May 7, 2012. My latest trip has taken me to Kentucky. I flew into Louisville on Sunday the 6th then drove about an hour to Radcliff where I am staying. My last trips to Louisville were 1984-1985 when I was involved in buying the electrical equipment from an old cigarette plant.
Excuse me as I digress here, but I love to tell this story. In 1984 the evening I arrived in Louisville I was driving to my hotel in my rental car and listening to National Public Radio. They mentioned the death of a notable person in France.
The following night I met with my contact and some hard-bitten southern contractors for dinner. The only person I knew at the dinner was my contact. Before dinner a round of toasts began to my left and proceeded clockwise around the table. When it came around to me I felt a little out of place, I wanted to make an impression, and I was the last to make a toast. I said something to the effect of “Here is to Louis Reard. He died in France a few days ago in his eighties, a multimillionaire.”
Just about everyone looked at me like I was something a dog had left behind. One fellow said “I ain’t toasting no Frenchman!” After a couple of long seconds my contact said “Who was Louis Reard?” I said he invented the Bikini!
Did that perk the audience up! “What did you say his name was?” and “I’ll drink to that!” was part of the chorus. We all rose as one and drank to the memory of Louis Reard! I guess I made an impression.
After spending a couple of weeks in Louisville my children (then only 3 & 5) began asking my wife if I was ever coming home.
The following year I made a whirlwind visit there to wind up the purchase. I flew from L.A. – Atlanta – Louisville, then Louisville – St. Louis – L.A., all in 16 ½ hours.
So much for digression.
Monday May 7th was an on call day for us worker bees and the weather was great. Radcliff is right on the edge of what Kentucky calls its Bourbon Trail. The Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont is about 20 minutes from my hotel and has recently begun offering tours. I drove there arriving at 10:30 am. Right on the highway they have a brand new building being built. The sign on it says it will be their research facility. Next to the new facility is the Clermont, KY branch of the U.S. Post Office which is much more photogenic.
Through the trees from the post office parking lot you see this view of the distillery.
The tour begins in a bright red building that houses their gift shop. Besides lots of Jim Beam Bourbon they sell Jim Beam hats, t-shirts, jackets, and you name it. When I arrived I was told the next tour began at 11:00 am. I was happy to wait for it to begin.
The first stop of the tour is on a patio between the gift shop and the T. Jeremiah Beam house. This is a fish eye view of the house with the gift shop in the background. The house was home to a few generations of the Beam family and was occupied until the 1980s. 7th or 8th generation family members still run the company.
This next photo is a more normal view of the century old home.
To the right of the house is a construction fence and a small old red building. Beyond that is more construction. The impression I got from all the construction is the liquor business is doing very well. More on the little red building later.
The grounds around the home are very well kept. On the large front lawn of the house is a statue of Booker Noe, a 6th generation Beam family member and the master distiller of the firm before he died. I seem to recall seeing a documentary on TV showing Mr. Noe once.
The home, shown twice above, is very well kept up, but the upper floor is off limits. The lower floor has two rooms open to the tour. The old living room has a few comfortable chairs and sofas, but is designed to be a theatre for a video to see while on the tour.
What was probably the old dining room now has a working model of a still that was once on display at a world’s fair in either the 50’s or 60’s. The model is quite complex. I can’t explain its workings, but one important thing should be emphasized. The model is a pot still. That means whiskey is be made in batches and production is not continuous. In a pot still once the mash has run its course the still is shut down & cleaned before the next batch of mash enters production.
The modern Jim Beam factory, and for that matter many large distillers, use a column still approach which allows for continuous production. Personally, I believe a pot still and the shape of the neck of the still can have a positive effect on the flavor of the whiskey. There are other factors that also effect the taste such as the water, the heating method, the strain of yeast, the type of grain, etc. That being said, I have tried some of the better Beam whiskeys and I believe they are tasty and very well made.
Outside on the back of the house is a tree with this very interesting mold or lichen on it. As I recall the story the tour guide gave, this type of mold grows within about a half mile of where whiskey is being aged. As whiskey ages in the barrel some of it evaporates into the air. This is called the Angel’s Share. The Angel’s Share in the air helps the mold grow.
The evaporation is part of the equation of why older whiskey is expensive. The older whiskey gets the less there is in the barrel to bring to market. The other part is hopefully the more it ages the smoother and tastier it becomes.
Apparently the mold has been used by revenue agents to find illicit stills!
Not far from the house and the gift shop are two aging warehouses. Some barrels were being loaded or unloaded from this particular warehouse as I made the photo.
You have to be there to see how really huge these buildings are. Each structure has 9 stories and seems to cover about the same area as a football field. Each warehouse holds thousands of barrels, each barrel begins with about 55 gallons of whiskey, and each barrel has to be moved each year. The weight this structure has to carry is immense!
The interior of the building is a maze of wood beams 4×4 or larger. The exterior is corrugated metal. Each year the barrels warm or cool to the temperature of seasons. And there is a sweet spot! Depending on where they are stored, some of the barrels age better than others. The sweet spot of an aging warehouse is well understood in the industry so the distillers take advantage of it when the whiskey is mixed and bottled.
This is the sign on the side of the warehouse we visited. The distillery has over 70 of these structures on their various properties.
These are 2 interior shots of the building. It was far darker than this photo would make you think, and the pleasant smell of Bourbon Whiskey permeated the air. I put the camera on ISO 6400, its maximum sensitivity. It still had trouble focusing to make these shots and I was still getting long exposure times.
We only visited the lowest floor of the warehouse. I was able to get a picture of the side of one of the barrels. The whiskey in this one was distilled in July, 2004 and came from Tank 205. The tour guide knew the code and was able to fill in more details.
Here are a few other interesting barrel facts. A barrel is made of American Oak. The barrels are often made to the customer’s specifications. For instance, Jim Beam requires the barrel interior be charred under a torch for 55 seconds. Over decades they have decided this makes the right thickness of charcoal inside the barrel. The barrels are used only once. Once it is emptied it is sold, often to customers in Europe where it may be used to age wine or Scotch. The bung is made of Maple, and the barrel is always stored with the bung hole on the top so there is no leakage.
Once out of the warehouse we went back to the gift shop and that was the end of the tour. We did not get to enter the plant.
However, one thing still interested me. That was the old red building next to the distiller’s house. Aaron – this is for you! I asked about the building. It used to be the plant fire station! I asked about the old fire truck. Unfortunately, it is in storage and not available for view. Here is a shot of the old fire station.
Before I left the gift shop I bought a sampler pack of some of their small batch Bourbons. Here is the starter pack with 4 different Bourbon Whiskeys.
I’ll be in Kentucky until May 25. I will visit Mammoth Caves National Park and hopefully get a few good photos. I will also have a few shots of a Military Memorial.
In the meantime I offer condolences to one of my old high school acquaintances, Fred. He is stuck house sitting in Kona for a month with nothing to do but play golf. Don’t strain yourself putting on that suntan lotion!