CLERMONT, Ky. — Bourbon fan Tim Allen started his day of sightseeing by sipping whiskeys crafted at a Jim Beam distillery. Where else are prelunch 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.
Hospitality is overflowing in the once-stodgy bourbon industry, with whiskey makers pouring money into tourism.
Allen was visiting Beam’s new $20 million visitor center, which opened this fall. Four Roses, another bourbon-maker, opened a visitor center in September. Distillers Wild Turkey and Heaven Hill plan new attractions.
The facilities are outgrowths of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which attracted 2 million visitors in the last five years and a half-million in 2011. Eighty-five percent of trail visitors are from outside Kentucky, says Eric Gregory of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, reflecting the popularity of the Bluegrass State’s staple spirit.
Beam’s new center, a copy of a 1930s stillhouse, is three times the size of the old tourist center, now a tasting room. Called the Jim Beam American Stillhouse, it traces the roots of the world’s largest bourbon-maker to Jacob Beam, who set up his first still in Kentucky in 1795.
It’s the starting point for an hourlong tour of mashing, distilling, barreling, storing and bottling lines.
“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.
Visitors can peer into fermentation tanks. 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.
Bourbon production has risen more than 115 percent since 1999. Kentucky produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon. The state has more barrels of bourbon aging in warehouses than it does people.
Wild Turkey will open a $4 million visitor center in spring near Lawrenceburg. The center will be nearly eight times larger than the current facility.
Heaven Hill Distilleries, whose brands include Evan Williams bourbon, has a visitor center in Bardstown, but it’s building an attraction in downtown Louisville with a small distillery and exhibits on Kentucky’s whiskey-making tradition. The nearly $10 million attraction will include a five-story-high Evan Williams bottle over the lobby.
Four Roses near Lawrence-burg recently opened a visitor center to promote the 124- year-old brand at its distillery.
Visitors to the Maker’s Mark Distillery near Loretto can dip their bottles in the distinctive red wax topping.
Visit www.americanstill house.com.