Jim Beam is the biggest producer of bourbon on the planet, so it’s no surprise that there is a lot to be learned from a tour of the Knob Creek Distillery. Some of these things might surprise you though.
My adventure in Kentucky was as a tag-along to a contest offered earlier this year from Knob Creek, but I took advantage of the time and tried to soak up as much information as possible for all you fine folks. Here’s what I learned from my time touring the Jim Beam Distillery (makers of Knob Creek).
Knob Creek is giving away a 10 trips (winners in 10 states) for two to the distillery for summer 2014. Camp out on the property, cook out with Chef Michael Symon, chat with Fred Noe, and get a super tour of the distillery. All winners get free flights and Big Green Egg grills. Enter here before July 31, 2014!
11 Knob Creek contests are intoxicatingly awesome
Knob Creek held a sweepstakes earlier this year, and the grand prize was a trip for 4 to the distillery including an extensive tour and dinner prepared by super chef Michael Symon. That alone is an incredible prize, but the real kicker was the lodging. Most contests put people up in hotels; Knob Creek had better plans. The winner spent the weekend in a house on the Jim Beam distillery property. As you can imagine, they keep it fully stocked with whiskey. The cabinets were packed with just about every Beam product imaginable. No need for the winners to spend money on drinks. It was just an arms reach away all weekend.
10 Jim Beam bought a lake
The house I just mentioned wasn’t actually purchased by Beam in order to host guests. In fact, it was just an added bonus in a much cooler purchase. Water is essential to whiskey, being used in the spirit itself as well as in the production process. To ensure their supply wouldn’t run dry, Beam bought a lake. That’s right, they bought a lake. It was adjacent to their existing property, so acquiring the land was a no brainer. There just so happened to be a cottage on that property, which was then turned into the Knob Creek House. Most people look for houses on the water, but Beam looked for water and got a house.
9 Beam runs a micro-distillery
Jim Beam cranks out 90 million bottles of whiskey every year. To accomplish that they have enormous stills whose columns won’t even fit in the building. It’s not all “bigger is better” though. Just a stones through away, Beam has it’s own micro-distillery. It’s part of their American Stillhouse Tour but not just meant to look pretty. The 500-gallon fermenters and small column still are fully functional and used to work on new products. For years companies were focused on expanding the footprint of their flagship brand, but now experimentation is a must. It has worked out well for Beam, as their small batch collection – Booker’s, Basil Hayden’s, Baker’s, and Knob Creek – has been highly praised.
8 Yeast is the key
Yeast is a major part of the distillation process, and most big distillers have their own proprietary strain. It’s the life blood of the brand and is often what set’s it apart from others with a similar recipe. Jim Beam protects their strain by having an employee take some home every night and bring it back in the morning lest the building burn down. The company obviously has yeast in multiple locations already so this is just a ceremonial ritual. Think of it like London’s Ceremony of the Keys. They don’t really need Beefeaters to march around the Tower of London pretending like locking the outer gate has an effect, and Beam doesn’t need an employee to cuddle with yeast. It makes for a fun story to tell though.
7 Whiskey starts crystal clear, like Pepsi
This isn’t news to me having been on plenty of tours, but it seems to surprise just about everyone else. Whiskey is perfectly clear when it’s distilled. If you’ve ever seen moonshine or white lightning, that’s just un-aged whiskey. This spirit gets all of its color, though some brands add caramel coloring, from its time in the barrel. As the liquid repeatedly moves in an out of the wood, it picks up more and more color. That’s why older whiskeys tend to be a darker brown while young whiskeys are a more golden hue.
6 Whiskey thirsts for water
Somehow the concept that whiskey is mostly water is lost on people. If you’re drinking a spirit that’s a respectable 43% alcohol (86-proof), what do you think the other half is? It’s not unicorn tears. Most bourbons go into the barrel just under 125-proof, but very few go into the bottle that way. It is carefully blended with water to reduce the ABV to the desired level. For Knob Creek, that’s 100-proof, which is still higher than most. Just remember that next time someone tells you that it’s not manly to add ice or water to your whiskey.
5 Knob Creek bottles bathe in Knob Creek
Every bottle must be rinsed before getting filled. Knob Creek has already painstakingly ensured that their spirit has just the right water content though, so they definitely don’t want to rinse them with water and risk leaving any behind. That’s why each bottle is rinsed with the product with which it’s being filled. Even the prized single-barrel Knob Creek bottles will be rinsed with single-barrel. It might seem like a waste of whiskey, but it’s the price you pay for consistency.
4 Jim Beam has a great rack
Jim Beam’s rack houses are real, and they’re spectacular. This is where the whiskey ages, turning from a throat burning clear spirit into the delicious brown nectar of the gods. The floor a barrel is on will have an impact on the end result because of the varying heat and humidity’s effect on the spirit inside. Each of the many rack houses contains a wide array of Jim Beam products so that there is no shortage of one particular product should something go horribly wrong.
3 The finest fringe benefits
Two bottles from every batch of every product Jim Beam makes is stored away for quality assurance. If there’s a problem with any of the spirits on the market, the distillery will have these bottles on hand for testing. While that might not seem exciting, it is if you work for Jim Beam. All of these bottles go home with the employees after two years. That’s a lot of free spirits. There are some rare, tough to find, and even discontinued items on these shelves, making it one of the best job perks I’ve seen.
2 Butter makes burgers better
Chef Michael Symon has done a lot of work with Knob Creek, and he was brought in to cook dinner for and hang out with the winners of this summer’s contest. What I learned, in addition to the fact that he used to wrestle bears, is that butter isn’t just for buns. After flipping the burgers and adding cheese, Chef Symon put a pad a butter right on top of the cheese on every burger. The result was a thick cloud of smoke and one of the best burgers I’ve had. The butter added an amazing creaminess to the whole package. Sorry arteries, this is my new method from now on.
1 Booker Noes what’s up
And finally, I learned that it’s impossible not to take this picture. If you Google image search Jim Beam distillery, half of the results will be pictures just like this. I tried to avoid it, but I couldn’t. Booker Noe just looks too awesome relaxing in his chair next to his dog.
If you want to check out more pictures from the distillery, you can check them out here.