Distillery Focus

Family values

The bourbon industry is undergoing a major transformation, and its biggest player isn't going to fall behind. Dominic Roskrow reports on the changes at Jim Beam and its parent company.
By Dominic Roskrow
Even by the whisky industry’s sedate standards, things move slowly in Kentucky.It’s a laidback sort of place, with long, lazy summers and gentle, calming scenery. Once you’re off the interstate the roadways meander through lush countryside past smartly-kept white homesteads and neat picket fences. Kentucky is a smorgasbord of horse farms, pretty creeks and old style towns. Life is designed to go slow here.That’s not to say the folk are lazy, though; far from it. It’s just that for most part they discovered the right way of doing things many, many years ago and they don’t see the point in fixing what isn’t broken. They know what they need to do and how long they need to do it, and they pace themselves accordingly.Never more so than with bourbon. The great whiskey producers perfected America’s native spirit a couple of centuries back, and they have done little more than tweak it ever since. All those clichés about how you can’t rush nature and how great things come to those who wait? Well in Kentucky they’re not clichés because they happen to be true.There’s something deeply reassuring about returning to Kentucky every year or couple of years and finding that pretty much everything is as it was when you last visited, and in returning to find that the great whiskey names – Beam, Noe, Samuels, Van Winkle – are all still there,making fine bourbon. What change there has been – a new visitor centre here, a new distillery there – has tended to arrive with the same graceful pace of the Ohio River, which flows majestically along the state’s northern boundary.So by the Kentucky bourbon industry’s normal standards, events since the turn of the year have been of seismic proportions.First there was the announcement by Constellation Brands that it was to sell a large part of its drinks portfolio including its bourbon brands. The announcement was a shock because it followed only months after the company had made moves to suggest that it was repositioning itself to be a major bourbon producer.Constellation’s Spirits division had been known as Barton Brands and although based in Chicago, for 60 plus years its distillery on the edge of Bardstown bore the name Barton. Its six year old bourbon called Very Old Barton enjoyed iconic status among traditional bourbon drinkers. But along with Beam it was the state’s least accessible distillery, so the decision to change the name of the distillery back to its original name, Tom Moore, to open it up for tours, and to join the Kentucky Bourbon Trail was broadly welcomed. That happened a little more than six months ago. With tentative plans in place to market the distillery’s leading premium bourbon Ridgemont Reserve 1792 more extensively, the suggestion was that Constellation was committed to elevating its status among bourbon’s leading names.Not so, it would seem. For the company has sold the distillery, all its brands and the bottling facilities to Sazerac, the parent company of Buffalo Trade distillery, which is in turn home to brands such as George T Stagg, Eagle Rare, Weller and Van Winkle.Quite what the fall out from this will be remains to be seen.The dust had hardly settled on that upheaval when international drinks giant Pernod Ricard announced that it was selling another leading bourbon brand, Wild Turkey, to Campari, for $575 million. The move has generally been interpreted as a positive one – Pernod had done little with its American whiskey and Campari, in acquisitive mood, will treat its new brand as a major player in its portfolio. Nevertheless, for a bourbon industry made up of only eight major distilleries, 2009 has already been some year. And with the announcement of two new distilling projects it’s undoubtedly the case that the industry is being reshaped.None of which will have gone unnoticed at Jim Beam, the state’s biggest player, which is in the middle of some major upheaval of its own. Its parent company Beam Global is in the middle of a major restructuring and has been media shy in recent weeks. But it did announce the appointment of former Cadbury head Matt Shattock as its new chief executive in late March. And it followed that with the announcement that it aimed to double exports of its premium bourbon Maker’s Mark to about 125,000 nine-litre cases a year, with the United Kingdom the main target. Assistant master distiller Dennis Potter announced that the UK was being marked out with a £500,000 marketing spend.Meanwhile back in Kentucky Jim Beam has also preparing for major changes. Although its Clermont site attracts 80,000 visitors a year, the central production part of the operation is closed to visitors. That’s set to change, though, with a multimillion dollar tourism project aimed at least partly at opening up the distillery properly.That’s a great deal of change to take in, so it’s time to draw breath; and there are few people better to do this with than Bernie Lubbers, who has been tasked with giving me the full ‘hard hat’ tour of the Clermont site. He is one of Beam’s three ‘whiskey professors’ and his job entails travelling across America talking about bourbon and promoting it through debates and bourbon dinners. A stand up comic before he took on his new promotional role,he’s an affable host, a naturally entertaining speaker and an enthusiastic advocate of bourbon in general and Beam in particular.We meet at the distillery, which lies on the main interstate from Louisville to Nashville, a few miles before you reach the historic town of Bardstown, set off the road to the left on a large rural estate. The publicity leaflets tell you that a visit here will give you the full Jim Beam experience and that you’ll get to see how Jim Beam is made, but this isn’t the entire truth. The road up to the distillery takes you off to a car park from where you can see the industrial-like bourbon making plant. But then you’re ushered off in a different direction entirely.Welcome to the Jim Beam American Outpost, a delightful and quaint tourist experience, and the perfect way to while away some time when the sun is beating down. Set in its own gardens, it’s a mix of brightly-coloured horses, bronze statues, exhibition halls, ancient fire engines, and a tasting area set in an old Kentucky homestead. You can trace the distillery’s timeline and follow a display to learn how bourbon is made. It’s a family-friendly, old Kentucky version of what a distillery experience should be.And it has just about nothing in common with what is happening in the vast distillery behind it.There’s nothing wrong with this.After all, the pace and style of the American Outpost has more in common with the distillery Jim Beam founded here some 75 years ago than the production house where his bourbon is now made does.The Beam story stretches back more than 200 years to 1795 when German-born farmer and miller Jacob Boehm joined the hardy folk who travelled to the new frontiers and made Kentucky his home. The more famous Jim Beam was Jacob’s great grandson and it is he who effectively established the modern era for his family bourbon, building a new distillery at Clermont just days after Prohibition ended in 1933. Since then the plant has been expanded and developed and a second, less publicised distillery acquired and developed seven miles away at Boston in Nelson County. Between them the sites produce a whopping 40 million litres of spirit each year .At Clermont you can’t help but be impressed by the size. It’s the nearest thing the whiskey industry has to an industrial factory,and while its interior mix of concrete and metal, of noise and garish lighting, are a million miles removed from the quaintness of the company’s picturesque Maker’sMark distillery,what it lacks in beauty it makes up for in complexity. It is an awesome mix of over-sized column still,mass fermenting vessels, industrial piping, filling stations and bottling lines, everything seemingly squeezed at random in to the existing space but operating in bustling union.Big it might be, but the spirit is no less genuine than that produced at Maker’s Mark, either, something Bernie Lubbers is quick to point out.“You can get all romantic about the pretty distilleries but it would be wrong to see Jim Beam as any less of a bourbon just because it’s made on a bigger scale,”he says.“Bourbon is governed by very strict rules and even if we wanted to we just wouldn’t be able to cut corners. And we wouldn’t want to – we’re proud of the bourbon we’re making and it’s successful because of the way it is. Why would we want to mess with that?“Every part of this process is to the same standards as those in the small distilleries such as Maker’s or Woodford. The reason we haven’t had visitors coming around and seeing what we do is because the distillery isn’t designed to allow the numbers of visitors who would want to come to do so safely.“In actual fact it’s the opposite.We want people to see what we are doing understand that we’re making bourbon the proper way but on a big scale. Much of the investment in the new visitor facilities will go in to redesigning the production areas to include walkways and viewing points so people can see it for themselves.” He has a point about quality. We are given a sample of four year old Beam straight from the cask and at cask strength. It’s rich, fruity and quite wonderful. There’s something else, too. Bernie points to the date on the cask – it was filled exactly four years and one day previously.“Demand is such right now that we’re dumping casks as soon as they reach the desired age,”he says.The issue of size is a sensitive but important one for Beam. Clermont is also home to the company’s range of premium whiskeys, released under the banner of Small Batch, a term that was invented by the company and has been picked up by other producers and adopted as a useful tool in providing bourbon with a greater diversity and choice when up against the vast array of Scottish whiskies. But the term has no legal definition and cynics dismiss it as another marketing magic trick.Beam disagrees fiercely. Maker’s and Woodford might well produce just a handful of barrels a day, it says, and could argue a case for being genuinely small batch. But bottling whiskey from carefully selected casks which have been aged for longer periods of time and which may well be made to a different mashbill means they have every right to bear the name ‘small batch.’ Even a whiskey produced to the standard Jim Beam formula but aged longer,bottled at cask strength, and released in limited quantities has a right to the use name, says the company, because it is a way of reflecting the bourbon’s premium qualities.Beam includes Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, Booker’s and Baker’s in its range. Alongside the standard but perfectly drinkable four Years Old white label, and the eight Years Old Black, arguably the pick of the bunch, it makes for an impressive portfolio, and one worthy of the world’s leading bourbon maker.We end our tour high up on the roof of the distillery,overlooking the black-encrusted buildings, steam rising from the engine house production areas, the wet concrete and out across the rich green blanket that is northern Kentucky and out towards Bernheim Forest.“This is a great distillery,”says Bernie,“a great company to work for, and a great part of the world to work in. Even at a big company like this you’re made to feel part of a family. They make great bourbon here,world class bourbon. They’re very proud of that fact.” They have every right to be.Kentucky might be in a period of change right now but some things look set to continue. Beam might be big and getting bigger. But it’s beautiful too – and set to dominate bourbon sales for many, many years to come.