All photos by Keith Allison. The first time you see the Jim Beam distillery, nestled in the hills of Clermont and flanked by the expansive green of the Bernheim Forest on one side and the solemn quiet of the bourbon-fudge making Trappist monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani, it is an impressive sight, especially if you’ve visited some of the more idyllic showpiece distilleries like Makers Mark and Woodford Reserve. A massive black and red industrial complex, Jim Beam’s distillery on Happy Hollow Road represents only one of their distilling facilities, and even though the appearance is one of industrial might rather than folk music and crystal clear springs, there is something beautiful about it. Until recently, although it is part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, visitor access was sorely limited and rather disappointing. That changed in 2012, however, after a massive construction project and re-imagining of just what the Jim Beam experience should be.
So in October of 2012, the old days of only being allowed to visit a gift shop and one of the old houses on the premises ended, and the era of the new Jim Beam American Stillhouse began. Taking a page from the Makers Mark playbook, the grounds around the massive Beam distillery have been meticulously groomed, featuring historic houses, meandering paths, and views of the giant rickhouses resting atop not-so-distant hills. And best of all, the tour is now an actual tour, including a look inside the stillhouse itself, which was previously off-limits to visitors, and the inside of one of Beam’s gigantic warehouses, where rests anything from future bottles of Jim Beam White Label to Bookers, Knob Creek, Black Double Aged, Baker’s, Basil Hayden’s, and new offerings like Jim Beam Single Barrel, Jim Beam Signature Craft (Bourbon of the Year in the 2013 NY International Spirits Competition), and a limited edition finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks.
The $10 per person American Stillhouse tour begins with a truck ride from the cavernous gift shop to a fully functioning mini-distillery built specifically for the tour and so visitors can get right in the face of large-scale bourbon production (Jim Beam is the number one selling bourbon in the world) shrunk down to a more comprehensible scale. A guide walks one through the process of fermentation and distillation, explaining the equipment employed in each step of the process. Once their “Craft Distillery” has enabled visitors with a grasp of the bourbon making process, the tour continues on into the actual Jim Beam distillery, including a walk through their huge mash tuns and a gathering around the stories-tall column still.
Along the way, guides explain the Beam family line, the history of the company, and makes sure visitors take an active part in the process. In the mini-distillery, one is invited to add a scoop of grains to a churning mash tun. On the barrel dumping porch, another visitor will be invited to help rotate a barrel and spill some bourbon into a glass (which, sadly, one does not get to consume). In the bottling plant, everyone who wants to gets to rinse and label a bottle of Jim Beam Single Barrel, which they can then purchase for $40 (a pretty effective sales pitch). There’s a room full of elaborate decanters that have been issued over the years (something I wish bourbon makers would start doing again), and in the tasting room, those who took the tour (a self-guided tour lets you walk the grounds, but not glimpse any of the interiors) are issued a glass and a card good for two half-ounce pours of anything in the Beam line (I tried the Knob Creek Single Barrel and Jim Beam Signature Craft). In the gift shop, one can purchase the usual assortment of shirts, hats, Red Stag underwear, glasses, and bottles of Beam product, including American Stillhouse exclusives, a Stillhouse decanter, and Old Tub (the distillery’s name before James Beam took over and renamed it). Outside, on your own time, one can see the many historic houses (the interiors of which are no longer open to the public) as well as a statue of former Master Distiller Booker Noe and his dog Dot and a smokehouse that serves food.
The in-depth hands-on tour, the two tastings of any Beam you wish, the glass you get to keep, and the incongruous beauty of such a gigantic distillery set amidst such beautiful country equals ten bucks well-spent. On my last tour of Kentucky, when the visit to Jim Beam was nothing but a chance to pop into a gift shop, I called Jim Beam the most inessential stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the one you could skip without any regret. The new American Stillhouse turns that around completely. Jim Beam now offers one of the premiere experiences in bourbon tourism, a visit far more reflective of Beam’s lead position in the bourbon world.
The Jim Beam American Stillhouse is located at 526 Happy Hollow Rd., Clermont, KY 40110 and is open Monday-Saturday, 9:00am to 5:30pm, and Sundays noon-4:30pm. It is an easy half-hour drive from Louisville or Bardstown.