For many years the Kentucky Bourbon Trail has given bourbon lovers an opportunity to visit their favorite distilleries and get a sneak peek into how whiskey is made. Bourbon tourism has exploded along with the explosive growth in the American Whiskey category, and many of the major bourbon brands have responded by building new visitor centers and enhancing their visitor experience.
Jim Beam is the largest producer of bourbon, bottling a staggering ninety million bottles of spirits annually. Until recently, visitors at Jim Beam could only see a small fraction of the process. Jim Beam’s American Stillhouse, a $30 million visitor experience, brings bourbon fans deeper into the distillery and shows them the entire process for making both Jim Beam bourbon and the company’s small batch line.
The American Stillhouse experience begins in a new LEED-certified interactive center which serves both as the launching off point and the end gift shop for tours. Jim Beam offers two types of tours: a free, self-guided tour of the Stillhouse, tasting room, distiller’s home, and rack house; or, the guided full tour for $8 per person which also includes bringing visitors inside the heart of the distillery.
The Jim Beam guided tour begins at a duplicate of the company’s well pump. Most bourbon producers in Kentucky point to their natural limestone filtered water as a key element for making good whiskey. Limestone filters out iron in water, which is highly undesirable, and adds calcium to the mix, which is helpful for providing nutrients for the years during the fermentation process.
The next stop on the tour is a newly erected small batch micro-distillery. Three 500-gallon fermenters feed a small column still. The set-up looks like what you’d find in a small, independent micro-distillery. Although the new micro-distillery was set up for the American Stillhouse tour, it is fully functional and is producing spirit for the company. This small batch area echoes the original scale of Jim Beam and mirrors the small batch process used to produce the company’s Knob Creek, Bookers, and Baker’s lines.
From the micro-distillery, visitors are brought through the barreling process, which features a wall of fame showing significant landmarks for Jim Beam’s barrels including barrel #1 from 1935 and barrel #12,000,000 from 2011.
It’s at this point that the tour really pulls back the curtain and visitors get to see the massive scale of Jim Beam’s operation. The tour brings visitors through one of the fermentation rooms with a sea of massive fermentation tanks. Jim Beam ferments a staggering one million gallons at a time and visitors get to see a few of Beam’s 19 fermentation tanks.
From these tanks the fermented distiller’s beer is piped through over a mile of pipes into a massive set of stills. The Jim Beam stills produce 200 gallons of new make spirit per minute and unaged whiskey flows from these stills like water through a firehose.
After visiting Jim Beam’s massive stills, visitors are brought to one of Beam’s active bottling lines. The scope of what Jim Beam does is clear, with a dizzying number of bottles that are filled, labeled, and boxed.
Throughout the tour, walls are adorned with tributes to the various members of the Beam and Noe family. Although the scale of what Jim Beam does is massive, there is still a clear goal to preserve the connection with the family and the brand’s heritage (even the safety signs for employees use the Beam family).
After visiting the bottling area, visitors are lead to a room that pays tribute to the Beam family as well as showcases custom decanters produced by Jim Beam throughout the generations. At the centerpiece of this is the new decanter which commemorates the American Stillhouse, sold only at the distillery.
The next stop on the tour is back near the American Stillhouse and mirrors the self-guided tour. Visitors are given access to one of Jim Beam’s rackhouses to see some of the over 600,000 barrels of whiskey aging on the property.
The final stop on the tour is a state of the art tasting room where visitors are given tasting cards that enable them to use machines that dispense 1/4-ounce pours of all of Jim Beam’s whiskey products. Each visitor gets two 1/4-ounce samples.
After the tour is complete, the American Stillhouse acts as the company’s gift shop, which features three products which can only be purchased at the distillery.
Jim Beam American Stillhouse 2012 Clermont Limited Edition Bourbon – Hand-numbered and signed by seventh generation Jim Beam family Master Distiller Fred Noe, only 2,400 bottles of this seven-year-old whiskey are available. $34.99
Old Tub Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Prior to Prohibition, Jim Beam Bourbon was called Old Tub. Aged four years at 100 proof and bottled in bond. Old Tub is sold in 375ml flasks. $16.00
Jim Beam American Stillhouse Decanters – A nod to the grand opening of the Jim Beam American Stillhouse, this commemorative decanter brings back a piece of Jim Beam history. Since the early 1950′s, hundreds of Beam decanters have celebrated history, sports, politics, and more. Each decanter sells for $199.
One of the key messages repeated throughout the Jim Beam American Stillhouse is “Come as a friend, leave as family.” This ethos is greatly embodied by the tour of Jim Beam, which does a superb job of giving bourbon fans a real look behind the scenes of the largest producer of bourbon in the world. Seventh generation Fred Noe has also relocated his office to the old distiller’s home that sits between the American Stillhouse and the tasting room, and he intends to greet visitors when he is in town.
The Jim Beam American Stillhouse is located approximately 30 minutes southeast of Louisville (526 Happy Hollow Rd., Clermont, KY 40110) and is open weekdays and Saturdays 9:00am to 5:30pm, and Sundays from 12:00pm to 4:30pm. Jim Beam has also set up a new website at AmericanStillhouse.com for more information and online ticket reservations.A Visit to Jim Beam by Geoff Kleinman