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Overcoming Challenges to Make the Perfect Bourbon Whiskey, Here's the Story of Jim Beam Distillery

Image for representation. (Reuters)

Image for representation. (Reuters)

The story of Jim Beam distillery is one of seven generations and two centuries old. The distillery has faced countless challenges while focusing on one goal - to make the perfect bourbon in the world.

Manu Remakant
  • Last Updated: May 10, 2020, 1:10 PM IST
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News18 Tippling Point Jim didn't know what to do when others were celebrating all around. Finally, after waiting for 13 years, prohibition was repealed in the US. Any other distiller might have danced in joy, but poor old man, at 70, Jim could not. It was not his age that worried him but the family distillery that was in shambles now.

Jim had only one wish. He wanted his first drink after the prohibition to be made from the recipes at his distillery. Could he?

The story of Jim Beam distillery is one of seven generations and two centuries old. The distillery has faced countless challenges while focusing on one goal - to make the perfect bourbon in the world.

So what is bourbon?

All bourbons are whiskey, but nor all whiskeys are bourbons. The rules to make bourbon are stringent. Most important, it has to be made from at least 51 per cent corn, something that promises sweetness to your bourbon experience. Whiskey might take additives, impurities to prep itself up, but in bourbon, anything outside water is sin.

The history

For Jim Beam, history began in 1740 when the German Boehm family arrived in America chasing their colonial dream. By the time they moved to Kentucky, they Americanised their name to 'Beam.' The weather was good in the new land. The new earth was ideal. Together, they might have conspired and persuaded the colonizers to grow corn.

Already people were making rye whiskey in Western Pennsylvania. Jacob Beam of the original Boehm family took a leaf from there and decided to seek the potential of excess corn from his fields. He began to distill the grain with the help of his father's recipe. Bourbon was born.

When Jacob Beam handed the distillery to his son David in 1820, it had already become a favourite among the locals. David could sense a big change coming in the industry. So in order to expand production, he took the distillation from pot stills to column stills to enable continuous operation. He also renamed the drink to bourbon Old Tub.

When new modes of transportation arrived in the shape of trains and steamboats, distillers had to send around the stuff in oak barrels. Initially, the barrels stank spoiling the drink. Whose idea it was, we don't know, but distillers found that charring the insides of a barrel would take off the stench.

That was exactly how bourbon got another of its signature trait - the charred oak barrel.

Bourbon does not idle inside the barrels. During the long journeys across the ocean or on the rails, it seeps into the wood extracting caramelised sugar. So don't puzzle over the caramel tang and sweetness when you sip bourbon next time.

The expansion

When David took the distillery to Nelson County, Kentucky in 1854, Old Tub had become a national brand under the name D M Beam & Company. During the Civil War, President Lincoln was intrigued by the bravery of General Ulysses S Grant. The former is reported to have said: “Find out what he drinks, and send a case to my other generals.”

By the end of the 19th century, James Beam known to his friends as Jim Beam took over the Old Tub business (one of the first national bourbon brand) from his father, David. He was bracing up to make the brand international when destiny hit hard in the name of prohibition. It brought many an American dream to a screeching halt. Bourbon along with all other alcohol businesses was finished. Nearly.

The crisis

Jim had to support his family. Without Bourbon he was defeated, he soon learned. He had taken shots at various other jobs but miserably failed to make a mark. When he got to 70, just when he might have thought it all over, prohibition was lifted in America. Jim was king again but without a kingdom. But he promised himself that his first drink after the prohibition would be the one made from the recipes at his family's distillery.

But there was nothing left but ruins.

The old man didn't go desperate. Jim summoned his brothers and a few friends for the impossible job of dialing time back to reach those glorious days again. In just 120 days. Together they rebuilt the empire everyone had written off. Since he no longer owned the original title - The Old Tub - Jim had to sell the drink as Colonel James B. Beam Bourbon.

After his death, the drink was renamed as Jim Beam Bourbon whiskey.

The rest is history.

Disclaimer:Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog - A Cup of Kavitha - introducing world poetry to Malayalees. Views expressed here are personal


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