Call it ironic timing or a wake-up call to a gin drinker (me), but a good chunk of my freelance work lately has been devoted to writing about two of Kentucky’s most important bourbon towns, Bardstown and Lexington.
Just this month alone, Jim Beam officially opened its new American Stillhouse visitors’ center, and Alltech unveiled Town Branch Distillery, the first new distillery in Lexington in better than a century. (Wild Turkey broke ground in August on its new visitors’ center.)
Distillers, once viewed as booze barons, are getting their due as rock stars of the spirits set. People want to know not only what makes up great bourbon, they want to know the distillers behind the bourbon and why they make it the way they do. (Recently, when I interviewed Jim Beam master distiller, Fred Noe, fans shuffled to and fro as we chatted on the front porch of an old home on the distillery property. Why? They wanted pictures with Bardstown’s most famous face and the chance to ask him about his craft; serious groupies getting the chance to meet a grain mash guru.)
Last month, I got a sneak peek at the American Stillhouse, and I was impressed. The two-floor, wide-open space isn’t cluttered with a bunch of whiskey kitsch, rather it nicely blends the stories of the men behind Beam’s whiskies—tales spanning 218 years—while giving shoppers ample chances to fill their trucks with Beam-branded goodies.
The company expects the Stillhouse—and the bourbon craze in general—will more than double tourism and attract 200,000 guests annually to its distillery in Clermont. (Right now, when fall foliage is beginning to peak, merely driving by the distillery on Hwy. 254 provides an iconic view of Kentucky’s distilled spirits industry. It’s worth the drive, frankly, just to take it in. Nearby is Four Roses, Maker’s Mark and Heaven Hill, so see them all.)
During the official grand opening on Oct. 3, Governor Steven Beshear joined Beam president and CEO, Matt Shattock, and Noe, Beam’s seventh-generation master distiller, to celebrate the facility’s official coming out party.
“Today is another great day for the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Beshear said, according to a news release. “The Bourbon industry plays a vital role in Kentucky’s economic success and the opening of the fantastic Jim Beam American Stillhouse means more tourism for our state and ultimately more jobs for Kentucky families.”
Indeed it does, and if I may editorialize for a moment, it’s a bit of a shame Kentucky, as a state, as taken so long to admit that. Oh, it’s taxed bourbon nearly to death, so it wasn’t as though it didn’t take notice of its economic impact. But arguably, until bourbon makers got into the business of making super-premium brands—credit Fred’s dad, Booker Noe for that—in the 1990s, bourbon wasn’t sexy. Those who drank it straight were questionable sorts who wanted a buzz, and those who mixed it with sodas were amateurs. Both reputations were incorrect. Those people were ahead of the curve, and Kentucky did little to dispel those stereotypes.
Back then, American wine had been rage for two decades because it gave us a chance to thumb our noses at Europe’s great winemaking countries. Wine making was “elegant,” and wineries were lush lands hand groomed to perfection.
Bourbon was just whiskey, “corn likker” once hauled by bootleggers—whoever heard of bootleg wine, right?—and whiskey made in the woods by moonlight in a dubious distillery was lumped into the same family as that made in a sterile factory.
Oh, the horror!
Now that people know the stuff tastes really good, that making it is a craft, it’s not so offensively “industrial” anymore. Bourbon fans understand that a mastery of chemistry and distinct organic elements is essential to producing even basic “white dog,” the pure distillate of corn-based sour mash. The real gamble begins once that alcohol is trusted to a charred barrel and warehoused—in fickle Kentucky weather, no less—for years on end.
And they appreciate it, which is very cool, even for a non-bourbon drinker like me. (I’m working on it, I promise. I’m starting to like the really good stuff, which is a bad habit to indulge.)
Correctly hinging its marketing position on the heritage of bourbon making, the new Stillhouse is a replica of a 1930s stillhouse. From the outside, it looks like the real deal. It’s cool, especially set against the rolling, pastoral hills of Clermont. (Guided tours cost $8 per person.)
Those who want to see how whiskey is made can tour the whole campus, from bottling to warehousing. And they do, lining up by the tens of thousands to see how grain becomes bourbon.
In addition to the Jim Beam American Stillhouse, Beam also celebrated the opening of its new 57,000 square foot Global Innovation Center on the distillery grounds. That building faces Hwy. 254 and features a state-of-the-art technical, research and development facility Beam Global says will be the brand’s breeding ground for new-product development initiatives.
To knit the whole mess together nicely, Noe recently published his combination autobiography and family history, “Beam, Straight Up,” co-authored with Jim Kokoris. Sometimes such collaborations produce a voice inauthentic to the main subject, but this one is dead on Fred Noe, III. I’ve read a good chunk of it and love it, partly because it’s great history, partly because it’s a fine example of Kentucky storytelling, but mostly because it’s funny. Funny as hell. Noe in print accurately reflects his manner of speech, friendliness and character. (You can already find used copies of the book on Amazon.com.)
Want to go see the Stillhouse? From the center of Louisville, Clermont is about a 45 minute drive down I-65 south. The Stillhouse is open weekdays and Saturdays 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Sundays from 12-4:30 p.m. (Closed on Sundays in January and February, as well as New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day).
For more information, or to order your tickets online, visit the Jim Beam American Stillhouse online at www.AmericanStillhouse.com or under the “distillery” section of www.JimBeam.com. Or like Jim Beam Bourbon on Facebook and follow the brand on Twitter via #AmericanStillhouse to get announcements about the distillery.