useCocktailWonk Rating: 8/10 ($10 tour)
Following an epic expedition through eight Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries in October 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned a year later, visiting six more major players and completing our regional Tour de Bourbon. While every distillery is unique and interesting in its own way, there are certain common elements such as fermentation tanks and rick houses that you’ll see on just about any tour. In a prior post, I described these common elements of these tours in detail, allowing me to focus this post on my observations about the Jim Beam American Stillhouse. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, I’d suggest starting with that post.
Jim Beam is the flagship brand of Beam Suntory, a vast conglomerate of spirts makers with a focus on whisk(e)y. In addition to Jim Beam, other Beam Suntory labels include Maker’s Mark, Laphroaig, Bowmore, Auchentoshan, Canadian Club, Alberta Premium, Connemara, Hibiki, Hukushu, and Yamazaki. In the non-whiskey category it owns producers like Sauza Tequila, Courvoisier cognac, Cruzan rum, and Gilbey’s gin. To say Beam Suntory is huge is an understatement; deep pockets mean lot of money available to promote its brands. So what’s the Jim Beam American Stillhouse experience, given all this corporate backing?
Like many Kentucky distilleries, the American Stillhouse pops up seemingly out of nowhere alongside a rural two-lane highway about a half hour drive south of Louisville, in Clermont, KY. Driving up the half mile winding lane to the visitor’s center, you pass a small cemetery, dating back to the early 1800s. Although it’s not affiliated with the Jim Beam distillery, it provides a context to the bourbon making you’ll soon see.
The American Stillhouse is the cradle of the Jim Beam collection of whiskeys – bourbon and rye, as well as prestigious “small batch” brands like:
- Basil Hayden’s
- Knob Creek
The distillery also makes various whiskey-based liqueurs like Red Stag, Jim Beam Honey, Jim Beam Kentucky Fire, and so forth, which I shall not dwell upon. A sister distillery in nearby Frankfort, KY, not open to the public, also produces the standard Jim Beam “#1” mash bill.
In a prior post about Maker’s Mark , I described it “as if Walt Disney had decided to open a distillery.” The Jim Beam American Stillhouse looks very different but also employs highly polished and carefully crafted imagery. Both Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam have large visitor’s centers and gift shops that rival what you’d find at an amusement park, chock full of iconic imagery and promoting the bourbon-driven good life. The first thing you see upon entering the American Stillhouse is an oversized replica of a column still (hiding an elevator shaft) that the check-in desk wraps around. More on the visitor’s center in a bit.
Near the visitor’s center are a number of small buildings connected by a walking path featuring displays weaving the Jim Beam whiskey-making story. You can take a free self-guided walking tour of these buildings, but you’d miss seeing all the cool equipment. Pony up the $10 to see the distillery in action! As with Maker’s Mark, the overall feeling is very pastoral, invoking imagery of a century ago. A small house, once used to house distillery workers, has rocking chairs where you can pass the time on the front porch.
We’d had a long day by the time we made it to the American Stillhouse, and were famished by the time we arrived. As luck would have it, Fred’s Smokehouse, just a few steps from the visitor’s center, offers up a variety of BBQ fare which we enjoyed in the aforementioned rocking chairs while waiting for our tour to start. A short distance away, a statue of previous master distiller Booker Noe and his dog overlooks the distillery below. Yes, there’s a bit of show business at play here, a la Disney Land. But that’s okay by me if the tour has the chops to match.
Although the distillery itself is only a three-minute walk away down a shallow hill, the tour starts with a bus ride from the visitor’s center to a distillery building. Upon entering, you’re immediately introduced to the bourbon making story – limestone filtered water, a blend of grains, at least 51 percent corn, yada yada yada. However, the Jim Beam tour excels in this regard because it presents the production process in the context of a human-sized (and extremely well-equipped) distillery, not much different in scale from the micro-distilleries popping up all over.
After a short introduction to mash bills and yeasts, you’re taken past the five hundred gallon fermentation tanks which you can reach into and taste the fermenting mash. In a glassed-in room are a (relatively) tiny beer still, spirit still, and doubler, the latter roughly the size of a whiskey barrel. Within the space of a medium-sized house, you’ll see the main functional parts of whiskey distillery, which is helpful to making the process understandable to novices. A friend who works at Beam Suntory tells me that this micro-distillery has produced about a barrel a day for the past three years, and that those barrels are aging in an onsite rickhouse, likely for some unannounced future release. Following the micro-distillery, the tour heads outside to talk about barrels and cooperage– #4 char and all that.
Then the best part of the tour begins: A short walk to another building to see the full-scale production. First up are the giant 45,000 gallon closed-top fermentation tanks, of which there are nineteen. Think about that for a moment—that’s close to a million gallons of mash that can be fermented at once.
The next stop is the still building – it’s large and very loud inside, as all huge column stills are while in use. The multi-story column still is surrounded by walkways and pipes, so it’s not quite as visually impressive to the first timer as, say, the column still at Barton 1792. The nearby doubler is less encased so it’s easier to spot amongst everything else in the large room. The obligatory glass walled spirits safes, labeled “low wine” and “high wine,” gush with a steady stream of white dog spirit. They’re the most minimalist I’ve seen so far, but still provide fun photo-ops for all the tour takers, myself included (a photo series dubbed the “stilfie” by Mrs. Wonk).
Leaving the still building, a short walk leads to a barrel dumping demonstration. Everybody gets to smell– but not taste–a glass of newly dumped spirit, charcoal bits and all. Many distillery tours omit this step, so it’s nice to see here.
It’s then inside to a small bottling line where you can customize your own bottle of Knob Creek—available for purchase at the end of the tour, of course. If this is your thing, you select a bottle, manually rinse it in a sort of whiskey fountain, and then place it on the bottling line. At the end, an employee adds a wax seal, where you then place your thumbprint in the warm wax. The parallels to Maker’s Mark are strong here – both Beam Suntory distilleries let you create a custom, wax sealed bottle for purchase, creating a memorable, high-touch experience for a lot of folks.
With bottling off the checklist, an unexpected surprise is a room full of hundreds of vintage Jim Beam decanters commemorating all sorts of themes and occasions: Cars, computers, political campaigns, Elvis, trains, chainsaws. You name it, there’s probably a Jim Beam decanter for it. So many styles have been produced over the years that collectors clubs have sprung up—with the rarest models fetching thousands of dollars on eBay and the like.
It’s then back on the bus for another short ride to one of the dozens of nearby rickhouses. Dark, lots of barrels, and an overview of the angel’s share –the typical rickhouse experience.
The final stop of the tour is the tasting room, which is by far the most unusual of any bourbon distillery I’ve seen. Instead of the tour guide pouring out samples from spout-topped bottles, each person gets a plastic card, akin to a hotel key, with a digital chip. Throughout the tasting room are high-tech dispensing machines, stocked with Jim Beam product bottles on all four sides. Simply select which bottle you wish to sample, insert your card in the slot above it, and position your glass beneath the spout to receive your tasting sample. Each card is good for two, 0.5 oz samples–the maximum currently allowed per Kentucky law.
The visitor’s center gift shop is extensive, as far as distilleries go. There’s a fairly complete line of Jim Beam produced whiskeys and liqueurs, including some expensive, limited edition bottles, but only one distillery exclusive: “American Stillhouse Limited Edition,” a run of 7,500 bottles with a unique wooden label. Beyond the whiskies, you’ll find the usual branded cornucopia of shirts, hats, glassware, oven mitts, golf tees, and other knick-knacks. Be sure not to miss what appears to be a scale model of a distillery, but is actually a working copper still. It’s just inside the entrance and easy to overlook with everything else going on.
Objectively speaking, the American Stillhouse tour is very comprehensive. You’ll see two distilleries plus a few things you don’t see elsewhere on the basic tours, like barrel dumping and proofing tanks. The number of people on the tour, plus a bus ride (however short) give the impression of a “cattle herd” tour, especially as we’d just come from a four person tour at the (relatively) tiny Willett distillery. The grounds around the American Stillhouse visitor center are family friendly and lovely; Grandma would approve. However, inside the distillery buildings, it’s more of a factory feel and less picturesque than other locations at comparable scale, e.g. Maker’s Mark or Jack Daniels. It has an advantage of being the closest major distillery to Louisville, so if you’re only going to visit one, it’s an obvious choice for a short road trip while you’re in town.