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My Handcrafted Opinions on Whiskies, Distilleries and Other Related Stuff

Jim Beam, Kentucky, USA

My first major US distillery and the first stop I made on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in May 2012.  To call this a distillery visit is a bit misleading... as the official name is the Jim Beam Heritage Tour and you don't get to see any of the actual working distillery (except for one warehouse).  Instead the focus is on the Beam family distilling history (which begins with Jacob Beam.... not Jim) and and also learn about their product range.  This is not the artisanal style of distillery I have been used to seeing in Scotland, this is a major whisky factory wth over 475 employees (thats about 450 more men than you find in Tain and 472 more than Benromach).  I learned that 95% of the world's bourbon is made in Kentucky and 50% of that is made by Jim Beam.   Their range is a bit of a mixed bag for me... I like Jim Beam Black (but not the standard White label), I like Booker's but not Baker's and I love Knob Creek but don't like Basil Hayden.  All of these Beam brands are made at this facility and interestingly all made with the usual suspects of corn, rye and malted barley... not a wheated bourbon in the range.  Highlight of tour was probably learning our guide was 8th generation Beam family and seeing the pride and passion in her for bourbon (and she was cute which also helped).  The tour was free and included a short video and samples of Jim Beam Black and Baker's small batch bourbon (and a sample of choclate to try with the Baker's... a recurring theme on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail).  The facility is currently undergoing an upgrade with a new store and a cafe and will in the future the tour will include the actual distillery.... so I will have to come back and revisit when that is complete and hopefully get the same guide.

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Highland Park, Orkney, Scotland

Highland Park, Orkney, Scotland

After so many distillery visits surely I have seen everything there is to be seen on a distillery tour?  Certainly that is the question I get from the nervous tour guide when they innocently ask the group at the start who has toured a distillery before and I put my hand up and mention I may have been to about 40 or so in last 3 or 4 years.  And yet, as is so often the case, this tour of the iconic Highland Park distillery did include a few things I had not seen before.  Like many of the better tours they start with well-produced video and then take you out into the site. Highland Park famously floor malts about 20% of its barley requirements and while I have seen distilleries with the relatively rare floor malting operations  before (inc. Kilchomen and Bowmore) the day I toured Highland Park they also had a peat fire burning which I had not seen on previous tours.   

I had signed up for the rather expensive ($100+ depending on exchange rate) Magnus Eunson tour, named after the distilleries founder.  The tour itself was actually the same as the regular tour, the difference was the very extensive tasting that followed.  With a knowledgeable guide I was led through a tasting of the entire range from new make spirit and the standard expression 12 year old through to the sublime 40 year old I have previously reviewed and raved about.   A fantastic experience and I was able (via the wonders of smart phone technology) to compare my previous Highland Park tasting notes with the experience of tasting while sitting in the distillery and while doing that something  occurred to me.  I was consistently missing the salty, fresh sea notes I often found in Highland Park.  The guide suggested that because I had been in Orkney for a few days (I had actually visited the oil terminal on Flotta by boat the day before) my nose had become accustomed to the local climate and salty sea air so was not able to pick it out anymore.  Interesting theory, however the fact I had also had a cold for a week or so before the trip may also have been a factor.

A classic distillery and a classic day with a strong focus on the unique features of Highland Park, primarily the use of sherry seasoned wood (both American and European oak) and the unique Orkney peat.  It was worth every penny as it is very unlikely I will ever make it back to Orkney and because I did not want to have any regrets about not taking full advantage of the opportunity, I decided, to use an American sporting expression, to "leave it all on the field" and pay for the full experience.  I left very happy (and mildly intoxicated; I walked back to Kirkwall Hotel) with a bottle of St Magnus Second Edition (which I then gave to my father for his birthday) and a few mini bottles of the more difficult to find expressions including the 16 year old and 25 year old, a nice blue tie and a book.  Can you tell I had been drinking?

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