On the Whiskey Trail!

by | Destinations, USA | 15 comments

Do you know the difference between Scottish malt whisky and American whiskey? Do you know what makes a bourbon a bourbon? Read on and all will be revealed!

Having lived in Scotland for many years and having toured many of the Scottish whisky distilleries (see On the Whisky Trail), when we were in Kentucky and Tennessee recently, it seemed reasonable that we should check out the US versions of the amber nectar.

The Jim Beam American Stillhouse

Standing outside the Jim Beam whiskey distillery

The Jim Beam Distillery is in Clermont, Kentucky, not far from Louisville. Members of the same family have been involved in making bourbon at this distillery for seven generations, although it is now owned by a Japanese company. We approached the distillery via a long, winding driveway through well manicured gardens, reminiscent of visiting many of the Scottish distilleries which are also situated in beautiful parkland. One immediate difference, however, is the tall, industrial-scale barrel warehouses that feature in the landscape – rather different from the single storey warehouses that are the norm in Scottish distilleries. (I think the industrial scale ones are hidden away elsewhere!)

Statue of Jim Beam outside the distillery

Barrel warehouse in the background. Jim Beam statue in the foreground.

The Jim Beam visitor centre is well presented and the tour, at $14 is excellent value. It lasted about 90 minutes and took in all the different process areas with a very knowledgeable guide. It included a tasting of 3 whiskeys at the end and visitors were allowed to select which whiskeys they wanted to sample. The entry fee also allowed for the glass to be taken away as a souvenir.

The tour actually commenced with a fully-operational smaller version of the entire whiskey-making process so that the guide could explain the different stages clearly and audibly before we moved on to the large scale operation, which produces millions of gallons of whiskey each year.

Flow chart for making Jim Beam whiskey

Flow chart showing the whiskey making process.

Model of whiskey distillation in the Jim Beam Distillery

Part of the working model

The tour was very hands on. We got to sniff inside the fermentation tuns (be careful here! It is wickedly  pungent and although the guide warned us, it just about knocked me over) and to taste the new spirit from our fingers, poured out from the barrel by the guide.

Fermentation tuns in the Jim Beam Distillery

The fermentation tuns


A barrel of new spirit at Jim Beam

New spirit into which we dipped our fingers!

An added attraction is that there is an option to bottle your own whiskey! They charge exactly the same in the shop for the bottle of bourbon, but you have selected the bottle, washed it in bourbon, watched it through the filling process and then sealed it in wax with your own thumb print. Cool! For an additional fee, you can have the bottle engraved. Peter did this. The bottle reads: ”Peter’s whiskey – Hands off.”

Bottling plant at the Jim Beam Distillery

Jim Beam has this smaller, artisan bottling operation as well as a much larger industrial section next door

Bottles being filled in Jim Beam

Filling the bottles. One of those is Peter’s!

This was a really interesting and detailed tour in which we learned a great deal about the whiskey making process. The guide was excellent and explained the differences between whisky and whiskey  very clearly, as well as defining what makes a bourbon a bourbon and not just a whiskey.  I have summarised this in the conclusion below.

Statue of Jim Beam outside the distillery

Colonel James B. Beam

Outiside Jim Beam with purchases

Jack Daniel’s Distillery

Standing outside Jack Daniel's whiskey distillery in K

The Jack Daniel Distillery, Tennessee

A few days after visiting the Jim Beam Distillery, our road trip took us to Lynchburg  in Tennessee and Jack Daniel’s Distillery. There were a variety of tours to choose from. We went on the Angel’s Share tour. It cost $25, lasted about 90 mins, included a tasting of 5 different whiskeys and a souvenir glass. This was another very well organised and well presented tour. The tour guide, a local guy and a bit of a comedian, was informative, knowledgeable and entertaining.

The first part of the tour was outdoors. We visited the area where the charcoal is made for the “mellowing” process and then the place where the water for the whiskey comes down from the spring.

Sugar Maple piled up read to use

Sugar maple ready to be turned into charcoal

This spring is the reason Jack Daniel set up his still here. We also went into the building which Jack Daniel used as his office and where he eventually suffered the injury which resulted in his death: arriving at work early, he was unable to access the safe which his nephew usually opened. In frustration, he kicked it, broke his toe and refusing to seek medical assistance, contracted gangrene. Several amputations failed to save his life. The moral of the story (according to our guide) is “Don’t go to work early: it will kill you!”

Peter standing with statue of Jack Daniel

Jack Daniel outside his office. He was actually quite a diminutive figure in real life, but cultivated a certain image in his dress – and, of course, that moustache!

The Jack Daniel Distillery also has its very own fire brigade:

Two vintage looking fire engines

Jack Daniel’s fire brigade

We went then went into the production area and although it was access all areas, photos were not allowed here because of the fire risk. The process of making Jack Daniel’s whiskey is basically the same as it is the world over: the grains are heated up and the enzymes in the malted barley break down the starch to release the sugars; the yeast is added; fermentation takes place; the resulting liquid is distilled in copper stills. Jack Daniel’s whiskey is only distilled once but the main difference is that there is an additional process of “mellowing”, formerly called “leeching” (you can understand why they changed the name!). Mellowing involves running the distilled whiskey through several feet of charcoal made from sugar maple to take out any impurities and to pick up more flavour. This is the main reason why Jack Daniel’s whiskey is a whiskey, not a bourbon. Following this, the whiskey is matured in charred American oak barrels (only used once as is the norm in America) for a minimum of four years.

In the barrel warehouse at Jack Danuek's

In the barrel warehouse

Jack Daniel’s Distillery is also very proud of the fact that they make all their own barrels, the only distillery to do so. There was a short video showing the coopers at work and outlining the process of barrel making. We saw this process live when we visited the Speyside Cooperage in Scotland (see On the Whisky Trail).

Following the tour, we headed to the tasting room which is  in one of the barrel houses. It is beautiful. We were led through the tasting. I think this is always helpful, unless you are an expert, which I am not.

In the tasting room at Jack Daniel's

First to arrive in the tasting room

Whiskey samples all set out for tasting

In the Jack Daniel's tasting room

Back to school!

All in all, this was a very interesting tour and included several different features which we had not seen before.

So what are the differences between Scottish Malt Whisky and American Whiskey? And what makes a bourbon a bourbon?

What became clear in these visits is that the process for making Scottish malt and American bourbon is essentially the same: the grain is heated up in mash tubs; yeast is added and fermentation takes place; the resulting alcohol is double distilled; the new spirit is matured in barrels from which it takes flavour and colour.

But there are differences. The grains which go into making the mash are different in every distillery and the process always differs slightly, but for American bourbon to be bourbon, a minimum of 51% must be corn; for bourbon to be bourbon, it must be produced completely in the US and it must be put into barrels when it is no more than 125 proof; nothing can be added to the spirit for it to be a true bourbon; bourbon must also be matured in a brand new barrel, which has been charred ( – Scottish malt is almost always matured in a barrel which has been used before  – for bourbon, sherry, port, red wine….. and from which it takes additional flavour and colour). The difference in climate between Scotland and the southern states of the US also accounts for certain differences in the whiskey maturing process. As it is much warmer in Kentucky and Tennessee in the summer, the “angel’s share” is rather more here than in Scotland. American whiskey (and bourbon) is rarely matured beyond 8 years as the angel’s share would be rather expensive. In Scotland, whiskies are often matured for 25 years.

These are the main differences as I understand them, but it is also worth noting that the process is visually different: Scottish malt whisky is distilled in beautiful copper “pot stills” in batches, whereas American whiskey is distilled in “column stills”, which run continuously and look rather more industrial.

One final point: all bourbons are whiskeys, but not all whiskeys are bourbons. The minute anything is added to the spirit, it ceases to be a bourbon.

The visits to Jack Daniel’s Distillery and the Jim Beam Distillery were both really interesting and informative. We learned a lot and would definitely recommend.

Related Posts

If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in:

On the Whisky Trail   


On the Whisky Trail – again!


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  1. ???? great wee film The Angel’s Share!

  2. What a fun experience! Can you taste the difference between a Jack Daniel out of the barrel vs. the bottle? It seemed like a fun tour!

    • I don’t think there is much difference between whiskey out of the bottle and out of the barrel if the spirit has been bottled from that particular barrel. Most of the flavour comes from the barrel so it does not change much once bottled. I can usually tell the difference between different barrels, but I’m no expert. Yes, it was an entertaining tour!

  3. I am fascinated by the lengthy process by which alcohol is made. I did not know much about whiskey and bourbon. I definitely didn’t know that all bourbons are whiskeys! Thanks for all the info! I need to up my drinking game in the whiskey/ bourbon department!

    • It is such an interesting subject. I am not really a big whisky drinker, but love visiting the distilleries.

  4. We took the Jack Daniels tour a while back and really enjoyed it. I would love to bottle my own bottle of Whiskey at Jim Beam. Although, I am a bit of a drinking Philistine so I know that I like blends better than single malts. Still, bottling your own bottle would be really cool.

    • Nothing wrong with blends! I like them too. I also add water sometimes.

  5. This is the first time I’ve heard about bourbon being a whiskey. I laughed at the moral lesson of Jack Daniel’s story. I’ll keep that in mind. 🙂

    • Yes, we laughed too!

  6. Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam … all good, but now you need to up the whiskey game and try Makers Mark and Woodford Reserve … to get you really started staggering down the trail. 😉

    • We will probably check these out, but I must admit, I prefer Scotch! Have staggered round quite a few of the Scottish distilleries….

  7. What a cool tour this would be. Even though I don’t drink whiskey, I think learning about the process and seeing it in action would be fascinating. I bet the tasting part was fun!

  8. You did an excellent job of explaining the difference in the two. Thanks for that. After touring about 100 distilleries over the past 4 years, I get it but know it is still so confusing to most. I really like that “pungent” smell as you described it. Yes, its pretty nasty, but it is something “live” and for some odd reason I dig it. LOL Looks like a fun trip. 😉

    • Wow! A hundred distilleries! I thought we were doing well. We have visited about 30 in Scotland, but only these two in the US…..so far!

  9. This sounds like a great tour and even though I don’t drink whiskey any more I’d love to go on the tour and learn all about it. I had no idea about the mellowing process. I can see why they changed the name too, leeching just doesn’t sound appealing. 🙂


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Hello!  I’m Jane. I live in the Lake District in the north of England with my husband, Peter. We love to travel, but this is a great place to call home.

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