Crow? Old Granddad? Basil Hayden’s? Jim Beam, Jim Beam, and…Jim Beam. The production of multiple brands, whiskies under different labels, by a single distillery is such a departure from how single malt Scotch works that my brain actually starts seizing. How can they do this? Isn’t it a cheap marketing ploy?

No. Well, not exactly. American distilleries are not beholden to using only a single grain in their whiskey production as Scottish distilleries are with barley. All grains are fair game for making whiskey, and this simple fact introduces the ability to create almost infinite mash bills. A mash bill details the types and proportions of grains used in a particular batch of whiskey. To make Bourbon, you have to use at least 51% corn in the mash bill (among other arcane strictures I’ll cover another time). The remaining 49% can be whatever the master distiller chooses: Rye, barley, wheat, or any other of a number of less common grains. These different brands that Jim Beam produces use different mash bills, age for different lengths of time, and have varying proofs.

I’m familiar with malted barley. That’s what Scottish distilleries use, and they make damn fine whisky. Malted barley yields smooth, multi-faceted, and balanced whiskies. On the other hand, my experience with Bourbon has generally been dismay because it’s simply too darn sweet for my tastes. That is the influence of corn. Some Bourbons have a very high percentage of corn in them, while others balance the required 51% with spicy rye, smooth wheat, or balancing malted barley. Though mash bills were a foreign concept, it gave me hope that I might find some Bourbons to my liking.

Kyle hands me a scoop and I dump corn meal into a mash tun full of water from nearby Bernheim lake. At Jim Beam, they use corn from Indiana, rye from South Dakota, and malted barley from good old Wisconsin in their Bourbon. A little perspective: The distillery goes through 115 acres of grain per day, and 14 square feet of grain yields about one bottle of whiskey. The delicious smell is already making me rationalize what used to be unimpeachable blasphemy. Perhaps it isn’t so wrong to use corn in whiskey; the people who settled in this region were simply using what grew around them. Who’s to say Scotland wouldn’t have used corn in Scotch if it grew in abundance there?

We move along through the small craft distillery to view the stills standing behind glass, passing Jim Beam’s sacred jug of yeast along the way. It’s the same yeast strain they’ve used since the end of prohibition. Scottish distilleries don’t revere specific yeast strains, contenting themselves with bags or jugs of distiller’s yeast instead, and I’m dubious that a specific strain of yeast would have any noticeable impact on the final product. That said, it’s a clever device for tours full of novice whiskey drinkers. The wort ferments for three-to-five days, but always for at least 60 hours.

Due to space limitations, the craft still is a bit cramped, though I find it interesting that the spirit still, or what I know of as the wash still, is reminiscent of a continuous still typically employed in the making of vodka and other clear liquors while the second still, the Doubler, is a tiny pot still more similar to the massive copper stills you see in Scotland. The terminology is slightly different for much of the process (for example, high wines instead of spirit, distiller’s beer instead of wash, etc.), but the process itself, that of a double distillation, is overall quite similar to the one used in the making of Scotch whisky.

Spirit rolls off the still at 135 proof. By law, it can’t come off the still higher than 160 proof, go into a barrel at higher than 125 proof, or go into a bottle at less than 80 proof. I’m sure there are good reasons for these rules, though I’m not party to them. One of the distillers come out from behind the glass with a beaker of newmake that he just pulled off the spirit still, an act that would have customs & excise banging on the doors in Scotland, and gives everyone a sniff. It’s strong and unrefined, but the essences of corn and rye cannot be ignored.

There are actually two distilleries at the Jim Beam American Stillhouse site, the craft distillery and what Kyle calls “the Big House.” The Big House is the industrial scale distillery that runs 24 hours/day (when they’re distilling – it’s not a seven-day operation) pumping out Jim Beam Rye and Black Label. Jim Beam’s plant in Boston, KY does most of the heavy lifting with the production of Jim Beam White Label, the world’s #1 selling Bourbon. The Big House has two very tall stills that appear to be continuous stills though I’m unable to verify that, and a doubler hidden beneath our feet. The whole operation is run on clean coal because natural gas is just too expensive.

The cool, drizzling morning is welcome respite after the heat and noise of the Big House. We head to the back end of the whiskey-making process. Aging, bottling, drinking. Bourbon must age in brand new white oak barrels, a stark contrast to Scotch which cannot use new oak barrels. We must assume these industries colluded in the passing of these bylaws. Most of the wood for Beam’s barrels comes from oak forests in the Ozarks. They go through 300,000 heavily-charred barrels each year – 12 million since prohibition – so let’s hope these forests are being expertly managed.

These barrels spend time in one of the 29 nine-storey warehouses holding 1.8 million barrels scattered around the complex. Nine storeys! Typical dunnage warehouses in Scotland are a single storey of stacked barrels three rows high. Even newer racked warehouses in Scotland would struggle to compete with the size of these behemoths. Perhaps it’s needless to say, but warehousing and aging is very different in Bourbon country. Temperature fluctuations are much greater in Kentucky with at times supremely hot summers and bone-numbing winters. These temperature changes warp the barrel wood causing greater and lesser amounts of evaporation, which are further complicated by the barrel’s place in the warehouse. The black-stained warehouses aren’t temperature controlled, so it’s hotter at the top, and where it’s hot whiskey ages faster. Uh-oh.

Ingenuity is not in short supply among whiskey barons. The folks at Jim Beam have figured out a formula for handling the aging process and it doesn’t involve rotating barrels, which would be simply too labor intensive since each warehouse holds 20,000 barrels. It goes like: The super premium brands get prime aging spots in the center of the warehouses while the other barrels that make up their flagship brands are plucked from the various parts of the warehouse and blended together to give an even, consistent flavor.

I help Kyle dump some delicious Knob Creek into the filtering drain before the liquor heads off to bottling. He gives us the scoop on Jim Beam’s newest brand, Devil’s Cut, in which they refill empty barrels with water and shake the barrel to release the Bourbon trapped in the wood staves. Jim Beam then brings down the strength of this second “press” to 90 proof and sells it as a bolder, more tannin-rich whiskey. The angels’ like their share evaporated and the devil likes his cut in the wood. I think I like mine the normal way, in a glass.

With the exception of a cooperage, Jim Beam is a full-spectrum operation. Our group spends a few minutes washing out bottles with Bourbon from a jet (they don’t use water to clean bottles because residual water changes the flavor of the whiskey inside the bottle) and filling Knob Creek on a token bottling line. I’m noticing that Jim Beam has two of almost everything on site: A highly-polished and tour-friendly version and a GSD industrial version.

As we exit the bottling plant, we cross paths with whiskey behind bars. This is Jim Beam’s quality control area. If any complaints come back on a bottle, they can cross-check it with their inventory here and test it themselves. Bottles spend a 2.5 year jail sentence here before being released into the homes of Jim Beam’s employees as freebie gifts. Nice!

The impressive 90-minute tour winds to a close with a stop in Jim Beam’s futuristic tasting barn. We have to hand over our ticket stubs to validate our entrance. I find a polished array of futuristic soda fountains reconfigured to deliver Bourbon. Thirteen whiskies await tasting, but dark words from Kyle tell us we’re limited to two choices! I’m given a credit card that apparently has two “tokens” on it. I stumble over to the super premium Bourbon fountain, insert my token card, and press the button for Booker’s as I hold my tasting glass beneath the spiggot. A squirt of dark Bourbon sloshes into my glass. It’s perhaps a quarter of a dram?

I have to be honest here. The tasting portion was quite a let down after such a hands-on and tour-friendly spin around the distillery. That’s not to say the whiskies I tried, Booker’s and Basil Hayden, weren’t good – on the contrary, I found them very enjoyable – it’s just I had so little in my glass I could hardly form an opinion, much less tasting notes. To be given only two tastes of Jim Beam’s rather large range of whiskies also prevents visitors for getting a sense of Beam’s scope and quality. I don’t require three fingers of whiskey in my glass, but I wouldn’t have minded a focused tasting (like I got at Heaven Hill – more on that in a future post).

That said, I took Kyle’s advice and performed the Kentucky Chew on my Bourbons. Give it a try yourself. Take a sip of Bourbon and leave it on your palate. Then chew it as if it were something that required chewing. This works the whiskey into all your mouth’s nooks and crannies and yields all the flavors, so they say.

Jim Beam’s numbers are staggering. They pump out 115,000 gallons of Bourbon each day and shipped 15 million cases last year alone. These are numbers that dwarf the largest Scotch producers. As part of Beam Inc., which also owns brands like Sauza, Laphroaig, Cooley’s, and Courvoisier, Jim Beam’s international reach might be unrivaled by any other whiskey/whisky makers in the world. I think it’s impossible for a brand to remain unaltered by such globalization, but you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise after taking the tour through Jim Beam. They revere their history, and it shows in the quality of their products.

Disclosure: Jim Beam provided me and Sarah with complimentary tours. All thoughts and opinions expressed here, as always, are my own.

Debbie fettyNo Gravatar June 4, 2014 at 3:25 PM

Love me some freebies

Vid of Bruised PassportsNo Gravatar July 15, 2013 at 4:14 AM

115,000 gallons ? Whoa!! …. Fab pics, enjoyed reading this post

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