Recently, we kicked off our Drinkhacker Asks series with Jimmy Russell, one of the most recognizable names in the spirits world. While we’ll continue to interview big names in the industry, we also want to introduce you to some of the less well-known figures, as it’s our experience that often these folks have some of the best stories to tell.
For the second Drinkhacker Asks, we decided to continue with the American whiskey trend by sitting down with Steve Beam of Limestone Branch Distillery, who’s a fairly new Master Distiller with quite a family history in the whiskey business.
Drinkhacker: You probably get this question a lot, but how are you related to Jim?
Steve Beam: My great-grandfather was Minor Case Beam, and his first cousin was Jim. He was the oldest of the Beam cousins and had quite a bit of knowledge about distilling. Minor was a distiller in Gethsemane, Kentucky at a distillery that made Yellowstone bourbon. His younger brother, Joe L., had seven sons, all of which were trained at Yellowstone at some point. They went on to become distillers, and some eventually helmed major distilleries like Four Roses, Stitzel, and Heaven Hill.
The Beams clearly had an impact across many distilleries in the bourbon industry before prohibition. How about today?
SB: There are not as many distillers in the Beam family as there used to be. It used to be a lot of friendly competition and sharing of information between friends and family, but the industry has grown and those connections aren’t as strong as they used to be. Part of the reason I wanted to start Limestone Branch was to embrace my family name, but also get my mother’s side of the family back into the distilling business. J.B. Dant, who actually owned Yellowstone, was my great-grandfather on her side.
With bourbon royalty in your family tree, I have to ask. What’s a typical family reunion look like?
SB: The Beams throw the biggest party. They actually have two different family reunions: a small one for more immediate family and then a big one hosted at the Jim Beam Distillery for all the Beam relatives. It’s actually very family-oriented with sack races and that kind of thing. The food is amazing but not exactly healthy. If it’s a vegetable it’s held together with mayonnaise, and if it’s fruit it’s held together with whipped cream.
Sounds like my family reunion, but without the giant rickhouses full of whiskey! So tell us about Limestone Branch Distillery.
SB: Well, we’re pretty new. We got to work in 2010, the building was ready in late 2011, and we began distilling in 2012. We’re in Lebanon, Kentucky, which some folks may not be familiar with. We’re not far from Independent Stave, the big barrel-maker, and Maker’s Mark is only eight miles away. And the area is close to the site of the old Yellowstone distillery where my family got its start in the business.
We are fans of one of your latest products, Minor Case Rye, which is named for your great-grandfather. It’s a sourced whiskey, but what do you do to it that makes it unique?
SB: It’s a two-year-old rye sourced from Indiana, and I have no problem using their rye because it’s such a fantastic product. We put our spin on it by finishing it in a five-year-old sherry cask from Meier’s Wine Cellars in Cincinnati. The sherry is a little fruitier, and the fruit really compliments the spice in the rye. It actually turned out even better than we had anticipated. We finished it in the sherry cask for six months, which is quite a while, and then we adjusted the flavor profile with additional rye to get a profile that we can maintain for years to come.
Do you see wine-finished whiskey as a continuation in your portfolio?
SB: Minor Case will be a standard offering, so yes. But we plan to continue experimenting with our Yellowstone Limited Edition. The 2016 release of Yellowstone Limited Edition used new toasted wine barrels that never held wine because I wanted to do my own experimentation with toasting versus charring. Wine barrels are built much tighter than bourbon barrels. I like to compare them to making a piece of furniture versus making a pallet. We did different toast levels in the barrels: medium, medium plus, and heavy to see how it would influence the different bourbons. Our 2017 release of Yellowstone Limited Edition used the same barrels after we put a #1 char over them. But to your question, there may be another wine-finished bourbon down the road. I like to experiment with the whiskey. It’s the fun part of the job!
The Yellowstone brand, as you said, goes way back on both sides of your family. What was vintage Yellowstone like?
SB: It was aged six years when a lot of bourbon was aged only four. We’ve been working a little with Glenmore, which owned the brand most recently, to see what the original mashbill was like. As long as they have had it, it’s been corn, rye, and malt, but a cousin dropped off an old J.B. Dant day planner a while back that had a wheated recipe circled from around 1935. We’ve been doing some experimental mashbills with the recipe, so we may do some experimental barrels of a wheated bourbon.
Well, thanks for your time, Steve. Limestone Branch may be one of the newer distilleries in Kentucky, but it sure sounds like you’ve got as much of a legacy as anybody. Best of luck!