At the James B. Beam Distillery in Clermont, Kentucky, the Beam family’s long standing tradition of batching bourbon while pouring out words of wisdom is on full display. Under the guidance of seventh- and eighth-generation Beam family Master Distillers, Fred and Freddie Noe, the renovated Clermont homestead is the public-facing operation responsible for producing the world’s top-selling bourbon. And after a $45 million investment to upgrade the visitor experience, it’s the simple, historic Jeremiah Beam farmhouse that delivers the most heartfelt first impression of the distillery.
Stepping through the doors at this first stop, we’re greeted by a towering waterfall composed of filtered Kentucky limestone water. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that the way we treat the liquid we can’t live without is crucial to producing top-quality bourbon.
Beyond water, the new visitor experience, designed by Love Creative, highlights all of bourbon’s must-haves in a visually and acoustically pleasing manner. Sitting neatly on a shelf, burlap sacks labeled “corn” and “rye” indicate some of the grains used for Jim Beam’s famed mash bill. White lettering displayed across a black wall succinctly explains what’s required to label a product bourbon legally.
While the rules of bourbon literally read black and white here, it’s the ingenuity of the Noe family that differentiates Jim Beam’s portfolio. While family trees are typically represented by branches, strains of yeast bind the Beam family. It’s the most critical ingredient in the bourbon distillation process—and Jim Beam himself wouldn’t head home without his trusted jug of yeast riding beside him, according to our affable guide.
As we trek upstairs to view the top of several fermentation tanks, the smell of yeast converting sugar and starch into alcohol permeates. It’s a reminder that science in action can be a full-body sensory experience.
After a quick walk over to see “The Hardest Working Still in America,” we crane our necks in awe of the 65-foot column still, where the fermented liquid mash known as distiller’s beer transforms into vapor after being heated to around 200℉.
From there, it’s on to The Casehouse, which features interactive displays showcasing how several Jim Beam brands are distilled and matured. With charred barrels and lumber decorating the room, indicating the process that has made the Jim Beam portfolio a global success, perhaps the most telling image of the company’s ethos in the space is the quote emblazoned over an exit door: “Don’t like it? Send it back and we’ll drink it,” attributed to the late Booker Noe (the son of Jim Beam’s daughter, Margaret Noe). While guests do have the opportunity to select and personalize their own bottles of Knob Creek to take home, we didn’t hear if any had taken Booker up on his offer. It’s that kind of wit and sense of humor that runs through the Beam family past and present. And in looking toward what the future holds for the Beam family, one new addition is poised to set the tone.
Opened at the end of August 2022 to select private groups (industry trade and media), the Fred B. Noe Distillery, which is not a part of the public tour, produces particular Beam brands including Little Book Whiskey under the guidance of Freddie Noe. The new facility serves as a hub for research and experimentation for the next generation, as students enrolled in the University of Kentucky’s James Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits will also have the ability to gain insight here. To get a better sense of how Freddie Noe and his team use their skill sets to wow bourbon drinkers, we have the opportunity to participate in a sensory exercise designed to help us reimagine our perceptions of taste.
One aspect of the new visitor experience that’s open to everybody is The Kitchen Table, the onsite restaurant and bar led by QED Hospitality owner and CEO, Emery Whalen, as well as chef Brian Landry. A Louisiana native who honed his craft across kitchens in New Orleans before opening QED Hospitality, chef Landry has earned the ultimate trust of the Noes: he knows the family’s proprietary strain of yeast. And Landry is putting this knowledge to good use by way of pizza dough and a wood-fired oven.
With a replica of the Noe family table under a selection of framed family photos taking up a corner of the dining room, The Kitchen Table offers dishes built around comfort. With reclaimed portions of a rackhouse now serving as functional parts of the main bar, it is the restaurant where all aspects of the tour come together in grand fashion. In addition to the stellar line-up of wood-fired pizzas (which include sausage accompanied by collard green pesto, butternut squash puree and mozzarella) we taste our way through southern staples like fried chicken, pulled pork sliders and a cheese sampler.
While the atmosphere is casual, guests who prefer a slightly more formal occasion will have their chance to take part in The Clermont Supper Club, a ticketed event that takes place at The Kitchen Table several times throughout the year. We enjoy a four-course dinner and drink pairing that includes foie gras, country ham-wrapped trout, porchetta with jambalaya and a bourbon chocolate mousse for dessert.
For the drink pairings that accompany our meal, cocktails include The Groomsman Speech, made with Jim Beam Black, sparkling wine and herbs, as well as a Meyer Lemon highball and an Old Fashioned featuring Knob Creek 18. There are also alcohol-free beverages, including a highball as well as a riff on a hot-buttered rum to pair with dessert.
Landry’s team also oversees the distillery’s special events and catering operation such as a recent Jim Beam Welcome Sessions concert that took place on the Clermont campus. “I told him, you messed up. You did too good,” remarks Fred Noe at our dinner table, recounting the acclaim Landry’s cuisine has been receiving.
While setting—and stocking—the bar is something the Noe family is used to by now, the commitment to the changing landscape of visitors’ experiences has pushed the greater Jim Beam family forward in an industry where tradition triumphs. “Some families want a fancier kitchen. All we want is a bigger table,” reads one of the family sayings, spread out in a circle for guests to see. With a dedicated focus on chef-driven cuisine and a visitor-friendly atmosphere, they may need to put in a few delivery orders to accommodate the coming crowds.
Hero image courtesy of James B. Beam Distilling Co/Luke Sherritt