CLERMONT, Ky. — Bourbon fan Tim Allen started his day of sightseeing by sipping whiskeys crafted at a Jim Beam distillery. Where else are pre-lunch nips more commonplace than in Kentucky bourbon country?
"That's smooth as silk," the North Carolinian said after sampling Jim Beam Black, a bourbon aged for eight years before bottling. "If it were close to five o'clock, I would have to do something with that."
Hospitality is overflowing in the once-stodgy bourbon industry, with whiskey makers pouring big money into tourism.
Mr. Allen and a buddy from his college days, Woody Parker, were visiting Beam's new $20 million visitors center, which opened earlier this fall. Four Roses, another bourbon maker, opened a new visitors center in September. Two more distillers, Wild Turkey and Heaven Hill, also are planning new attractions.
The facilities are outgrowths of the success of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which attracted 2 million visitors in the last five years and a half-million in 2011 alone. Eighty-five percent of trail visitors are from outside Kentucky, according to Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers' Association, reflecting the growing popularity of the Bluegrass state's staple spirit, made in the rolling hills of central Kentucky.
Beam's new center, an eye-catching replica of a 1930s stillhouse, is three times the size of the old tourist center, which has been converted into a tasting room. Called the Jim Beam American Stillhouse, it traces the origins of the world's largest bourbon-maker to Jacob Beam, who set up his first still in Kentucky in 1795. It features an original staircase from a historic Beam distillery, and the elevator resembles a giant still.
It's the starting point for an hour-long tour that offers an inside peek at mashing, distilling, barreling, storing and bottling lines, a process that takes years to produce the Beam bourbons sold around the world.
"When you go through our tour, you're going to use all your senses — sight, sound, smell, taste," said Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe, a great-grandson of Jim Beam. "People want to see what it's all about — hands on. And that's what we've got here."
Visitors can peer into fermentation tanks in which cooked grains and water form an oatmeal-like mash, a key part of whiskey-making. In warehouses where whiskey ages, there's the aroma from the "angel's share," the portion of bourbon lost to evaporation while in the barrel.
For Massachusetts visitor Sylvia Smith, touring the Beam distillery evoked fond memories of her father, who enjoyed sipping Jim Beam bourbon with his brother-in-law every Saturday after working on their farm.
"They would have what they called a 'board meeting,' " said Mrs. Smith, who toured the distillery with her husband. "It was really going to my uncle's bar in his cellar and having a few drinks and man time."
Bourbon production has risen more than 115 percent since 1999, with the popularity of pricier small-batch and single-barrel brands leading the way along with growing international demand. Kentucky produces 95 percent of the world's bourbon. The state has more barrels of bourbon aging in warehouses than it has people.
The distilleries are within easy driving distance of thoroughbred farms, another signature Kentucky industry. Some people combine bourbon tours with visits to farms or to Churchill Downs in Louisville or Keeneland at Lexington when there's live racing at the tracks.
Sometimes visitors get to meet the master distillers — the men responsible for making the bourbon — if they're not on the road promoting the brands.