Apr 10, 2020

On the Kentucky Bourbon Trail: Jim Beam

Ever since I was old enough to enjoy good bourbon (which is very different than simply being old enough to drink bourbon), I had always wanted to hit the road for a weekend exploring as many distilleries as I could on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.  I’ve been to and through Kentucky more times than I can count due to my family’s connections there and its proximity to my home state of Illinois, but the many famous (and some less famous) and historical distilleries where I believe the best bourbons are made had always eluded my radar. 

Last summer, Punky convinced me to finally pull the trigger on just such a trip over Memorial Day weekend, and it turned out to be one of the many travel highlights of the year.  We decided to make historic Bardstown, Ky., the epicenter of our trip, selected a handful of distilleries near Bardstown and the state capital of Frankfort from our “most wanted” list and plotted our course for two full days of touring.   

We chose to make the Jim Beam distillery in Clermont as our first stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, partly because of its name recognition, partly because of its proximity to Bardstown and partly because of the route we chose to get there … we really wanted to avoid Louisville and really wanted to stop for lunch at the Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro.  Once we were past Owensboro, it was an easy and scenic drive on Kentucky’s parkway system to Elizabethtown, then just 20 minutes up Interstate 65 to the Clermont exit.  

It’s safe to say without Jim Beam Clermont would probably not even exist anymore.  As it is, Clermont is an unincorporated village off the side of Ky. Highway 245 as the road meanders east the interstate to Bardstown.  Before you get in the thick of the woods that comprise the Bernheim Forest, look off to the north for the first signs of Clermont and its most famous (if not only) business.   

The signage is surprisingly low-key, but if you pass this barn, you’ll know you’ve gone too far.   

You’ll turn onto the appropriately named Jim Beam Way and wind briefly through some rolling countryside before coming to an intersection with (also appropriately named) Happy Hollow Road.  Take a left if you intend to loop back toward the Clermont Baptist Church, but the spirits you’re likely after are straight ahead.  You’ll soon reach a large parking lot ahead in front of another highly recognizable building in Beam lore …

… the Jim Beam American Stillhouse, regarded by many as the birthplace of bourbon and the starting and finishing point of any tour of the distillery … 

… and Jim Beam himself is always there to welcome you. 

The stillhouse is where you’ll purchase your tour tickets, drink tokens, souvenirs and take-home purchases.  Try not to linger too long, though, because there’s plenty more to see once you reach the top of the hill behind the stillhouse.  Besides, on a busy day, the place seems to stay constantly crowded.      

Punky and I were already short on time, so we opted to skip the guided tour and instead decided to focus our time and efforts on the bourbon bar adjacent to the tasting room in the famous red barn.   

The selection certainly didn’t disappoint. 

But rather than spend our tokens on just shots, a “neat” pour or even a flight of higher-end Beam bourbons, we figured what better place to try an authentic Jim Beam cocktail than here?  We placed our orders and set out to relax in the Kentucky air with the scent of sour mash wafting all around us. 

Me, relieved to be unwinding with a black walnut old fashioned – the Jim Beam black paired perfectly with walnut bitters, simple syrup and a hint of orange and cherry flavors. 

Punky saluted the unofficial start to our summer with a Beam margarita.  The recipe called for Red Stag but she was very happy with substituting the standard Beam bourbon. 

We finished our drinks … and our brief tour of the grounds … which included a walk past the old master distiller’s home, suitably perched at the top and center of the surrounding area. 

In hindsight, a formal tour of the Jim Beam distillery would have been quite rewarding, similarly to the one we took at the Jack Daniel’s headquarters in Lynchburg, Tenn.  But we had a lot of bourbon-themed adventure to squeeze into one weekend, so on to Bardstown we went.  To be continued in Part Two of this series of blog posts “On The Kentucky Bourbon Trail.”

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