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On the Trail of Bourbon

America's own original spirit shows off its rich heritage and craftsmanship in a lore-filled tour across the Blue Grass State
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Emeril Lagasse, Sept/Oct 2005

(continued from page 2)

By way of proving his point, Pickerell offers some superaged Maker's Mark to a few visitors in a tasting room off his office (not a part of the standard Maker's tour). It's 12 years old and past its prime, woody and bitter. The point is that the company feels it makes the Bourbon as best it can, and extra aging won't make a better product. Of course, the philosophy leaves no room to add lines as other brands so often do.

The tour includes a visit to the modest bottling line where ladies hand-dip the package into hot red wax. In the gift shop, visitors wearing heavy gloves can dip their own 375-ml souvenir bottle of Bourbon in a wax caldron, a task that is harder than it would seem.

The world's best-selling Bourbon is something of an icon of the frontier spirit, and for its guest facilities it chose a name—the Jim Beam American Outpost—that conjures that image.

It's not on the frontier anymore, but, in Clermont, it is on the northern periphery of the Bardstown Bourbon solar system. The Outpost offers not a tour, but a series of educational exhibits about Bourbon. The logical first stop is the theater where a short film covers production and the colorful Beam family. The narrator is Booker Noe, a grandson of Jim Beam who died in February 2004 just as much a legend as his famous ancestor.

Noe became an outsized Bourbon ambassador when he created and promoted the ultrapremium Booker's Bourbon. A good ol' boy raconteur with a sly sense of humor, he traveled the world explaining how the marketing guys had asked him if he could create a quality Bourbon to rival the burgeoning single-malt Scotches. He told them that it already existed. The whiskey that he and his close friends drank was taken from select barrels and enjoyed uncut and unfiltered at a scorching proof. From that first brand grew Beam's Small Batch Bourbon Collection that also includes Knob Creek, Baker's and Basil Hayden's.

Booker never much kept to the marketing script. Inevitably he'd tell an explosive cooking story, a fishing yarn or a family chestnut that poked fun at Jim Beam—whatever came to mind. The cookout he hosted each year at his house always turned into a hootenanny, with the great man playing the jug. It's still one of the prized invitations of the Bourbon festival, with his son, Fred, hosting in his place.

Fred, developing his own humorous style, has stepped in nicely for his father. He chose a commemorative bottling of Booker's and recently sealed the 10 millionth barrel of Jim Beam. He also helped create the touring Great Whiskey Debate, a mock argument between himself and a kilt-wearing representative of The Dalmore single-malt Scotch, which Jim Beam Brands imports. The combatants tout their own quaff, while good-naturedly teasing the other's.

At the Outpost, it's a curious mixture of industry, Kentucky countryside and Southern hospitality. You're surrounded by the world's largest collection of Bourbon, yet you examine vestiges of frontier whiskey making. The 1779 Bailey's copper pot still, the oldest in the United States, underscores the humble beginnings of Bourbon and the Beam family, with its seven generations of distillers. The Hartmann Cooperage, which operated from 1875 to 1925, has been transplanted here. The T. Jeremiah House, a former family dwelling, displays antiques and a working tabletop distillery, the smallest in the world, as well as offering a tasting.

The closest you'll get to the modern Beam operation is a peek into Warehouse D, a tin building blackened by possibly tipsy fungi that thrive in the moist atmosphere of distillation, and a whiff of its maple candy aroma.

Booker always said he looked to the "center cut," or middle floors, of the rick houses for the best Bourbon. At the barbecue that afternoon, Fred Noe reveals that his father also liked houses that faced north and south because the configuration is good for airflow. Two were recently opened at Beam's Boston, Kentucky, distillery, which is now named for Booker. Fred hosts the affair, which is tinged with a bit of sadness as it's the first time his father isn't the ringmaster. But Fred assures there will be continuity, saying, "My job is not to change a damn thing."

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