Me neither. But after reading all of these Bourbon posts of mine, I can see how you might be a little bit tipsy. It’s all for good reason though – cooking with bourbon has crossed me over into a whole new world. Chicken. Carrots. Cookies. Cake. Pie. It seems no matter what you add bourbon to, it adds a “secret ingredient” quality to the dish. A richness you can’t get from any other spice or flavoring. It’s – well, it’s just plain magic.
As you may have read (I assume no one really reads every post of mine, but if you do – wooohooo! It’s you and my Mom in an exclusive club!) – I was on the Bourbon Trail last weekend. I wrote about all of it, well, five of the six distilleries, a couple of days ago. But – I saved the best for last.
I won’t take all day and tell you the entire history, or how cool it was to see each bottle being washed (with bourbon!), filled, and labeled. Or the lengths that are gone to that ensure unrivaled quality in each sip. Or, that they use laser precision to make sure each bottle of Booker’s Bourbon is sealed in the exact same spot, by hand, on each label. I won’t bore you with the over 200 year family history that makes Jim Beam what it is today, a seventh generation Master Distiller running the show, the great grandson of Jim Beam, In fact. I won’t tell you what a cracker jack he is, how robust and full of himself and charming profanity he is. How from the minute we sat foot on property, we knew we were somewhere special.
What I will tell you is everything that surprised me. First and foremost, Jim Beam is the largest bourbon distiller in the world. World. A town, barely on the map – the town, Clermont, Kentucky – that you’ve probably never even heard of, supplies the majority of the world’s most popular liquor. Tucked away on a side road and run in small town fashion with small town folks. It’s perfect. The Homeplace is still on site, as is the original spring – though it has long since become ill-equipped to handle the volume of alcohol production. It’s a picture of the decades, and you can almost envision how it grew from the once small operation it began as to the model of efficiency it is today. They even bottle other products – tequila, for example, amongst other things. LOTS and LOTS of alcohol getting bottled here!
Once we pulled onto the property Friday afternoon, and parked by the red barn gift shop, we were taken to the corporate offices and conference area where we were met by Fred Noe, that great grandson of Jim Beam I was telling you about. Along with a couple of PR folks and a super cute military couple (the winners of an essay contest that supports our soldiers), we had lunch there with Fred and chatted for a good while. It was there that I learned some things about bourbon I had never considered. Let me share:
For one, you may notice that many bourbon bottles say “batch” on them. That’s because what you are drinking is made from a large amount of bourbon barrels, instead of ONE barrel.
Rickhouses, where bourbon is stored and aged for umpteen years, are around 9 stories high. The upper levels and lower levels get the largest and least heat/cool fluctuations, and it is these fluctuations that create the richness of the bourbon you drink. To produce a consistently flavored bourbon, you have a couple of choices. Either rotate the barrels from top to bottom after a few years (all 15000+ per rickhouse, of which there are 19 on site), or – once they are all aged, combine them. Since moving all that whiskey is a big time suck, combination is key. The combining is what gets the flavor consistent from bottle to bottle. Fascinating, I think. Now, I mentioned the top and bottom of the rickhouse…but the middle? They don’t combine these barrels. The middle floors are considered the “sweet spot” of the rickhouse, and produce the best of the best bourbon. It is from these barrels that you will often find “Single Barrel” written on your label. That simply means – whatever was in that barrel is what you have in your bottle. You’ll also often see “small batch” – which means precisely that. If your bottle says “straight bourbon” – then nothing, not even distilled water – was added before bottling. So maybe that enlightens you a little bit.
I also learned that Fred worked his way up the ranks, even though his family ran the joint. He talked about having to work a miserable night shift, courtesy of his father. How he has worked every position in the factory at one point. Dedication? Yes. But it is the love of his company that really shines through. He’s proud of what he does, and what Jim Beam produces. Most of all – he is the most down to earth guy you can imagine.
After our tour of the distillery, we popped back in to the offices, where we were surprised to see Montgomery Gentry hanging out. We had no idea they would be there! For the past 10 years, Jim Beam has been an official sponsor of theirs, and because Beam was celebrating the 75th anniversary of re-opening after the Prohibition – Montgomery Gentry came to town to put on a private concert for the Beam Family. We sat right behind them at the celebration held on property that afternoon, and then Fred invited us to join them later that night in Louisville for the concert. How cool is that?
A little later we grabbed a quick dinner, then headed north, where we found our way to the Louisville Palace, a historic (and amazingly beautiful) theater in downtown Louisville. I’m not sure what I expected concert wise, but – I know I wasn’t expecting a full on sound and light show for only several hundred people. I was wrong! For nearly 2 hours these guys sang their hearts out to our small crowd. They sang THEIR songs. They sang KISS. They sang Charlie Daniels. They sang and sang and sang. It was the best party! Fred even joined them onstage for an encore bout of “Rock & Roll All Night”…so much fun!
I hope to return to Beam someday – soon – because it felt like home. And, well, it does have some mighty fine Bourbon. Here are a few that won’t let you down:
- Red Stag – the cherry flavored bourbon I have been raving about.
- Bookers – Just about the strongest proof you’ll get to swallow. Good stuff – and despite it’s high proof (120-127) it’s as smooth as the day is long.
- Baker’s – another family gentleman is responsible for this one. Sweet and delicious.
- Knob Creek – aged 9 years, this Bourbon means business. It was clearly Jon’s favorite, and we had 10 of them on the bar tab late Friday night between Jon & my cousin Jason who joined us for the festivities.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed my little bourbon lesson, and you’ll try one or two, especially in your cooking. You know I love it in mine!
Until next time, folks, have a great weekend!