Our first stop on the Bourbon Trail was the Jim Beam Distillery located near Clermont, for a tour and samplings. Jim Beam is the largest distiller of bourbon in the world, accounting for 95% of total production, at least in 2012.
The business was founded in the late 1700’s by Jacob Beam, who started selling his father’s corn whiskey recipe in 1795. His first product was called “Old Jake Beam Sour Mash,” and proved to be very popular among the pioneers, farmers and traders living in Kentucky. The distillery was called Old Tub at that time.
James Beauregard Beam was born in 1864, and took over the distillery in 1894. He survived prohibition by turning to coal mining and citrus farming, but returned to distilling after prohibition was repealed in 1933, and began selling bourbon again in 1934. Old Tub Distillery was changed to Jim Beam in 1943.
Jim’s daughter, Margaret’s son, Booker Noe II, was known as “The Innovator,” and he revitalized the declining bourbon category. Margaret’s grandson, Fred Noe, expanded their markets and was still involved in the business when we visited.
Heaven Hill Distilleries was located in nearby Bardstown, so that was our next stop. This distillery was founded shortly after Prohibition ended, originally as “Old Heavenhill Springs.” Joseph L. Beam, Jim Beam’s cousin, was the first master distiller. Jim Beam’s great great nephew, Craig Beam is the current master distiller. Clearly Bourbon is proud family tradition for the Beam family.
The original distillery was heavily damaged by fire in 1996. They were provided production capacity be fellow local bourbon labels, until it was able to purchase and adapt the Bernheim distillery in Louisville. Fermenting, mashing and distilling occurs at the Louisville location, but aging and bottling are out of the Bardstown location.
On our way to Nashville, we stopped at a couple more distilleries. The first was Four Roses Bourbon, which I thought had the best tour of the four that we went on. Four Roses is a small batch distillery, where they do everything from growing their own corn to building their own barrels from white oak trees grown on their land. We were able to observe, and smell, the entire distillation process.
Four Roses was founded by Paul Jones, Jr. in 1888. According to legend, he was enamored of a beautiful Southern belle. He sent her a proposal, and she replied that if the answer was yes, she would be wearing a corsage of roses at an upcoming ball. She arrived wearing four roses, and Paul names his Bourbon “Four Roses” in her honor. True or not, it certainly makes a good story.
Seagram’s purchased the Four Roses in 1943, but then decided to discontinue the sale of Bourbon in the US. Jim Rutledge became the Master Distiller in 1995, and worked tirelessly to return the Four Roses brand to the US. That did not occur until 2002, after Four Roses was purchased by the Kirin Brewery Company. Sales within the US began again in 2004.
Our fourth tour was at Wild Turkey Distillery, which was established in 1869 by the Ripy brothers, changed hands several times, and was most recently purchased by the Campari Group in 2009. The name came from a wild turkey hunt in North Carolina.
Wild Turkey has a long literary history, having been a favorite drink of the journalist Hunter S. Thompson and mentioned in two of his books. Other authors who mentioned Wild Turkey in their books are Stephen King, David Foster Wallace, Scott Sigler, and Patrick Neale. It has also featured in many films and television shows, indeed too many to mention here.