Last week I was invited out to the Jim Beam Distillery for a tour of their facility and to take part in the launch of the new Booker’s Rye. The day started with breakfast in Louisville, KY and then it was all aboard the Mint Julep tour bus. There was a palpable sense of excitement in the air, or maybe that was just me, as we climbed the bus – I love visiting distilleries. On our short ride out to the distillery the sky cracked open and it began to rain but it didn’t dampen our spirits because stepping off the bus we were greeted with an amazing aroma.
Walking towards the covered porch I breathed deeply through my nose, filling my lungs with wet Kentucky air. Air that was heavy with the sweet smell of cooking bourbon mash – the smell of a bourbon distillery. Due to the rain we started our tour in the gift shop, whose center feature is a retired still, instead of the grounds. The gleaming copper giant was impressive and within the hour we’d see the working counterpart to this 60 foot monster.
Our first stop on the tour was what Jim Beam calls their “Craft Distillery” – a small scale operation they use to make experimental whiskeys and is akin to a whiskey R&D lab. Here our tour guide talked about mashbills and we dumped some milled grain into the cooker; it looked to be mostly rye with some bits of corn and barley in it which means the current experiment at hand might have been a high percentage rye… Booker’s Rye Batch 2?
After watching some grain disappear into the cooker we headed around the corner to the fermenters. There under a metal sign portraying a yeasty Pac-Man our tour guide Hunter explained the process of fermentation that was shown above – yeast eating sugar and turning it into heat, CO2 and ethanol. Just below the sign you can see what looks like a beverage fridge, but instead of beer or soda this fridge contained a proprietary yeast the Jim Beam Distillery has been cultivating since 1935.
From the fridge we climbed the stairs to see the open air sour-mash fermentation happening in the massive 300 gallon tanks above us; tanks that would later be dwarfed when we entered the full scale operation. Still it was fun to see the process happening on a smaller scale before hitting up the full scale operation in the main Jim Beam distillery. Seeing it all at small scale in a single room quickly connected the otherwise large pieces.
After a look at the fermentation tanks that produce the 16 proof distiller’s beer we turned our attention 180 degrees to the small stills that were distilling said beer and pumping out finished spirit. The pot still looking thing in the background is their doubler here in the craft distillery. It’s what’s responsible for giving the whiskey its second distillation and transforming their 125 proof low wine (first distillation) into their 135 proof high wine (second distillation).
After checking out this operation it was out to the James B. Beam Barreling Porch where they filled barrels with their experimental or “craft” new-make which is what’s in that large clear tube on the left. One thing worth mentioning about the barrels here on the Barreling Porch is that the Jim Beam Distillery, even in their experiments, doesn’t use small barrels. Sure they employ them in things like their quarter cask experiments, but the majority is done in full sized barrels; patience is a virtue here. Though to be fair time and capital are luxuries they have that many smaller / craft distilleries don’t… anyways.
Back to the tour at hand, our gregarious guide talked about the aging process of whiskey. How the spirit seeps deeper and deeper into the barrels with time due to the natural expansion and contraction of wood with the change in temperatures and seasons. We examined one of their level 4 “alligator char” barrel staves and took a look at the red layer. The charring that gives bourbon its color and facilitates the absorption into the wood.
Then we got to try our hand at filling the barrels ourselves. That’s me filling a barrel with some experimental Jim Beam new-make and yes, it really was new make. Several of us stuck a finger in the stream to get a taste, though after a few minutes of filling the smell of new-make emanated from the barrel.
In retrospect we could have just relied on our noses to tell us this wasn’t a staged area, it was exactly what they said it was. Not that I was looking for duplicitous behavior or anything, I definitely wasn’t, but you know how it is. Sometimes you wonder a bit if this would all be the same whether we were there or not and I got the feeling from our entire experience that we were seeing things exactly as they were. After making only a small mess on the barreling porch our journey through the Jim Beam Distillery continued.
Now, before we get into the tour of the full sized facility I want to take a second to say thanks to our tour guide Hunter, the red-head in the Jim Beam jacket above; he was awesome. Friendly, passionate and knowledgable about the entire operation, if you’re planning your own trip to the Jim Beam distillery and you have the ability to request Hunter I recommend you do.
The rain soaked walkway I snapped that picture of Hunter on lead us to this, the fermentation tanks for the full scale operation. As you can see they’re much larger than the ones running in the craft distillery – 90 times larger in fact. Each one holds 45,000 gallons and they have 19 of them. The craft ones each held 500 gallons, and they only had three of them. But when you’re filling nearly 500,000 barrels a year like the Jim Beam Distillery is, you’re going to need some massive fermentation tanks.
You’re also going to need some massive cookers. Remember that little guy above I poured some grain into? This is its bigger hotter brother. These tanks are where water and mashed grains meet and get cooked into a type of sugar rich porridge. That porridge then gets piped into the fermentation tanks, the yeast gets added and you end up with your distiller’s beer. That low-alcohol beer is then pumped into the still and distilled into whiskey; speaking of stills…
This is the 60 foot working counter part of the one we started the tour with and sits in stark contrast to the one at Wild Turkey. The still here at the Jim Beam Distillery looks like the engine for some kind of steam punk war machine with all the tubes carrying beer in and spirit out. It may not look as sexy as the one at WT, but it’s still impressive as all get-out and speaking of get-out…
Scroll up a few images and take a look at the tiny stream coming off the craft still and compare it to the deluge of new-make being unleashed here. 53 Gallons, enough to fill a barrel, of this clear spirit is being pumped out every 90 seconds. This happens nearly every minute of every day. Like Wild Turkey, the Jim Beam Distillery is a modern as-automated-as-possible distillery which means two guys can manage the operation from a control room that looks out at the spirit safes pictured above.
From there it was back out into the rain to go see the bottling side of the operation. We’ve seen how the new-make gets made, we’ve seen how it gets stored (new charred oak barrels), we skipped watching it age (whose got time for that) and we’re now on our way to check out the finished product. To see how it gets into the bottles that adorn our local liquor stores and shelves at home, but that part of the story is going to have to wait till tomorrow.
That’s right whiskey readers, like the Wild Turkey Distillery Tour and the George Dickel Distillery Tour there was so much awesomeness to be had that a single post couldn’t contain it all. I’ll meet you all back here in 24 where we’ll start off at the Knob Creek bottling house.