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Straight From the Barrel: On the Beam
Posted: September 9, 2003
Perhaps individual whiskey men have been more renowned -- perhaps. But it's hard to argue that any one family has had a more illustrious history in the spirits world than the Beams, a clan that for 207 years and at least seven generations has been making Bourbon in Kentucky. This is a notion that F. Paul Pacult so painstakingly and lovingly distills in American Still Life: The Jim Beam Story and the World's #1 Bourbon (Wiley, $24.95).
Yet the stories of a single brand of whiskey and the man whose name is on the bottle are only facets of this work that becomes a family saga and a slice of Americana. Whiskey lovers who are unwilling to confer the title of number one on the Beam product and even readers with but a passing interest in Bourbon will glean much about the drink and frontier America from this book. Pacult, editor of his namesake spirits journal, delves deep to set the stage, examining American drinking patterns some one and three-quarter centuries before the birth of the country's native spirit or the beginning of the Beam association with it.
The colonies were a raw place where settlers slaked their thirsts on rum, rye, beer and cider when Johannes Jacob Boehm (later Beam) found his way to the backwoods of Kentucky in the late 1780s, bringing a knowledge of farming, milling and distilling. The author paints much background, including the story of the Whiskey Rebellion, which George Washington put down in 1794. Our first president, according to Pacult, evidently put down a few shots as well, as he made whiskey himself at Mount Vernon. Boehm didn't invent Bourbon, but you get the idea that he was part of a great movement that would result in the evolution of spirits into something uniquely American.
The author breathes life into the understandably sketchy details of the frontiersman's foray into Bourbon through the judicious use of family records as well as a sound knowledge of the conditions and ways of the territory in that day. Boehm, like many settlers, supplemented his farming income by making whiskey from a plentiful corn crop. The family's first whiskey with a name would be Old Jake Beam Sour Mash. It would later become Old Tub under the watchful eye of Jacob's son David. It would be so named for another century as the family recipes and artistry passed from generation to generation.
As the story progresses, Pacult is always careful to keep us up to date on history near and far as well as technological developments that affected the family's product. The invention of the column still in Scotland, the creeping pervasiveness of the railroad, financial traumas and wars both local and far-flung made their mark on what is now known as Jim Beam.
The ultimate slight to the family was, of course, Prohibition. It was the Noble Experiment that would shutter the family business even as it was under the control of its most famous shepherd, Jim Beam himself. Interestingly, that familiar name would not be placed on the whiskey until after the family had ceded ownership completely to financial backers. It was Jim Beam who would emerge from retirement to reopen the distillery in record time and become its master distiller, but with no stake in the company.
As the clan branched out over the years and especially after the business slipped from family control, Beams skilled at making whiskey went to work for other Bourbon brands, and the book covers them as well. A chart showing the different Beams who have worked in the Bourbon business shows just what a mark one family has had on an art form and an industry.
Pacult's intense research serves him well when discussing Beams long past, but the author shines best with describing family members he has come to know. This is especially true of Booker Noe, Jim Beam's grandson, the company's master distiller emeritus and all around Boubon ambassador. Anyone who has met Noe sees what a treasure he is as he bridges the gap between Bourbon lore and the modern world of whiskey making. Pacult captures this and points up the insight that American Brands, the current shepherds of the Beam legacy, has shown by keeping the heritage alive even as it prospers as a contemporary business.
An accomplished spirits writer and reviewer, Pacult also includes a trenchant description of the process of whiskey making and his own tasting notes of the Beam products available today.
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