Jim Beam is a distillery in transition. Right now they're building a distillery tour that's going to be rolled out in two parts. We saw them working on the part 1 rollout, which will be June of this year. It's a set of buildings that will show some of the early stages of the distillation process, I think, including coopering. Stage 2, in 2012 will be a full distillery tour including a visit to Warehouse D, the nearest aging facility.
Right now, though, they bring you into the Beam house and let you walk around the hall, dining room, and living room areas. The dinning room includes family pictures and family artifacts behind glass as well as a pedestal containing some older style whiskey jugs. The hallway contains a plaque explaining the history of the house. The living room has a flat screen TV and comfortable benches, chairs, and couches as well as some additional family pictures. In the living room we watched a video explaining the history of Bourbon with the Bean (and Noe) family. Fred Noe, the 7th generation master distiller at Jim Beam will sometimes use the upstairs of the house for functions and tastings.
The tour as it stands was brief and moderately unsatisfying, so it's easy to see why they're expanding. I don't normally like to spend time bashing any tours, because after all, they do volunteer to take up their time to show us their product, of which they are rightly and justifiably proud, but in this case, since it will be better in a month, I don't feel nearly as bad. After the video, we stood outside on the porch and our guide pointed out the various different buildings including where the fermenting tanks and grain receivers were. After the tour, we went to the tasting room where we (meaning Hoppie, in this case) tried two of this products, Jim Beam Black Label and, I think, Baker's, one of their small batch Bourbons. I was sorta hoping he would get to try the Jim Beam Red Stag, but he did buy a bottle. They recommend you serve it very cold, and keep it in the freezer, otherwise it can taste, "a bit medicinal." Which is not surprising given that it sounds like a great recipe for cough syrup. I'm sorta looking forward to trying it.
Another thing I really liked about JB. They are VERY generous in their comments about other distilleries etc. Also they were able to give us the promo info for International Stave: Kentucky Cooperage so we could find out when the tour was.
Since we had a little time (ha ha ha) before the next tour, we thought we'd pick up some replacement soap for the Mint Julep bar I used up at home, but the shop is apparently moving to Indiana and in the meantime is operating out of their home. We found that out because we wandering into a used bookstore. Suffice it to say, that was an expensive mistake. We had a packed Passover lunch but when we got with that, we thought we'd best be heading on to the cooperage so we didn't miss the tour. We got there about 15 minutes to 1 so we decided to wait on lunch until after.
We walked to the cooperage and there was a sort of empty holding area and then a lunch room and beyond a door. In a sectioned off piece of the lunch room was a video and chair setup. The opposite wall was fully windowed so you could see into the factory. No one eating lunch seemed to pay us no nevermind so I led Hoppie to the door to see if that was the office. It was and they told us the tour would start at 1 and we should make ourselves comfortable in the lunchroom area. On the wall behind the video presentation, they displayed custom etched barrel heads containing the names and logos of their major customers including Crown Royale, Tom Moore, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Maker's Mark, etc. We were the only people on the tour. We watched a video explaining the barrel making process. ISC's main headquarters is in Lebanon, MO. (This one is in Lebanon, KY, a moderate source of amusement) There they make all types of barrels, but here they make only Bourbon barrels.
Our guide handed us earplugs and we headed towards the factory. On the way, we stopped at an exhibit that showed a bit about the stave making process and she told us about how it's cut, trucked to them and seasoned outside before it's used. Logs are cut into lengths, called staves, which are then quarted and cut into planks.
The first room of the factory is where they do the initial barrel assembly. They have a ring frame and they fill it with wood staves and add another temporary ring on top. We saw a couple of people doing barrel assembly and then rolling the barrel to the inspector at his station before moving them off to the steam room. She let us gawk for a bit before showing us silent video (because it's a factory floor and you can't do much talking in there) about the assembly process. We saw a few barrel rejects off the side and some accumulation, although they were shipping the barrels they were working directly into the steam room. Overhead, there were tracks and the temporary rings were rolling down the tracks from the other side of the factory to be reused.
We walked back out the way we came and traveled along the glass lined windows which allowed us to look into the steam room and the cooling room. They steam the wood so they can compress it into the barrel shape, wide in the middle, tapered on the ends. Using steam softens the woods enough to allow the staves to bend without breaking. Then a press (windlass) compresses the top and bottom and puts on a smaller temporary ring to hold them in this new shape. Then they are sent to the next room to cool down and set the shape. Then a groove is cut out to allow the barrel head to fit in tightly.
We didn't see the barrel head assembly, but staves are compressed together and then a circle is cut out.
On our way past the steam room/cold room combo, we talked about char for the barrels and a bit more about the staves including being able to see a marked stave showing the cuts of wood made for each one. The next room contains the firing and ring attachment system. Conveyors move the barrels down the line where they are fired to precise specifications. There are four levels of char, a light, a dark and two in between. Because each customer may want different seasoning and different char than the others, they only run a single customer at once. They were doing Wild Turkey barrels when we were there. One of the worker lifted the barrel track for us so we could walk in. We saw another barrel rejected before firing and we saw the fire assembly. They roll in five barrels and char them. Then they move on to get their rings and their barrel heads. Overhead we could see the temporary rings whizzing back to the other room. It really is an amusing site. A video showed us this section in detail and then we went to the last and final room of the tour.
This is the final quality control room. Barrels must past two inspections in order to be approved. Any rejected barrels get broken down as far as needed and remade. Chris, the cooper, showed us the barrel he was working on. It had one stave that needed replacing because it had splintered probably because of some water damage. He pulled the rings off enough to get the stave out. He showed us the damaged stave and the replacement one and talked about how in barrels with more damaged staves than this one, they break it down completely and reserve any good staves. While we watched, he replaced the stave and reset the rings. The barrel would now go back through independent inspections to make sure it was okay and do any adjusting of the rings that was necessary.
We then watched a video about the coopering process and quality control. At the end of the tour, she told us about the rivet marks on barrels which identify where the barrels come from. Rivets are attached in pairs. The KY made barrels all have rivets with a K and a Y. Missouri, is obviously MO.
Then we bought hoppie a Tshirt (and a barrel, shhhh).
They sell three different sizes of barrels. While we were looking at them, one of the workers came up and said, "We sell barrels? Why didn't you ever tell me?" Then he went off to find another coworker to show him. :)
I need to do today's touring, but oh, so the tired.