There’s something about a family brand that’s been passed down from generation to generation. It’s not just an achievement, but the celebration of a legacy that’s kept its values for more than two centuries.
Family distilling affair
Despite Jim Beam being one of the biggest bourbon brands in the world, it’s still a family distilling affair and seven generations down the road, the taste for their bourbon has never let up. The family’s been making whiskey since 1795, the only hiatus being 13 years of prohibition between 1920 and 1933. It’s named after James Beam, who rebuilt the business after the ban on booze ended.
The days of moonshine and small production runs ramped up to what the brand has become today. But selling millions of litres of bourbon comes with a massive set of challenges. And that includes ensuring that each bottle tastes the same as the next.
Jim Beam master distiller and descendant of Jim himself, Fred Noe, said: “There’s a lot of key levers that help us keep it consistent. Grain being one of them. So, working closely with the University of Kentucky and our direct farmers, we work on renewable and sustainable farming practices that help to try to mitigate some of that and give us consistent grains.”
Noe has recently handed over the reins to his son Freddie, the eighth generation of family to enter the distilling business.
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The other pieces of distilling the puzzle, Noe said, are quality standards: “It must be the moisture percentage, and toxin checks. So, each time we’re getting grain trucks, we hand probe every truck of grain that comes in and do a food quality inspection to ensure that it meets that specification. And that allows us to be sure the grain is up to our standard.”
Before the distilled spirit is decanted into a barrel for ageing, they check it again. Then, it rests. This is one of the most important parts of the process. He said: “There’s a lot of flavour that develops over that time. And so, you know, maybe 40% to 60%, depending on the age of the flavour, comes from the barrel.”
When whiskey comes out the other side, after ageing, tasting the good stuff is the next step. And there are fundamental differences between bourbon or whiskey, Scotch whisky and the Irish variety.
In a well-aged bourbon, said Noe, tasters can pick up hints of vanilla, dried fruit and cherries, even caramel. All oak derived flavours from the barrels. Whiskey also becomes sweeter over time while younger distils can taste a bit “corny” given that it’s bourbon’s primary grain.
Newer barrels leave whiskey tasting dry, said Noe. This is why Jim Beam uses older oak casks.
He said a big difference in taste between whisky and whiskey is that Scotch is peatier, with more earthy aromas. “We don’t have that in bourbon.”
Most of the world’s bourbon is manufactured in Kentucky and Noe said that there are important reasons for that. Climate plays a big part in the ageing process.
“The climate we have here is distinctly four seasons, summer, winter, spring and fall, that really allows for a rounded aging process. You get the cold winters and the really hot summers that force the whiskey in and out of that wood through expansion and contraction which plays a huge role.”
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He added: “It’s all that time that the whiskey spends in the cold, and it’s also spending a lot of time really warming up. It creates an opportunity to really develop its flavour.”
In the rack house, as they call it, barrels are stacked and aged, and then finally its contents blended to create Jim Beam as we know it.
Noe said: “When you blend and mingle those barrels from top to bottom and middle together, you get these nuanced flavour pockets. So aging is critical. And with that, bourbon and American whiskey with a lot of that flavour is developed.”
On the rocks or, as we see in the movies, a shooter of bourbon are not the only ways to enjoy this tipple.
He said: “Using mixers like soda water, ginger ale, ginger beer, really any variation of each of those mixed with one part or just a little spritz of juice and a wedge of fruit for a garnish, really brings out a lot of that sweetness. It opens up the bourbon and really is refreshing as well.”