Spirited efforts: Jim Beam lab mixes up new flavors of bourbon

jpatton1@herald-leader.comJuly 8, 2013 

Guests at the Beam Global Innovation Center, from left, mixologist Tony Devencenzi, journalists Carey Jones and Jason Rowan and Alex Abraham of Edelman Public Relations, created various flavored bourbons to try during a tour of the Clermont facility June 17.

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CLERMONT — Right now, inside the Beam Global Innovation Center, someone is probably doing something crazy with bourbon.

The catch: they have to taste what they come up with.

That's right, the researchers don't just get to drink on the job, they actually are paid to do it.

Two times a day, panels of tasters slip into a room to sample the latest rounds and give their opinions, said Eric Schuetzler, a Beam innovator who gave a few journalists and bartenders a peek inside Beam's new research and development facility, which handles everything from flavored bourbon to Skinnygirl Cocktails.

It is much harder than it sounds to come up with something drinkable. Schuetzler let the group try mixing flavors with alcohol. Think sage and truffle whiskey sounds interesting? Well, turns out, that is a great way to ruin perfectly good bourbon.

The GIC, as Beam calls it, actually does a lot more than taste new flavored liquors. Everything from the labels to the bottles to the manufacturing process gets a test run there.

About 100 people work at the facility, built along with the American Stillhouse visitors' center for combined $30 million; the GIC opened in late 2012 and consolidated research and development for a variety of Beam brands in Kentucky.

"Every product we create is highly regulated and every step has to pass government review, often in multiple countries," Schuetzler said.

On a recent visit, the place smelled like cupcakes. Why?

Beam just released its strawberry-shortcake flavored Pinnacle Vodka, Schuetzler said. Maybe that was it ... or maybe another secret formula in the making.

Once the tasters have something that seems like a winner, the recipe and process to produce it have to be approved by the government, along with what will go on the outside of the bottle.

Sometimes what is called "apple" flavor in one country can't be called apple in another, so back to the tasting panel to find a suitable substitute.

Say you want to try adding a twist of lime, a popular addition these days. OK, which lime?

"There are dozens of limes around the world," Schuetzler said. "What part of the lime? The inside? The pithy white part? The zest? The oil? Fresh lime? Older, drier lime? Bright lime? Dark lime?"

And on and on.

No wonder they can only taste twice a day; before long, your taste buds would be awash in lime, not to mention alcohol.

Tasting is subjective but there is a more scientific side to things. The analytical lab develops objective specifications and checks for counterfeiting.

Occasionally, a strange sample of Jim Beam will surface, perhaps in Eastern Europe, where markets and lines of distribution are still being established.

"Sometimes it is Jim Beam with water and caramel, or Jim Beam and vodka and coloring," Schuetzler said. "Sometimes it has nothing to do with Jim Beam. We're very proactive about that."

In the "Liquid Arts Studio," potential bottles are tested in both bar and store settings. How does it look against blue light? Green? Does the bottle shape help it stand out on the store shelf?

In some areas, things get can get rough. There is a lot more to packaging than spark ly labels and cool fonts. Bottles have to be robust enough to withstand use in bars, where they might hit other bottles repeatedly.

They also have to fit into existing facilities: change the shape and your product may not fit into the bar's well. Suddenly, sales could drop for no other discernible reason.

The smallest changes can have big impact.

"We learned a valuable lesson when we went to a screw cap on Knob Creek," said Beam master distiller Fred Noe of one of their premium bourbons. "The customer didn't like it. The customer will tell you if you're right or wrong."

Turns out they liked the ritual pull, the sound of cork popping out. Beam put the cork back.

In the process R&D lab, they make small batches. But Beam also has a small-scale distillery that can make one barrel a day. Because what works well in the lab might not work in the 45,000-gallon batches the big distillery turns out.

Take Jim Beam Devil's Cut, a bourbon so deeply woody it almost seems charcoal-steeped.

"Barrel whiskey," Noe said they call it around Bardstown, where there just happen to be lots of empty bourbon barrels.

Noe said he learned this trick as a teenager from an old distillery hand: take a recently dumped barrel (his father, Booker, used to have them sent straight to the house for his wine), put a little water in it and roll it out to a sunny spot for a few hours. Pop the bung and out will pour whiskey.

"You'll see it around. People have jars of it, dark as motor oil," Noe said. But, boy, will it give you a headache, he said — from experience, it seems.

That story was the germ of the idea for Devil's Cut, which Beam introduced last year, Noe said.

All Jim Beam bourbon has to be watered down a bit from cask strength to bottle proof. For Devil's Cut, instead of using plain water, they use barrel whiskey.

Beam's R&D gurus came up with this process to scale up Noe's teenage experience: they put a little water in a dumped barrel and shake it on what looks like a giant paint can shaker.

Noe recently had them working on another idea: special finishes for the new Jim Beam Signature Craft 12-year-old bourbon, coming out in August. The first special edition will be finished with rare Spanish brandy.

"We're going to have a spin-off every year with a different finish," Noe said.

So when he gets a message from the GIC to come join a tasting panel, Noe said, "I go. Because it's going to be something good."

Janet Patton: (859) 231-2364. Twitter: janetpattonhl

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