I have a confession to make: I’m not really a whiskey person unless it’s buried very deep in a cocktail (it tastes like burning!). Conspicuous absence of cocktails notwithstanding, the expansive Jim Beam Stillhouse
in Clermont, KY made for a fun, atmospheric tour.
Opened in fall of 2012, a newly created tour and the LEED Gold-Certified visitor’s center–modeled after a 1930s stillhouse–are recent additions to the established distillery. Likely because the additions were planned around tours, the experience provides a look behind the scenes without making you feel like you’re tramping through someone’s already cramped workspace.
Above, maps on display at the well house, where our guide talked about the importance of the limestone on site, which provides natural filtering and adds calcium to the water, creating an ideal base for whiskey.
The majority of the tour centers around Beam’s small batch, craft bourbon whiskey production, which allows for participation, like tossing a scoop of the special corn, rye, and malt blend into the masher.
Regulations vary from country to country, but in order for a whiskey to be labeled “bourbon” within the US, it must start with a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn, be aged a charred oak barrel, and meet certain proof benchmarks along the production process.
The small batch fermenters above, compared to the huge multi-story fermenters. This building smelled wonderful, though we were cautioned that spending too long in the fumes is likely to cause wooziness.
Next step, distillation, condensing the batch down into a higher and higher concentrations of alcohol.
Barreling bourbon–which up until this point in the process is clear in coloration. Bourbon’s amber hue is imparted from the charred interior of the oak barrels. We got a go at turning the switch and watching the bourbon flow into the barrel. The “help us out” sections can seem a little gimmicky, but our guide said all of our “work” will be used to create saleable alcohol–so you might have me to thank for that sip of whiskey you take ten years from now!
The next stop for our bourbon is the rackhouse, a massive storage barn for the “sleeping barrels”, AKA alcohol in the process of being aged.
The interior looks as though it’s hardly been touched for decades, but barrels are continuously moving in and out. See those thin gaps in between the rows of barrels? They’re just wide enough for a person to fit in so they can help guide the barrels into place; a necessity since the structure wasn’t built with modern machinery in mind.
You get just a taste of the soaring height of the building and the overwhelming amount of whiskey stored there.
Emptying a fully aged, 9-year old barrel of Knob Creek bourbon that is ready for bottling.
From here, we went inside to personally bottle some of Jim Beam’s brand-new, soon to be released Single Barrel bourbon.
Rinsing my bottle (with bourbon, naturally), before it’s returned to the line, filled and capped.
And finally, adding a batch label to our bottle.
Some of the great vintage decanters on display on our way out. The tour ended with a tasting, but I’m inclined to think that photos of my “eww, straight whiskey” face isn’t the best way to wrap this up ;)