Inside Jim Beam’s “Liquid Arts Studio,” where food science meets bourbon mythology

A legendary man.
A legendary man.
Image: PRNewsFoto/Beam Suntory)
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When Vietnamese people open a bottle of liquor or soda, they expect to hear a popping sound—like a slightly muted version of a champagne bottle opening. The noise tells them that the liquid is good, and listening for it is part of Vietnamese drinking culture. “The ‘pop’ is important,” a scientist in a white lab coat explains to me while holding a can of Jim Beam Cola, a product that the bourbon whiskey maker has developed for Asian markets and designed to be extra loud when opened.

The scientist is standing in the “Liquid Arts Studio,” part of Beam’s Global Innovation Center, a fifty-seven-thousand-square-foot complex rising out of the rural countryside around Clermont, Kentucky. Two centuries ago, poor farmers in the area converted their surplus grains into whiskey because it didn’t spoil. Today, the farms have been replaced by cubicles decorated with college pennants boasting some of the nation’s most prestigious food science programs: Purdue, Cornell, the University of Georgia. This is where teams of scientists, marketers, and anthropologists study how to best sell Beam’s liquor brands across the globe.

The studio itself is designed to give the company a sense of how its products are judged in any environment. The far end is a replica of a liquor store you might find in the Florida panhandle: utilitarian metal shelves pelted by harsh lighting. The middle of the studio contains the IKEA chairs and Formica countertops of a suburban kitchen. The other end of the room resembles the kind of club that charges cover: sleek chrome, frosted glass, bottles featured as trophies. A scientist standing near a wall panel that controls different lighting styles—fluorescent, incandescent, halogen, neon—begins twisting knobs as the room bursts into kaleidoscopic fireworks. Her white-lab-coated colleagues instantly appear to be participating in some sort of awkward rave.

This portrait of modernity confuses. Bourbon whiskey has long traded on its blue-collar appeal and status as a humble everyman drink—historically, it’s what you drink while ice fishing or arguing about what kind of pickup truck is best for the job. At the Global Innovation Center, the task of managing various cultural perceptions is juggled by people like Adam Graber, who did graduate academic work in fields as various as South Asian languages, cultural anthropology, and soil science before getting an MBA and joining Beam. When I visited, Graber tells me his job is to “combine science plus consumer needs and trends to create the product story.”

This “product story” is arguably the most important part of the bourbon business. Connoisseurs who are proud of their sophisticated palates might have trouble admitting this, but the label on the outside of the bottle is often just as important as the liquid on the inside. Colorful tales of heritage and authenticity are rarely accurate, but they tickle the part of the psyche that’s also responsible for making us reach for our wallets. Bulleit Bourbon first hit store shelves in the 1990s but nevertheless called itself “frontier whiskey” and boasted that the recipe went back to a frontiersman named Augustus Bulleit. The implicit message was that if the brand has been around this long, it has to be good. It was, although the liquid was sourced from an outside supplier (a common industry practice) while former employees of Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach, the ad firm that inspired the TV series Mad Men, helped craft the heritage story. Some whiskey aficionados loathe this sort of historical fudging while others take it in stride. In any case, the romantic mystique helped create the brand’s very real (and modern) success. In 2008, brand founder Tom Bulleit explained the machinations of his business when he told the journalist Fred Minnick, “Bourbon is a lot less about what’s inside the bottle and a lot more about what you tell people.”

Even though the stories rarely match reality, it’s the space in between fact and fiction that’s most interesting. A frontiersman named Jacob Boehm (a name that would later become Americanized into Beam) was making whiskey in Kentucky in 1795, and that date on modern bottles of Jim Beam helps create a valuable sense of heritage, but Jacob certainly wasn’t unique. Thousands of farmers did the exact same thing—distilling allowed them to preserve the value of surplus grain crops, which would have spoiled otherwise, by converting them into whiskey. Besides, most modern drinkers would likely find Jacob’s whiskey unpalatable—back then, most whiskey was little if at all aged in wooden barrels, which greatly improves the flavor. These spirits were also sold as an unbranded bulk commodity, limiting historic producers’ incentive to distinguish their products.

man with whiskey barrels
History meets technology.
Image: Reuters/John Sommers II

As whiskey evolved into an industry during the nineteenth century, later Beam generations also became distillers, but none of their brands or business fully survived Prohibition (and none were ever particularly well-known, although they were typically respected). The modern company that was formed in 1934 by James “Jim” Beam and a trio of Chicago investors was built entirely anew (although it did try to resurrect one old Beam family label called “Old Tub,” but quit after difficulties regaining trademark rights).

The James B. Beam Distillery started small and didn’t earn its first significant recognition until the Cold War—business journalists were impressed by the company’s smart distribution strategies, including getting bottles onto the US military bases mushrooming across the planet. Meanwhile, Beam survived the intense consolidation rounds that defined the whiskey business during the twentieth century. By the year 2000, just eight companies were responsible for approximately 99% of all the bourbon produced in the US. Beam alone was responsible for nearly half of it.

Cold war military bases might have been the true frontier of Beam’s modern success, but the company knew the other frontier story was more marketable. Except when it wasn’t—as the brand attempted to expand overseas in the 1960s, the folksy appeal that bourbon held stateside became a liability in potential new luxury markets, and the product story was thus adapted. The downhome feel of domestic ads (which made one think of bingo night and overalls) was swapped with images of tuxedoed men in coattails. In 1965, Beam’s ability to alter consumers’ status perceptions about the brand earned special praise from the Wall Street Journal for catering to foreigners’ “snob appeal.”

Today, the future of Beam’s continued success is glimpsed within the Global Innovation Center, roamed by the scientists in their white lab coats. These technicians don’t necessarily fit bourbon’s stereotypical image, and the labs are off-limits to most visitors. But herein lies another truth of the beguiling gap between image and reality: science and technology often help make the product better, a point regularly forgotten on a modern foodiescape where nostalgic terms like “heritage” and “heirloom” carry a new kind of marketing power. In the world of whiskey, antiquated pot stills are romanticized over industrial column stills, although the latter are better able to strip certain undesirable proteins from the product (both types of still have unique advantages and neither is “better” than the other—more important than what still technology is used is how the still technology is used).

Or, take as another example distillers’ historic struggle to control the amount of diacetyl allowed into whiskey during the distillation process. Trace amounts of the chemical lend a rich buttery flavor but too much will ruin it. Using computer technology, distillers eventually solved the dilemma and gained greater control of their craft. Nevertheless, this success story is downplayed in favor of marketing that boasts of Ye Olde Ways.

In any case, the whiskey industry’s public denial of technology, while privately embracing it, is just another part of its heritage. The famed bourbon marketer Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle declared “No Chemists Allowed” at his distillery—before the outfit went out of business and had its brands acquired by competitors who would produce them according to their own standards. Ironically, Buffalo Trace, the company that now owns many of those brands, embraces science with its Warehouse X  program and is a common favorite of geeky connoisseurs.

At Beam’s Global Innovation Center, technology is likewise embraced. The floors are crammed with texture analyzers, spectrophotometers, nanophotometers, and ultrasound equipment. It begs the question: how does a cobalt-60 irradiator help create the “product story” described by Graber? In many ways, the equipment actually helps protect the story. One room contains counterfeit bottles of Jim Beam products that were seized in China, the liquor inside resembling tobacco juice. Technicians test these counterfeits for poisonous adulterants so they can alert foreign public health officials and preserve the brand’s reputation. The technology also helps lower costs. Bottle shapes and packaging materials are studied to minimize breakage, while a “pallet transport simulator” helps determine how much rough handling products can endure. A cork extractor evaluates how much pressure it requires to pull a cork, a task that’s harder in warmer temperatures.

Admittedly, not all of this is strictly related to bourbon, the product most responsible for Beam’s success. When the Global Innovation Center opened in 2012, then-CEO Matt Shattock announced that 25% of the company’s annual sales growth would come from new products, including many tailored for overseas markets (the company was purchased by Japan’s Suntory in 2014). Many of the products, like the can of Jim Beam Cola engineered to pop loudly in South Asian markets, would capitalize on the bourbon maker’s powerful brand name. The company’s vice president of global research and development once worked for a rival company on a campaign to develop a “taco-flavored” sports drink for Latin American markets before she was hired away by Beam. When I visited in 2013, another scientist waved a pom-pom of paper test strips containing aromas of lemongrass and lime under my nose—these were for the development of some bourbony mojito concoction. This array of new products reflects Beam’s growth in the last several decades. Before Suntory acquired it in 2014, Beam had likewise acquired many former competitors: Canadian Club, Laphroaig scotch, Courvoisier, Old Overholt, Old Grand-Dad, Maker’s Mark, and a stable of other brands, including tequilas, rums, vodkas, and even the line of Skinnygirl wines started by a reality TV star.

Regardless of Beam’s other brands, bourbon sits at the core of the company’s mystique. Ninety-five percent of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky, and Beam alone is responsible for 50% of it. Today, the company’s public face is Fred Noe, the great-grandson of James “Jim” Beam. His title is “master distiller” and he is in charge of more than a dozen whiskies that the company makes, including all the Jim Beam labels, Knob Creek, Baker’s, Booker’s, Basil Hayden’s, Old Crow, and Old Grand-Dad, among others. Even so, sweating over a mash tub doesn’t usually take precedent over his role as a spokesperson (this is the case for many “master distillers,” a role that often demands comfort with posing for publicity photos: nose buried in a snifter, eyes closed, an expression of serenity across the face). Tellingly, the evening I had dinner with him didn’t happen in the faux-cafeteria of the Liquid Arts Studio. We dined across the company’s complex in the visitor’s center, designed to look like an old barn. Once entered, visitors are encouraged to temporarily adopt the last name “Beam” so they can feel a part of the family. If you walk over to the far wall, you can stand at the roots of a giant family tree. Jacob Boehm is prominent in the top branches, his picture bigger than any of the others even though nobody knows what he actually looked like (the image is a modern rendering).

When Fred talks about the Beam legacy, he strays from the kind of bootstrapping narrative typically heard in American business lore. Modern Beams who inherited their positions deserve credit for the brand’s success. This includes Booker Noe, Fred’s father, who Fred decides to talk about instead of any of the Beam ancients.

Booker died in 2004, and Fred’s voice cracks while remembering a complicated relationship with a father who was stern but caring. Fred’s own story is that of a prodigal son given a second chance—by his own account he was a hellraiser and a late bloomer who chose which college he would attend based on a list of party schools in Playboy. The magazine’s sage advice left him with a GPA of 0.08 before he failed out (“still an NCAA record,” Fred claims). After that, he wandered until Booker finally convinced him to join the company so he could begin the Sisyphean task of breaking in his wayward son.

The story becomes real when Fred admits to the role simple luck played in his good fortune. The sentiments are honest, straying from the approved narrative of American business. But this doesn’t mean they weren’t also part of the sell. On the way back to my hotel, I passed through the gift shop and bought a copy of Beam, Straight Up, an autobiography Fred wrote with the assistance of one of the company’s public relations representatives. Almost verbatim, I read a script of the same details I had just heard in Fred’s cracking voice. Here was a reminder that success in the whiskey industry is the prize for crafting stories of intimacy and authenticity. In the bourbon business, victory goes to whoever tells the story best.