Bourbon Tales: A Visit to the Jim Beam American Stillhouse
When my parents told me they were moving to Kentucky two and a half years ago my response was somewhere south of positive. There was one thing, though, that had me a little bit excited.
I drank my fair share of clear liquor in college. To the point where a good whiff of vodka, gin, or rum had my stomach in knots. Then, one night in Florida a friend’s mom introduced me to bourbon and ever since I’ve been throwing back the Beam, Maker’s, and Evan Williams (hey, I was a poor college student once) in high spirits.
So, when I found myself back in Bourbon Country last month and my mom suggested we take a family pre-Christmas trip out to the Jim Beam Distillery, called the Jim Beam American Stillhouse, I was all in.
Located in Clermont, Kentucky, the Stillhouse is an easy 30 minute drive from Louisville. As you drive south, the sprawl of Kentucky’s largest city soon gives way to gently rolling hills and forest.
Unlike most of of the other major distillers in the area, Jim Beam only opened itself up for tours to the public in the fall of 2012. The result is a beautiful complex of restored and reconstructed buildings on the original site of the Beam family distillery.
My parents, sister, and I arrived early for the noon tour on an unseasonably warm Sunday. We wandered the grounds before the stillhouse doors opened and took a look at the rack house where the bourbon is stored and aged, the rebuilt home T. Jeremiah Beam, and a statue of Booker Noe and his faithful four footed companion.
At noon the doors to the stillhouse opened and we purchased our tickets for $8 each. The tour began with a bus ride out to the the actual distillery. During the ride our very knowledgeable tour guide ran through the history of Jim Beam and introduced us to the company’s motto- “Come as a friend, leave as family”.
Just call me Amanda Beam.
After the introduction we arrived at the plant and our immersion into the world of bourbon making began.
The Beam family began making bourbon in Kentucky in 1787. Today, 95% of bourbon is made in Kentucky. And for good reason. First, Kentucky sits on a limestone shelf. The limestone helps to purify the water supply and it also aids in the fermentation process. Secondly, a lot of corn is grown in Kentucky, and a lot of corn is needed to make bourbon. Bourbon has to contain 51% corn to be considered as such, and it takes 14 square feet to make one 750 ml bottle.
The process of making bourbon is a long one. First, corn, rye, and malt are processed into a powder. This powder is the combined with a special yeast recipe. This causes the fermentation process to begin- the yeast changes the sugars into alcohol. At this point, with the large amounts of yeast, the air smelled like a brewery as opposed to a liquor distillery.
After 3 days of fermentation the distillation process begins. The remaining mash is pushed through 14 trays until it is liquid. This liquid is boiled at 200 degrees until it is at the correct proof to be barreled. Legally, bourbon has to be distilled at 160 proof or below. A higher proof means there will be less flavor and at Jim Beam they distill between 125-135. It is at this point that the smell becomes sweeter, more like liquor than beer.
Once distilled, the liquid is placed in a brand new, fifty three gallon, charred oak barrel. The char on the barrel gives the bourbon its amber color. The bourbon is then aged for 4-9 years depending on brand, with the more expensive bourbons being aged longer.
Jim Beam produces about 300,000 barrels a year and has around 1.8 million barrels currently aging.
Jim Beam prides itself on being environmentally responsible. All of the used barrels are used to make beer, whiskey, and tobacco after being emptied, and all the used grains are dried and sent to farms to be used as animal feed.
The next step in the process is bottling. First, bourbon is shot through the bottle to disinfect the glass before it is filled and capped. Using bourbon instead of water to clean prevents the bourbon from being watered down.
Once cleaned the bottle hits one of the 12 bottle lines. At this small plant they fill 250-300 bottles a minute, for a total of 1.5 million bottles a year.
After being capped each bottle is etched with a tracking code, dipped into black wax, stamped with a label, and shipped. From each batch 2 bottles are stored for 2 years to assure quality among all products.
With the production process finished, we learned a little bit about Jim Beam distribution around the world and then were bussed back to the main grounds.
Our second to last stop was a barrel rack house. This is one of the many facilities that Jim Beam uses to age their bourbon. The building was old, dark, and extremely cold. The smell of bourbon was strong in the air and I was concerned that the nearly century old beams would collapse and thousands of barrels of bourbon would crush me. Luckily, we were only in there long enough to learn that there are more bottles of bourbon aging in Kentucky than there are people aging in Kentucky before moving on to the best part of the tour.
After one and half hours of learning all about bourbon and Beam, we were able to sample two Jim Beam products. Although I’m not a huge straight bourbon fan, it was the perfect ending to a very educational and entertaining day at the Jim Beam American Stillhouse.
There’s no better way to end this post than with the words of bourbon master Booker Noe.
“There’s no right way to drink bourbon as long are you’re drinking bourbon.”
Visitor Information: The Jim Beam American Stillhouse is open for tours Monday-Saturday from 9-5 with tours every half hour from 9:30-3:30 (except 12:30) and on Sunday from noon- 4:30 with tours every half hour from 12:30-3. Closed on Sunday in January and February and on major holidays. The Jim Beam American Stillhouse is located at 526 Happy Hollow Road in Clermont, KY 40110. For more information visit their website.
Do you like bourbon? What’s your favorite brewery or distillery tour you’ve been to?