Jim Beam had the distinct honor of being both my first and last distillery tour when I went to Kentucky in September. The first time was right away Monday morning. We visited the American Stillhouse visitor center, took a self-guided tour and wandered around. We knew that the new stuff wasn't officially open yet, so we didn't expect much more than this. It wasn't until Friday night when we were talking to other bourbon enthusiasts at a KBF event that we heard that if you were lucky they were offering guided tours in order to work the kinks out. Well ok, I guess we knew what we going to do the next morning. And that one was our last distillery tour.
Keep in mind we toured as guinea pigs and did so free of charge. Your tour may vary some.
We got to Beam a little after 9 am. The ladies behind the counter remembered us when we walked in. (I noticed this seemed to be a common thing in Kentucky, so friendly.) We were the last two spots on the first tour. When 9:30 rolled around we boarded a bus and rolled down to the production area. First thing they showed us was the water pump. Every tour talks about the water, this is the first time we were shown an actual water pump.
After the water pump, we go through a door into a very clean area where there is a mash cooker coming out of the floor. The lid is open and there is a gentleman waiting to show us how they add the grains to it. I got to help add the ground corn. That's right, I've now helped make a Jim Beam product. Then it's around a corner to three of the smallest fermentation tanks I've ever seen. These are very obviously for audience visualization purposes, though I'd guess they use the product inside in any case. Turn around and there is a small still about the size of some of the craft distillers I've been to. And then out a door and onto a porch.
Our next stop is the actual fermentation tank room. I will never get over how much each of these tanks hold and just how many of them there are at some of these big plants. After we walk through that room, we get to see the big still. This one produces somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 gallons every minute. Then it's off to the Knob Creek barrel dumping area. This is where we realize we really are guinea pigs. They grab the drill to take out the bung and nothing happens. Three guys come over and play with levers and another tries an old fashioned way of removing the bung with a mallet before they finally apologize and move us along to the bottling line. It seems this runs on the same air pressure system because there is very little bourbon entering the bottles as they go past.
On our way back to the bus we are shown a collection of old decanters and the room that holds whiskey from each batch for the last two years (quality control samples). Then we jump back into the bus and ride back up the hill to the aging warehouse they have set up for us to wander through. It's well lit with display lighting to help show off what they've got in there. And all those wonderful smells are there too. If it wasn't for the fact that the tasting was next, I might have wanted to stay longer.
But the tasting was next so off we hurried. Beam has an unusually high tech tasting area. You get a small gift card looking thing that is loaded with 2 credits. You put the card in a machine, hold your glass under a spigot and press a button. A very small amount of bourbon or rye are then dispensed to you. You pull your card out, taste your sample and repeat. Then you give your card back and go spend money in the gift shop or wander around the grounds a bit. Maybe even sit in a rocker in the early morning sun. You could totally do that. I did.
Last year I mentioned how even though the Beam tour could have been just a self guided tour, it was really fun due to the guide we had. This year was just as fun. There is something to be said for an operation that is just that damn big. And when the people you interact with obviously love what they do and who they work for/with it just makes for a nice time. I really liked this tour. The only knock on it was the tasting machine. Every other distillery has someone there to interact with you, pour your whiskies and tell you a bit about them. You got a card here. It lost a little of the personal touch. On the up side, everyone in your party could choose something different and whatever they wanted. Sot that's nice.
If you are in the Louisville area, take the time to make a trip to Jim Beam. It really is a cool place and a nice tour.