Jim Beam and Willett Begin My Kentucky Bourbon Education

All is well in Bourbon Country. I just got back from my first trip to Kentucky and, aside from an overweight suitcase containing what state law requires distilleries to call “souvenirs,” I returned with a sense that this whole spirit ship is heading in a good direction. Before reporting for Woodford’s Bourbon Academy on September 10, I toured the Jim Beam and Willett distilleries, where I got to see the industry from a consumer’s point of view. The major takeaway: Consumer education is vital to the future of the liquor industry.

Every seat was taken on the shuttle that zipped us around the Jim Beam American Stillhouse property in microscopic Clermont. The land and mix of new and historic buildings are immaculate, a tad Spartan even, but with just enough rustic charm for guests to connect with the brand’s lineage of serious-looking Beam and Noe men who have had a soft spot in their heart for bourbon whiskey since 1795. There’s a self-guided tour option, but for $8 you can experience a fantastically informative in-depth guided tour that begins in a year-old facility that can only be likened to a high-tech, interactive children’s museum.

Touch the grains, taste the sour fermenting mash and fill an oak barrel with new-make spirit before heading to the Big House to see the five-story column still that helps keep Beam busy maturing 1.5 million barrels at any given time. On the Knob Creek porch we dumped a barrel (about 150 bottles) of that single-barrel bourbon for bottling, and on the new bottling line, we marked then followed our own bottles from washing, filling and corking to labeling, hand-dipping in wax and signing. There’s no better classroom!

I’m sincerely glad that I visited the Willett Distillery in Bardstown after the Beam tour. The difference in size, output and pace was apparent from the moment I roared up the gravel road, past Thompson Willett’s 1930s-era distillery (parts of which are still intact) and parked above the limestone spring-fed lake, the water from which lends certain distinctive characteristics to the whiskey. Tours are available here, too, even on Sundays. And what you’ll see here is the real deal all the way—no models or demos. Just the surprisingly complex sour-mash distillation process that yields Willett’s Pot Still Reserve, Family Estate, Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek and other small-batch, boutique whiskeys, including the new Speakeasy bourbon.

Just to give you an idea of the difference in size: Of Jim Beam’s 72 warehouses, some hold up to 55,000 barrels. And all of Willett’s barrels combined would fit in just one of them. With room. This doesn’t make one better than the other—I think it takes all kinds and all sizes to demonstrate the breadth and flavor of an industry.