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