If there is one family that could be called the royal family of bourbon, it’s the Beams. For seven generations, starting with Jacob Beam after moving to central Kentucky in 1788, the Beam family, in one way or another, has had a hand in just about every major brand of bourbon out there. Yes, including non-Jim Beam products and distilleries. For the entire in-depth rundown of all the Beams in bourbon, be sure to listen to our Podcast #3. In it, we describe in detail as much as we could muster about which Beam did what where and when!
It goes without saying that we were excited that our second stop on the Bourbon Classic Media Tour was Jim Beam distillery in Clermont, KY. The last time I visited the Beam distillery was in grade school on a field trip (you read that right, that’s how Catholic schools roll). Back then (early 1990’s), it was little more than a nice slide show/film and a bourbon ball tasting–we sadly couldn’t taste the real deal at the time, something about the law, blah blah.
The Basic Facts:
Parent Company: Suntory Holdings Limited (Japan, Head Office in Osaka)
United States Immediate Parent: Beam Suntory, Inc.
Location: Clermont, KY
Master Distiller(s): Fred Noe
Mash Bill(s): Officially a secret, but said to be 75% corn, 15% rye, and 10% barley for the main mashbill; and 60% corn, 30% rye, and 10% barley for the high rye mashbill (Old Granddad and Basil Hayden’s)
Aging Rickhouses: On site
Bottling: On site
Website(s): http://www.americanstillhouse.com/ and http://www.jimbeam.com/
Public Tours: Yes, daily: $10, Free under 21 years of age
We were first greeted in the Gift Shop by the wonderful Megan Breier, Kentucky Bourbon Ambassador at Beam Suntory, to start our tour off.
Highlights of the Tour and Grounds:
- Non-GMO grains used exclusively due to the European market preference
- A majority of the grain is sourced locally, but the rye is Canadian
- The distillery uses around 200 acres of grain per day for their mash
- Aging barrels are from Independent Stave Company, and a level 4 char
- There are eighteen 45,000 gallon fermenters on site
- Booker’s always comes from the middle portion of the 5th and 6th floors of the rickhouses
- The Small Batch bourbons are distilled twice: once by column still and once by pot still
- The Small Batch bourbons are also distilled to a lower ABV to reduce the amount of water necessary to add for proofing (except Booker’s, to which no water is added)
Outside the Knob Creek Single Barrel bottling house, we had the opportunity to theif some from the barrel and taste it. Mighty good as always, especially in the bitter cold of that day! Once inside and a bit warmer, we had the chance to bottle our own Knob Creek Single Barrel 120 proof. We picked our empty bottle, washed it ourselves on the “bourbon fountain” (they don’t use air or water so as not to blow in impurities/dust or lower the proof), then put a sticker on it with our name and sat it on the line to get filled, corked, and labeled. Watching it proceed down the line and knowing it’ll be your own personal bottle was more than a bit exciting, especially since we both love Knob Creek Single Barrel. At the end, as it comes off the line freshly labeled, a worker dips the top in black wax and impresses the circumferential seal. He then dips the very top in the wax again, at which point you can put your thumb print in it if you so desire–a nice personal finishing touch. After the tour, the bottles are waiting for you in the gift shop with your name sticker on it for picking up.
The main bottling line is impressive to behold, indeed. Each shift must bottle a certain number of cases before they can leave. As Beam has many products, and a huge worldwide demand, this policy is understandable. Though the way the line was running while we were there, it doesn’t seem to be a problem. The well trained staff are clearly pros when it comes to ensuring a steady reliable supply of some of our favorite brands.
Outside the main bottling area is what can only be described as every bourbon drinker’s dream–a large locked storage area containing several bottles from each batch of each brand from the past two years of production. This area includes bottles from the foreign shipments, too, including 4 Liter bottles of Jim Beam (see the pictures below) which are quite impressive and illegal to sell in the U.S. unfortunately. They keep it for quality assurance and control and is used for reasons such as customer complaints (example hat tip to Megan!):
Angry adult on the phone: “This Jim Beam is weak and watered down! Here’s the bottle number…”
Jim Beam Helpful Staff: “OK, sir, we have checked that batch, and the quality and proof are as they should be. Perhaps a resident of your home has drank some and replaced the volume with water?”
Angry adult: “Timmy!!! Did you drink our Jim Beam and put water in it to hide it! … YOU’RE GROUNDED!”
At the end of the tour, we then had the unique and special opportunity to sit down with the legend himself, Fred Noe, in his newly constructed office house for a personal tasting and story session. Among memorable quotes from Fred during this session is the gem, “If you’re drinking Booker’s, you better have your pajamas on.”
Of importance, we asked about the Suntory purchase of Jim Beam, and Fred said, thankfully, Suntory doesn’t do much in the way of telling him what to do, and pretty much have left things alone, so Fred and the experienced people at Beam still have good control over the products and how they are distilled and aged, etc.
However, there is still a mystery surrounding Old Grand Dad 114. Fred was reticent to open up about our question regarding where this originated and future plans for the label. The polite, but brief, response was that the label was purchased by the Beam company and is made on site. He did mention that there are some extra-aged barrels of the high rye mashbill (OGD/Basil Hayden’s) which slipped through the inventory cracks and may eventually get released. In the end, we didn’t press the issue, but would absolutely love to see a 10 or 12 year old Basil Hayden’s.
Popular brands currently produced by Jim Beam:
- Jim Beam, Jim Beam Black, Jim Beam Bottled-in-Bond (recently released), Jim Beam Rye, Booker’s, the Knob Creek line, Old Grand Dad, Basil Hayden’s, and many others, including flavored whiskies.
PS: Stay tuned for an upcoming podcast tasting of the small batch line from Jim Beam!