Top bourbon maker Beam dips into white whiskey

CLERMONT, Ky. — The world’s largest bourbon producer is dipping into moonshining’s colorful past to create its own batches of white whiskey.

Beam Inc.’s newest spirit is called Jacob’s Ghost in honor of Jacob Beam, founding distiller of its flagship Jim Beam brand. Jacob’s Ghost resembles the potent concoction that flowed from the pioneering whiskey-maker’s still in the 1790s or from a moonshiner’s still today.

But this is no run-of-the-mill hooch brewed in the backwoods.

“We have perfected the whiskey recipe that Jacob created,” said Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe, a descendant of Jacob Beam. “Jacob’s Ghost is not a moonshine.”

Jacob’s Ghost, made at Beam’s distillery in Clermont, Ky., is an 80-proof whiskey aged at least one year in a charred, white oak barrel. Moonshine and other white whiskeys generally go right from the still and into the bottle.

Beam says the aging adds flavors from the wood that are missing in unaged whiskies and moonshines. The process also gives the product a faint yellow hue. Bourbon matures in the same type of barrels but for much longer, resulting in its caramel color and smooth, distinctive taste.

Beam, based in Deerfield, Ill., is tapping into a white whiskey category that amounts to a drop in the bucket compared with Kentucky bourbon sales. But white whiskey has started to carve out a niche, thanks to regional craft distillers producing clear whiskey.

And it could lead to some friendly arguments over who churns out the best white whiskey.

Spencer Balentine, who makes a white whiskey at Silver Trail Distillery in far western Kentucky, has sipped Jacob’s Ghost.

“It’s good,” he said. “But it’s not as good as my brand.”

Beam competitor Heaven Hill Distilleries Inc., maker of Evan Williams bourbon, has had its own line of white whiskeys since 2011.

Heaven Hill spokesman Larry Kass said sales have met and in some cases surpassed expectations, but compared with its other brands, white whiskey sales have been modest. Its clear whiskeys are unaged bourbons, rye whiskey and corn whiskey.

Beam started shipping its white whiskey recently, and the product will reach liquor stores and bars nationwide in coming weeks. Beam won’t reveal production levels or sales expectations, but company senior executive Rob Mason said the product has great potential.

“We believe this is going to create significant growth in the white whiskey category,” he said.

Trey Earnhardt, a sales representative for a spirits distributor, said he likes the taste and versatility of Beam’s white whiskey.

“It’s going like crazy out in the market,” he said while visiting the Beam distillery in Clermont on Friday.

Beam plans to back up the introduction with print and digital advertising, Mason said.

Beam’s other bourbon brands include Maker’s Mark and Knob Creek. Its broad portfolio also includes Sauza Tequila, Pinnacle Vodka, Canadian Club Whisky and Teacher’s Scotch Whisky.

The rollout of Jacob’s Ghost is part of an industrywide trend, as spirits-makers introduce new flavors while sparring for shelf space in bars and liquor stores.

“Unique and premium innovations are helping to drive the spirits category,” said Kevin George, Beam’s global chief marketing officer. “One of the growing trends we’ve seen is an interest in white whiskey.”

White whiskey also gives Beam a new twist in the cocktails competition, a key driver of spirits sales amid a resurgence in the popularity of mixable drinks. Beam said its white whiskey is as versatile and mixable as vodka.

White whiskies long operated on the fringes of the spirits world. Last year, white whiskey sales in the U.S. surpassed $7.5 million, up more than 300 percent from the prior year, according to industry figures supplied by Beam.

By contrast, Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey sales from producers to wholesalers rose 5.2 percent to 16.9 million cases last year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, a national trade association. Total revenue shot up 7.3 percent to $2.2 billion.

The industry lumps bourbon and Tennessee whiskey into one category.

Silver Trail Distillery, in the western Kentucky lakes region, can’t make enough white whiskey to keep up with demand, said Balentine, the head distiller. Balentine created his top-of-the-line product, LBL Most Wanted Moonshine, as a tribute to his family’s moonshining tradition.

The recipe for the 100-proof whiskey was his great-grandfather’s. Balentine’s father was a moonshiner in the 1950s, and the distillery is named after the main road his father took to avoid detection.

Balentine said he landed a distributor last fall. Sales last year totaled about 300 cases, but he projects that demand could reach 3,000 cases this year. He’s expanding his distillery to add a mash room that will allow him to produce more than 100 gallons every other day, rather than every week.

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