Where it all happens: the Jim Beam American Stillhouse in Clermont, Kentucky.
All whiskey starts from grain, and all bourbon must be at least 51% corn. Jim Beam won't divulge their percentages, but the mash bill (grain mixture) is a mix of corn, rye, and malted barley.
Most of any liquor is water, of course, and Jim Beam sources 100% of theirs from the aquifer on the grounds. The limestone shelf creates a calcium-rich groundwater ideal (so they say) for bourbon.
Before they're cooked, all the grains are pounded up in a hammer mill until they're much finer, almost the consistency of sand.
The pounded-up grains and water are heated together in massive mash cookers. There are two of these huge guys on site, each of which can hold 10,000 gallons and cook all that grain in just an hour or so.
Then, off to the fermenter, where the cooked grain mixture is blended with Beam's jug yeast, which starts to digest the sugars in the grain and convert them into alcohol. The strain of yeast is more than 75 years old, ensuring continuity in flavor. These "small" fermenters hold 500 gallons...
While the larger ones, 45 feet tall, each house 45,000 gallons.
Okay, it's not very sexy at this stage. Here's the mash bubbling away, as the yeast eats up the sugars and transforms them to alcohol and carbon dioxide. It ferments for three days, reaching an alcohol content of about 6%. At this stage, it's called "distiller's beer."
Time to turn that beer into something much stronger. It travels to the top of this 35-foot copper still, and as it falls down the 14 separate plates within the still, it's heated north of 200°F, at which the alcohol vaporizes. It then recondenses into a liquid (the "low wine," around 125 proof) and then goes through a round of pot distillation, at which point the "high wine" is up to 135 proof.
The 'Big House'
The large distillation facility (in addition to a smaller facility that's snazzed up for tours, but is still a productive operation). 60 feet tall, five stories, turning out 45 gallons of high wine per minute.
Into The Barrel
Bourbon must be aged in new charred barrels of American white oak. The "high wine" is diluted down to 125 proof (per regulations) before it's put into the barrels. Jim Beam's barrels come from the Independent Stave Company, at a char level of 4—meaning they're burnt for 35 to 45 seconds.
53 gallons go into each barrel, but due to evaporation, they will lose 6–8%—known as the "angel's share"—for every year they age.
Each barrel is stamped with the product and date it enters the wood.
Where the aging takes place. Beam has 72 houses, storing 1.8 million barrels at any one time. This is the oldest, built in 1933, just after the repeal of Prohibition. Beam family lore holds that they were in such a rush to get whiskey aging the moment it was once again legal, that barrels were rolled into the storehouse even before it had been fully built.
From the inside, it's hard to even see the top. The temperature differences from the ground floor to the ceiling can be considerable—upper floors can reach 120 to 130°F in the summer—and the hotter it is, the more rapidly the bourbon permeates the wood. Other distilleries rotate barrels to compensate for this. Beam chooses not to, instead making a final product that's a blend of barrels from the top, middle, and bottom.
Beam's White Label (by far their best seller) ages for four years; other, pricier bourbons in their line age for up to 12.
The barrels are drained and the bourbon funneled into a holding tank.
Rich Caramel Color
Check out the color before it's filtered.
Bottles zipping through the line, first washed with whiskey, to remove any impurities from the bottle, then filled as they move around this carousel.
And twisted on.
Off to the Boxes
Ready to drink. More than 300 bottles a minute fly off the line.
All the Beam Products
50% of bourbon made in Kentucky is made right at Jim Beam—Knob Creek, Basil Hayden's and many more.
The Beam distillery, set against the hills of Clermont, Kentucky.