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In 1740, when the United States was still the Thirteen Colonies, the Boehm family first arrived in America, determined to live the colonial dream. Forty-eight years later, they’d relocated to where central Kentucky currently is and Americanized their German name to “Beam.” The hot summers, mild winters and nearby limestone spring made their new home ideal for … you guessed it … growing corn. Not what you were thinking? Don’t worry, the bourbon part is coming soon.
By the late 1700s, German, Scotch and Irish settlers were already making rye whiskey in Western Pennsylvania with recipes they brought over from their homelands. But when the U.S. government began offering incentives to move west and grow corn, many packed up their families and relocated to the Kentucky region of Virginia(strange times, we know). Among these farmers was Jacob Beam who, like others, used his father's whiskey recipe to distill his excess corn into a new, sweeter kind of whiskey-bourbon was born.
Perhaps the best decision Jacob Beam ever made was to sell his bourbon. He sold his first barrel of Old Jake Beam Sour Mash in 1795, just three years after Kentucky became a state. His bourbon quickly became a local favourite-no small accomplishment considering that, by the early 1800s, Kentucky was home to about 2,000 distillers.
In 1820, Jacob Beam handed the distillery over to his sharp-as-a-tack son, David Beam. At this time in history, bourbon could only be practically distributed locally, so instead of bottling it and selling it in stores like we do today, people simply brought their own jugs to the distillery to fill them up straight from the barrel. David, however, could sense that a change was coming, and he had the foresight to enlarge the distillery for future growth and transition from pot stills to column stills to enable continuous operation. He also renamed the bourbon Old Tub® to match the name on the distillery.
With the arrival of trains and steamboats, distillers could now ship their bourbon out of their local areas to increase sales. But this expanded bourbon market created a new issue: a barrel shortage. Without enough barrels to go around, distillers began putting their bourbon in used fish and vinegar barrels—a decision which had some obvious and very unfortunate side effects. Luckily, they soon found that burning the insides of those barrels removed the unpleasant smell and prepared them for whiskey storage. This is how distillers originally began using charred-oak barrels.
Since travel at the time wasn’t exactly speedy, after the barrels were loaded onto steamboats headed for New Orleans, the bourbon had time to seep into the wood and extract the caramelized sugars created by the charring process. This added a spectacular caramel taste and golden color to the whiskey that quickly made it amazingly popular. It didn’t take long for folks to start asking for this new kind of whiskey by where it was from: "old Bourbon County whiskey."
Let’s skip forward to 1854. After taking over distillery operations from his father, David M. Beam wanted to take advantage of bourbon’s newfound popularity. And having learned of a planned extension to the railroad line, he relocated the distillery to Nelson County, KY under the name D. M. Beam & Company. Now, mere yards from the new tracks, he was able to ship Old Tub both north and south. And by bottling and branding each bottle, he began to transform his bourbon into a national brand.
By the time of the Civil War, bourbon had reached such popularity that even General Ulysses S. Grant had become an avid fan. And due to the general’s success, President Lincoln is reported to have said about him, “Find out what he drinks, and send a case to my other generals.”
In 1894, James Beauregard Beam—Jim Beam to his friends and family—took over the family distillery from his father, David M. Beam. By this time, Old Tub was one of the first national bourbon brands. And throughout the early 1900s, Old Tub and bourbon in general, continued to grow and expand, developing rigorous standards for production and quality. Then, in 1920, Prohibition brought it all to a screeching halt. For over a decade, bourbon was effectively out of business.
Imagine working your entire life toward one goal, only to suddenly be told that goal is no longer legal. That’s exactly what happened to Jim Beam, and for the 13 years of Prohibition, he was forced to give up his life’s work. This marked the one and only time in our over 220-year history that our family didn’t distill bourbon. Needless to say, there isn’t much bourbon history to recount from these times, but Jim Beam was far from defeated. To support his family, he took a shot at coal mining and citrus farming. Fortunately for us, he wasn’t any good at either.
One good thing did happen to the Beam family during this time, however, when Jim’s daughter, Margaret, married Frederick Booker Noe. Their son, Frederick Booker Noe II would go on to become a master distiller, carrying on the Beam family torch.
When Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933, Jim Beam didn’t celebrate. Instead, at the ripe age of 70, he put the pedal to the metal. With the help of friends and family, Jim Beam rebuilt his entire distillery by hand in Clermont, KY in just 120 days. And still, he didn’t celebrate, wanting his first drink in over 13 years to be of his own bourbon. In 1935, Jim’s first batch of post-Prohibition bourbon was ready, and since he no longer owned the rights to the Old Tub name, he sold his first new bottle as Colonel James B. Beam Bourbon. Finally, the man now known as “The Colonel and The Legend” could celebrate.
After losing the Old Tub name and seeing many other bourbon brands become casualties of history during Prohibition, Jim Beam took great care to ensure his bourbon’s future. Knowing that future relied on his bourbon’s signature flavor, he even brought a jug of his yeast strain home every weekend, just in case. To this day, we still use that same strain of yeast, and Jim Beam’s great grandson still brings some home every weekend. With all that Colonel James B. Beam accomplished in his time, it was only fitting that, later in 1935, his son T. Jeremiah re-founded the distillery as the Jim B. Beam Distilling Company and dubbed our bourbon Jim Beam® in honor of his father.
While T. Jeremiah “Jere” Beam had been helping his father to run the family business since opening the new distillery, he officially took over in 1946, just as WWII came to a close. Soon after, not wanting any of his countrymen to be without bourbon, he began shipping cases of Jim Beam to American servicemen stationed overseas. Though he didn’t know it yet, this would introduce Jim Beam to the globe, setting the stage for it to become the world’s best-selling bourbon under his watch.
Like Jim Beam, bourbon was beginning to pick up where it had left off before Prohibition. In 1938, the mint julep was introduced as the traditional drink of the Kentucky Derby, further fanning the flames. In that same year, the Jim Beam Distillery released its second ever product—Jim Beam® Rye—a drier, spicier version of its sweeter bourbon brother. In 1954, Jim Beam Distilling Company opened a second distillery 10 miles down the road in Boston, KY to meet the growing demand for bourbon. And in 1964, bourbon’s rise to fame culminated with President Lyndon B. Johnson declaring it “America’s Native Spirit.”
Remember when we mentioned that Jim Beam’s daughter Margaret had married into the Noe family during Prohibition? Great. Now, fast forward back to 1960. While T. Jeremiah’s brother, Carl Beam, is Master Distiller of the Clermont distillery, Margaret’s son Frederick Booker Noe II is named Master Distiller at the Boston, KY distillery. Five years later, Booker would fill Beam’s one-millionth barrel. Despite this tremendous milestone, however, bourbon was in the midst of a downturn in favor of clearer spirits like vodka, gin and the dreaded wine spritzer. Refusing to give in, Booker opted to innovate.
In 1978, Booker introduced Jim Beam Black®, a bourbon with extra character and flavor. But this was just a prequel for what was to come. Booker began crafting bourbon the way it was originally made: in small batches. And in 1987, he flipped the bourbon game on its head with the release of Booker’s®—the first small-batch bourbon from Jim Beam. Unfiltered, uncut and straight from the barrel, it was unlike anything people were used to. And at $35/bottle (equal to about $73 today), it had a price tag to match.
With the release of Booker’s, Booker Noe was far from done. In 1992, he released the Small Batch Bourbon Collection®, adding on to his first small-batch bourbon with Baker's®, Basil Hayden's® and Knob Creek®. This streak of innovation effectively revitalized the bourbon category, propelling Knob Creek® to become the world's top-selling super-premium bourbon.
In 1992, Booker was succeeded by his son and our current Master Distiller, Frederick Booker Noe III. With this changing of the guard, Fred Noe became the seventh-generation Beam Family Master Distiller, and in 2005, he filled the ten-millionth barrel of Jim Beam. But Fred would do much more than fill record numbers of barrels. Like his father, he had a penchant for innovation, and in 2009, he released Red Stag by Jim Beam®. This black cherry liqueur infused with Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey caught the bourbon world by surprise. And in doing so, it threw open the gates to a new realm of bourbon-inspired possibilities.
Building off the success of Red Stag, Fred released Jim Beam® Devil’s Cut® in 2011—a slightly sinister bourbon made from the liquid that becomes trapped within the wood of the barrel during aging. As if egging him on, Devil's Cut® and Jim Beam Black® both earned gold medals at the 2012 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Following this, Fred created a flurry of new liquids and limited-edition bottles.
In 2013, Fred Noe released Jim Beam® Signature Craft 12-Year and Jim Beam® Distiller’s Masterpiece—a re-release of his father’s crowning small-batch achievement. Then, in 2015, he unveiled Jim Beam® Apple, which would soon become the world’s best-selling flavored whiskey.* And finally, in 2016, Fred brought innovation to the bourbon world once again with Jim Beam® Double Oak—a bourbon aged a second time in a second newly charred oak barrel. Needless to say, Fred has been busy. But he isn’t done yet. To this day, he continues to cement Jim Beam’s place in history as both a pioneer and a classic.
*“#1 Flavored Bourbon” - 1. Nielsen xAOC+, $ Sales, 52 WE 12/2/17.
While Fred Noe was busy invigorating the bourbon world with new techniques, flavors and finishings, Congress declared September “National Bourbon Heritage Month” in 2007. And on October 3, 2012, we transformed bourbon tourism by opening the doors to the Jim Beam American Stillhouse—a replica of a 1940s-era stillhouse that both reinvented and expanded our visitor experience. This quickly turned our Clermont distillery into one of Kentucky’s most visited destinations.
As the First Family of Bourbon, we were there when it all began. But we’ve never been the type to rest on our laurels. Always innovating, always taking bourbon to new heights—this is the Jim Beam way. On our 225-year anniversary, we have no intention of doing things any differently. Even as we sit here writing our history, the next generation is busy following in the footsteps of all those who came before them—learning the ropes from the ground up. But, more importantly, learning to redefine them in new and innovative ways.
For a taste of the what the next generation will bring, we invite you to give Little Book® a try, that is, if you can get your hands on a bottle. Blended by Fred Noe’s son, Freddie, both iterations of this limited-edition whiskey have sold out soon after their release.