First Time at the Jim Beam Distillery

I am not a big drinker and have never drank bourbon, but I love to see how things are made, and since we were in Kentucky a bourbon tour was definitely called for.  Our friend Bill actually worked and lived here for many years at one of the distilleries so going with him made the experience really special.  Bill and Kelly were trying to finish the six tours they needed for a special Bourbon Trail T-Shirt and had saved one of the best ones for us, the Jim Beam Distillery.  Even though Bill was in the industry many years ago and had actually been inside the plant, he had never taken the tour.  The tours didn’t exist until 2012, so for him it was a new experience as well.  And of course, we were complete newbies to the whole process so I took lots of notes and pictures and will try to recreate the experience.  To all of you aficionados out there, if I get something wrong that is totally on me. We were inside and outside during the tour and since it was chilly I was taking notes and pictures with my phone.  Plus, If I get something totally wrong I am sure Bill will jump in on the comments and set me straight 🙂

We pulled into the facility and I really loved the campus.  It is a large area with rolling hills and numerous buildings.  Not only was it extremely picturesque, but it also had history as some of the buildings were there in the 1920’s.  This property was bought by the Beam family towards the end of prohibition and they ran a rock quarry from it (to keep their employees in jobs) until prohibition ended.  The original family home is still on the property and is protected as an historical site.  I really liked the statues of people they have added and although it was cold we did spend some time walking the grounds.  I think it would be wonderful in the summer, because it is laid out like a large park.

The gift shop and entrance with the statue of Jim Beam


They had several of these snowflakes made from bottles and they were lit once it got dark


Booker Noe, Jim Beam’s grandson, and sixth generation distiller with the homestead in the back.  Loved that they included his little dog.


The original well for the homestead which they named Jacob’s well

The grillhouse wasn’t open unfortunately, but I’ll bet they have great BBQ in season

We started by walking inside the gift shop and bought our tour tickets.  It is $14 for the tour and tasting, which I thought was a bargain since the tour ended up being over 1-1/2 hours. I loved the gift shop, which was two floors and included some historical items along with a wonderful selection of products.

The entrance


Billed as the smallest working still in the county


You know I bought one of these barrel magnets!


Bill was in his element. Love that smile!


The names of the main family members who have run the distillery. Jeremiah Beam had no son and passed the business to a nephew which is how the Noe name came into play.


They had a selection of grilling items, smaller than I expected.


Their bourbons.  I bought the vanilla, which I loved at the tasting and I can’t wait to cook with.


For the true bourbon lover…bourbon smelling candles!

We timed it just right and didn’t have to wait long for our tour (they run on the half hour except at lunch time) and we were lucky to get Travis.  He was extremely knowledgeable, but explained things very simply and I really enjoyed our time with him.  The tour is inside and outside and covers several buildings, so we started by getting in a small truck and driving down to the crafting warehouse.  This is a small version of the distillery and used to make craft batches, but it was perfect to explain step by step how the process works.

The bus


Travis our tour guide


Bill and Kelly are excited


Short drive down to the factory portion of the grounds


Like I said earlier, I knew nothing about the process, but Travis walked us through it step-by-step.  It all starts with the water though, and the reason 95% of all bourbon is made in a few counties in Kentucky is the limestone filtered water.  Iron in water is bad for making bourbon, but the naturally occurring limestone deposits filter it out.  So we learned that even though bourbon can be made anywhere in America, and still be called bourbon, most of it is made in Kentucky. That was another thing that I learned.  There are 5 rules that are mandated by the government in order for an alcohol to be classified as bourbon.  First it must be made in America, but there are others.

  • Corn must be the main ingredient
  • It cannot be above 160 proof (they are allowed to add water to dilute it if it turns out too strong)
  • It must be aged in a brand new white oak barrel.  The brand new is important and they do sell the used barrels to all kind of companies including Tabasco which we saw when we visited Avery Island and took their tour.
  • And all the ingredients have to be natural

Pretty interesting and he explained that if those rules are deviated from the alcohol is then classified as whiskey.  I never knew that. Once we got into the building we walked through the various stages.

Three types of grains are used corn, rye, and barley. Jim Beam uses around 70% corn.


These are then turned into a mash which is cooked for about 8 hours to break it down. The smell was pretty interesting…a little like stale beer


Next yeast is added and it is fermented for an additional three days. The concept is similar to sourdough bread and their yeast starters date back to the 1930’s which was pretty interesting.

After fermentation it goes through a distillation process.  This part got pretty technical and there are multiple steps, but what I gathered was the liquid is turned into steam and passed through copper tubes.  The copper picks up the sulfates, and the process is repeated until the liquid turns into “low wine.”  Once again it is turned into gas, then back into liquid and becomes high wine.  I loved the machine that did the process.  It was really pretty and the whole thing was fascinating if a little over my head. Bill of course was nodding intently!

The spirit still  in the craft building

The high wine is then put in a charcoal lined oak barrel and sits for a minimum of two years.  Each barrel is completely different (which is one of the cool things about bourbon) and they lose as much as 20 gallons in the process.  When they are ready to open the barrel, they filter it once again (to remove the charcoal) and then it is bottled.  We watched him pour from one of the barrels and then we were allowed to “nose” the bourbon.  Unlike wine which you breathe with only your nose, for this you also breathe in with your mouth.  I had a pretty bad cold so I am not sure what I got from the experience, but some people were obviously into it.

Travis is showing how the liquid is put into the barrel.  All of their barrels are handmade by a company called Independent Stave.  I guess it’s a dying art and only a couple of companies still make them by hand.


He let us “sanitize” our hands with what splashed on the outside. Lee liked the smell.


You can see the charcoal on the inside of the oak


There is around $15,000 worth of bourbon in this one barrel. Wow!


We also got to go inside one of their main distilleries and see the process at volume.  They have more than one site currently to keep up with the volume and the amount of alcohol they are producing is a bit staggering. The larger distillery creates a barrel every 90 seconds.   In this building the mash cookers hold 20,000 gallons and the main still is 6-1/2 stories tall.  The scale of it is impressive.

There were 15 of these of these fermentation tanks.


Bill, Travis, and Kelly for scale


It’s hard to see through the grate but they were at least two stories tall


Lee looking at the mash. The smell was pretty intense in that room and made my eyes water a bit.


The output from the big room was these large flows of low and high wine. We were allowed to take a picture with them.

We also got to go in this room that had a great collection of decanters.  In the 70’s the popularity of bourbon began to decline, and that continued for several decades. So custom decanters were born as a way to get people to buy the alcohol.  I really enjoyed looking at these and felt like I remembered some from my childhood.

The classic cars were a huge hit


They also had a line of trucks


Each state had it’s own decanter


And National monuments


My favorite was the I Dream of Jeannie bottle and I definitely feel like I had seen this someplace before

After seeing the decanters we went into a small bottling line where for $50 you could bottle you own bottle of bourbon.  Initially we felt the price was too high, but after everyone was done Lee decided he wanted to do it and videotaped the entire process.  It was pretty neat, especially when he got to help put the wax seal on and since it was a once in a lifetime opportunity (for us) I thought why not.

The bottling line


This gentleman was making a bottle of bourbon to keep for when his daughter turned 21. I loved that and check out the look on her face as he was bottling it.


First the line filled the bottles


Then put the cork in them


This is a better picture of the thing that dispensed the corks


And finally the labels were put on

Here’s the video of our bottle being made and some pictures.

Lee rinsing it out with bourbon


Videotaping the process

Here it is


He was really enjoying himself


I love the look on Bill’s face behind Lee


They dipped it in wax


And Lee got to put his thumbprint in



(The baby bottling line was really cool, and the video is a little sloppy because I didn’t have my stabilizer gimbal with me, but it’s still worth watching. At about 2:37 you can hear a noise that sounds a little like a quick blast of air, and that’s a laser etching a code into the bottle that tells you a bunch of information about the batch and location and date and stuff, which I thought was really cool. – Lee)

I know it was a lot of money, but it was really cool, especially because Lee timed it so our bottle went by itself.  Afterwards we headed down to one of the warehouses and saw some barrels.  This particular warehouse has 100 million dollars worth of inventory in it, which really boggles the mind.  What I found particularly interesting is the bourbon is not temperature controlled so the higher floors have higher temps.  Each barrel reacts differently while aging depending on it’s location (and other factors) and it isn’t until they open it that “they know what it will be.”  Pretty cool.

The black on the building is a fungus that happens near all distilleries. It’s not harmful but it is unsightly


All of the nearby trees are also covered in it


The barrel storage was definitely old school and unlike some other bourbon makers they never rotate the barrels. They like the unique difference in flavor that are caused by location. For example our bottle probably came from the center of the 4th or 5th floor

After the warehouse we finally got to do the tasting. Travis talked about each kind


And then we received a punch card for three tastings and a shot glass that was ours to keep!

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t that into the flavor.  I hoped I would like it, but it was way too strong for me.  I did however like the vanilla flavored liqueur, and as I mentioned earlier ended up buying a bottle for cooking.  Despite the fact that I will probably never be a bourbon drinker, I did love the tour and thought it was well worth the $14. Plus we stopped on the way home at the Green Bamboo Restaurant and had some excellent Chinese which made for a completely special day.  Thankful we got to experience it and especially thankful we were with Bill and Kelly.  It will definitely be a highlight memory and earned us our Kentucky state sticker!

Lee, me, Bill, and Kelly


Shrimp Lo Mein and Crab Rangoon.  Delicious!!


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5 thoughts on “First Time at the Jim Beam Distillery

  1. Pingback: First Time at Amazon Day 35 – 36 – Camper Chronicles

  2. Awesome write up on the Jim Beam Tour, I love all the details and wonderful pictures! It’s extra special getting to go with Bill and Kelly too, as Bill is so knowledgeable, so cool! I especially loved watching the video on Lee’s botttle of Knob Creek Single Barrel 120 going through all the stages, the finger print at the end was great! We will certainly do the long tour next time we go through there as we didn’t have the time for it on our trip there. We did 10 distllery tours this year, and Jim Beam was one of our favorites by far! As always Great Job Lee and Trace!!!

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