CLERMONT — 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.
"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."
Made at Beam's distillery in Clermont, Jacob's Ghost 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, 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.
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.
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.
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 United States surpassed $7.5 million, up more than 300 percent from the previous 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.