The history of the Jim Beam brands and how it has evolved into the legacy of today
By Elizabeth Scinta
Photos by Beth Burrows
“Living in Kentucky means letting the horses and bourbon just kind of soak into you,” said Beth Burrows, an American Whiskey Ambassador for Beam Suntory. If you’ve lived in the great bluegrass state for any time at all, you know exactly what Burrows is talking about. I had the pleasure of interviewing Burrows to learn more about Knob Creek Bourbon and the history behind it.
It all started in 1795 when Jacob Beam laid down his first barrel of bourbon. From Jacob Beam, the trade was passed down from father to son until Jim Beam came into the picture. “Jim Beam was really our master distiller during the hard times of Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War One and the Spanish Influenza pandemic. The man got us through everything. His work ethic and vast knowledge of a multitude of different things really helped,” Burrows explained. When Prohibition ended, Jim Beam rebuilt his entire distillery in Clermont, Kentucky in 120 days. If that doesn’t describe Jim Beam’s work ethic, then I don’t know what will! This is the same distillery they’re operating out of today. When it was time for Jim Beam to pass down the legacy, he passed it to his son T. Jeremiah Beam. I promise the family history is almost finished, but you must know every step! T. Jeremiah Beam didn’t have any sons to pass his legacy to, so he handed it to his sister’s son Booker Knoe. “Booker Knoe is the grandson of Jim Beam. He spent a lot of time with his grandad and with the fellows that were with him and he grew up inside of that distillery. Booker had a different approach and a different drive than a lot of his forefathers. Because of that, it drove him to be super innovative and to push the boundaries of what people knew,” Burrows explained.
After doing some experimenting, Booker Knoe created his first small-batch collection: Booker’s Bourbon. It began as something he gifted to friends and family in the early 1980s, but shortly after, they decided it needed to be a real brand. In 1988 Booker’s Bourbon was launched on a larger scale. “Booker’s was his baby and he brought the idea of small-batch whiskey to the forefront. It didn’t exist before him,” Burrows said. According to Burrows, small-batch bourbon simply means a smaller curated batch that is a little more deliberate than a larger batch. “It was just a way for him to challenge himself and take it to a new level, and that’s what he did with Booker’s.”
He later added three more bourbon collections in 1992: Baker’s, Knob Creek and Basil Hayden’s. Baker’s was named after his cousin Baker Beam who was retiring from the distillery that year, according to Burrows. Knob Creek is named after former President Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home and was created to be a pre-Prohibition whiskey. Booker Knoe created Knob Creek to be 100-proof and to have a specific flavor profile. “To me, Knob Creek has that profile of toasted marshmallows, strong caramel and strong vanilla. It definitely has notes of char, which is like a smoky campfire taste. Char is dousing a campfire at the end of the night and really getting that smoky sweetness. Knob Creek absolutely encapsulates all of that,” Burrows exclaimed. Knob Creek’s family has grown over the years to include small-batch, single-barrel, Knob Creek Rye, Knob Creek Single Barrel Rye and more.
Booker Knoe took a different approach with Basil Hayden’s. Basil Hayden’s is also a small-batch bourbon, but it has an extra ingredient: rye. “So it’s still bourbon, but that extra ingredient of rye is pretty much double the amount of our traditional mash bill. So it’s going to taste a whole lot different. It’s also 80-proof so it goes on the very light side because bourbon has to be no lower than 80-proof to be considered a bourbon,” Burrows explained. “In order to keep those rules, he took it right down to the limit. He did this because those nuances that you get from the rye, and the extra rye that you’re going to get out of that mashbill, really accentuates some of those subtle flavors and you can do that at 80-proof. It was the perfect space for it. Then he dressed it all nice with the bib and belt and put that beautiful foil on the top and the timestamp. So not only is it delicious, but it’s also very beautiful.”
When it was time for Booker Knoe to retire, his son Fred Knoe took over the legacy. “Fred was the one that took Knob Creek on the road. As a joke, Booker used to tell them ‘Booker’s is for the men and Knob Creek is for the boys, so take it boy and run with it.’ So Fred took it and that was his real step into the whiskey world,” Burrows explained. Eventually, it will be passed down to Fred’s son, Freddy, and the legacy will continue. Raise a glass to generations of legacy, determination and fine bourbon. Cheers!