The original plan for this most recent stop and period of time in Kentucky was to accomplish the Bourbon Trail. For those who are not Bourbon aficionados, or have no knowledge of the Bourbon Trail, the Trail consist of a visit to the eleven Kentucky distilleries that are located in the Louisville, Elizabethtown, Lexington triangle. When one has visited all eleven, and collected stamps on the “passport”, there is a gift commemorating the accomplishment. The gift has been a t-shirt in the past. Rumor has it that the gift this year is a cup or glass.
Unfortunately, we have had to cut our visit to Kentucky short due to problems with the fifth wheel. Not a huge surprise. We more than likely would not have been able to complete the trail in the time allotted anyway. Completing the trail in less than ten days or so would not only be a breakneck schedule, but would result in a ten-day bourbon buzz. (I know some of you are questioning the problem with that)
We decided if we were going to visit at least one distillery near our location, it probably should be the Jim Beam distillery. That was a good choice.
The Jim Beam Distillery has been in operation (with an unfortunate break for prohibition) since 1795 when founder Jacob Beam began making whiskey a few barrels at a time. The company was reestablished in 1933 by the real innovator and force Jacob’s great-grandson Colonel James Beam following the ratification of the twenty-first amendment and the repeal of prohibition.
The distillery is located on a beautiful piece of property in Clermont, Kentucky. The property includes the Stillhouse, which houses the store, two distilleries for mass production and single barrel production, bottling facilities, a restaurant that features, what else, Beam-infused barbecue, and several very large aging barns.
The tour began in the area that directs and collects the Kentucky limestone water which apparently is a key ingredient and the reason why Kentucky is bourbon country. 95% of all bourbon is made in Kentucky and 50% of that is made by Jim Beam. We definitely picked the right distillery.
We were then brought to the area where the mash is made and fermented which begins the process of making liquid gold. Here we were provided with the first of three requirements for a whiskey to be considered a bourbon. All bourbons are whiskeys by the way, but not all whiskeys are bourbons.
The first requirement for a whiskey to called a bourbon is that it must be made with at least 51% corn. The other two grains are rye and malt. The greater the malt the smoother the mix with less burn or “Kentucky hug”.
The second requirement of a bourbon is that it must be made in the United States. This was pushed for by the early bourbon makers to ensure the quality of the product.
After the mash is mixed with Kentucky water it is seeded with the special yeast recipe which has been in the family since the beginning. It is said that Jim Beam kept a jar of the yeast on his desk at all times and took it home on the weekend. In fact, there are deposits of the yeast stashed in several different places in case of an emergency. Its good to know we will still have some Jim Beam possible even after a nuclear winter.
The mash mixture along with the yeast is left to ferment for three days and the result is actually called a “beer”. This mixture which is ready to go into the barrels and aged is actually clear at this point. We were provided a taste as it was being poured into the barrel and it was very strong and sweet.
The next stop was the discussion of the white oak barrels which are the third requirement of a bourbon. The inside of the barrel planks are fired black and the barrel can only be used once. The blackened wood provides the rich color and some of the taste. Used barrels are sold many of them going to Scotland for use in making Scotch Whiskey.
That spout in the barrel was real and we poured and tasted the clear product as it went into the barrell
The single-barrel specialty bourbons are started in three 500-gallon vats that provide a small number of of barrels. The regular Jim Beam is stated in several very large vats that result in approximately 17,000 gallons which is stored in a seven-story container waiting to be poured into barrels.
The tower holds 17,000 barrels of Jim Beam
We were brought to the Knob Creek bottling facility to demonstrate the bottling process. We were offered the opportunity to bottle our own bottle of Knob Creek Single Barrel for a cost. Eileen convinced me to do this. My arm still hurts where she had to bend it. The first step was to wash the bottles as they come out of the box. The bottles are washed quickly with, you guessed it, bourbon. The bourbon is then poured into the bottle and the Knob Creek wax bottle top is applied. We were allowed to stamp our fingerprints in the hot wax. Later we were able to have the bottle etched with our names.
My bottle being filled
The next stop was a museum room where hundreds of specialty decanters were displayed. There were several decanters created to honor states, but I could not find Connecticut. Speaking of Connecticut, I met a gentleman from Rhode Island who was in Kentucky on business. In speaking to him, I found out that he had also grown up in Hartford and went to the same elementary school as I had (St. Augustine) albeit a few years later. Small world indeed.
There are several large barn-like structures on the property. These are the aging barns. They are painted black to intensify the heat and aging process. Barrels are stacked in three-high and fourteen deep runs. There are nine stories of those runs. We were shown milestone barrels including number 15,000,000. We also got to see the barrel made famous in the commercial featuring Mila Kunis. Presently, and at any given time, there is the equivalent 2.5 million bottles stored and aged in the barns. The evaporation rate is approximately 2.5% per year with a nine-year aging barrel losing almost 30%. This evaporation is known as the “Angel’s Share”. Jim Beam has established a process of getting what is left over in the burnt sides of the barrel and is selling that as the “Devil’s Cut”. On average, a four-year aged barrel would produce 325 750 Ml bottles of bourbon.
Nine stories of barrels and over 2.5 million bottles stored at any given time.
Jim Beams 15,000,000th barrel
The last stop on the tour, and some would say the best, was the tasting room. After talking about all of the different Jim Beam products we were each given a commemorative glass and a card with a chip on it. We were allowed to go to several kiosks and choose three different products to taste test. I chose Jim Beam Black, Basil Hayden’s, and the Knob Creek Aged Maple. All were excellent. The Basil Hayden’s was very smooth with an easy finish. Surprisingly, Eileen, who I have never seen taste a drop of bourbon, tried two kinds. You learn something new each day even after 33 years of marriage.
I am glad that we were able to visit at least one distillery and that it was Jim Beam. Jim Beam is my favorite bourbon. I enjoy the regular bourbon but am also fond of Jim Beam Apple and Jim Beam Maple. I keep nips of both in the freezer and enjoy one (or two) occasionally on the rocks. Next time I enjoy one, or a couple fingers of my newly bottled Knob Creek Single Barrel, I will remember our visit to their birthplace.