POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Oct 14, 2012
CLERMONT, Ky. » Bourbon fan Tim Allen started his day of sightseeing by sipping whiskeys crafted at a Jim Beam distillery. Where else are pre-lunch nips more commonplace than in Kentucky bourbon country?
"That's smooth as silk," the North Carolinian said after sampling Jim Beam Black, a bourbon aged for eight years before bottling. "If it were close to 5 o'clock, I would have to do something with that."
Hospitality is overflowing in the once-stodgy industry, with whiskey makers pouring big money into tourism.
THE JIM BEAM AMERICAN STILLHOUSE» Location: 526 Happy Hollow Road, Clermont, Ky.
» Information: www.americanstillhouse.com or 502-543-9877.
» Hours: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; noon-4:30 p.m. Sundays. Closed Sundays in January and February and major holidays.
» Cost: Guided tours, $8. Self-guided tours, free.
Allen and a buddy from his college days, Woody Parker, were visiting Beam's $20 million visitors center, which opened this fall. Four Roses, another bourbon maker, opened a visitors center in September. Two more distillers, Wild Turkey and Heaven Hill, are also planning new attractions.
The facilities are outgrowths of the success of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which attracted 2 million visitors in the past five years and a half-million in 2011. Eighty-five percent of trail visitors are from outside Kentucky, according to Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers' Association, reflecting the growing popularity of the Bluegrass State's favorite spirit.
Beam's new Jim Beam American Stillhouse, an eye-catching replica of a 1930s stillhouse, traces the origins of the world's largest bourbon-maker to Jacob Beam, who set up his first still in Kentucky in 1795. It features an original staircase from a Beam distillery, and the elevator resembles a giant still.
It's the starting point for an hourlong tour that covers mashing, distilling, barreling, storing and bottling, a process that takes years to produce Beam bourbons sold around the world.
"When you go through our tour, you're going to use all your senses — sight, sound, smell, taste," said Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe, a great-grandson of Jim Beam.
Visitors can peer into fermentation tanks in which cooked grains and water form an oatmeal-like mash. In warehouses where whiskey ages, they breathe in the aroma from the "angel's share," the portion of bourbon lost to evaporation while in the barrel.
For visitor Sylvia Smith of Massachusetts, touring the Beam distillery evoked fond memories of her father, who enjoyed sipping Jim Beam bourbon with his brother-in-law every Saturday after working on their farm.
"They would have what they called a ‘board meeting,'" said Smith. "It was really going to my uncle's bar in his cellar and having a few drinks and man time."
Bourbon production has risen more than 115 percent since 1999, with the popularity of pricier small-batch and single-barrel brands leading the way along with growing international demand. Kentucky produces 95 percent of the world's bourbon. The state has more barrels of bourbon aging in warehouses than it does people.
Wild Turkey, another iconic brand, will open a $4 million visitors center next spring, offering striking views of the Kentucky River below the distillery's grounds near Lawrenceburg.
"This new visitor center will essentially serve as the ‘University of Bourbon,'" said Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey's master distiller.
Heaven Hill Distilleries Inc., whose brands include Evan Williams bourbon, already has a visitors center in Bardstown but is building an attraction in Louisville to feature a small distillery along with exhibits chronicling Kentucky's long whiskey-making tradition. The nearly $10 million attraction will have a five-story Evan Williams bottle towering over the lobby.
The distilleries are within easy driving distance of thoroughbred farms, another signature Kentucky industry. Some people combine bourbon tours with visits to farms or to Churchill Downs in Louisville.
Sometimes visitors get to meet the master distillers — the men responsible for making the bourbon.
At Jim Beam's distillery at Clermont, visitors might see Noe in a rocking chair outside his office. He relishes the chance to talk about whiskey making.
"I really am a live, breathing person and not some marketing tool that somebody just made up," Noe said.