A Beam Family Distilling Legacy Lives On At Limestone Branch Distillery

| September 14, 2020

Beam. It is a name that has deep ties into the history of Kentucky bourbon. One has to go far back to draw the initial lines between the family and this American whiskey category, with one Jacob Beam having sold his first barrel of Old Jake Beam Sour Mash in 1795, which was just a few years after Kentucky had become a state. The heritage of distilling has since passed down from there, through multiple generations and across multiple branches of this fascinating family tree.

Everyone knows Jim Beam, of course, but of his father David Beam’s generation there were two other brothers as well. These Beams carried forth through their lineages involvement in the bourbon industry at various times, and it was this that ultimately came down to the Beams in which we focus this story upon – Steve and Paul Beam, the co-founders of Limestone Branch Distillery and seventh generation Beams.

Limestone, located in Lebanon, Kentucky, was opened by these two Beam brothers back in 2011. The two have worked diligently since then, with the help of Luxco, in putting their spin on bourbon. The flagship offering from them is Yellowstone, a historic American whiskey itself that seems fittingly at home in the hands of two descendants of Kentucky’s bourbon royalty.

In this interview we chat with Steve Beam about his family’s legacy, the Limestone Branch distillery and the Yellowstone label, including the latest Limited Edition release. Note, as always, our interviews are edited for clarity and brevity.

Paul and Steve Beam

Paul and Steve Beam of Limestone Branch (image via Limestone Branch)

The Whiskey Wash (TWW): Let’s talk a little bit first about Limestone Branch, the distillery. Everyone knows you are a Beam because you’ve got the Beam name, so we’ll chat about that in a little bit. I’d like to first know about the distillery you’re at, how it got started, how you got involved with it, those kinds of things. Go ahead and please give me some information on that.

Steve Beam: Sure, well I tell people I grew up around the business, not in the business. I had aunts and uncles, family members who were all heavily involved in the business. Of course, family history was told as well, so it was always of interest to me since I was a young kid fishing in the distillery ponds.

When I graduated college, I really looked into opening a distillery, [but ultimately] shelved that idea and went on with my life. My degree is in landscape architecture. I’ve always been interested in plants. I went ahead with that career, then eventually came back to Kentucky and was in the restaurant business for a little while, and kept looking back into the distilleries.

Around that time, some small distilleries had started to pop up on the radar. Fritz Maytag of San Francisco (Anchor Distilling) and Dry Fly up in Washington State were some of the first that popped up for me, getting me thinking [that] this could be feasible. I started doing research and got involved with the American Distilling Institute, with Bill Owens. We opened the distillery with my brother and other family members.

We started out with our moonshine, a clear spirit, to keep the doors open, and always had been back a little bit of bourbon. It had always been one of my dreams or goals to get one of the family brands back. We couldn’t use our own name to bring back one of the family brands back into the mix. That’s how we got involved with Luxco, who were the owners of Yellowstone.

Yellowstone was the family bourbon at my house. My aunt worked there, so we always had Yellowstone around. It was exciting to be able to bring that. That happened more quickly than I thought it would, within the first three years that we were open, three full years. We partnered with Luxco to bring that Yellowstone brand to Limestone Branch. That’s been our main brand since.

TWW: With Yellowstone, talk a little bit about the history of that particular brand and why it’s important to you.

Beam: Yellowstone was founded actually by members of my mother’s family. My mother comes from the line of J.W. Dant. J.W. Dant was another pioneer distiller. He started a little bit later than Jacob Beam. J.W. Dant started in 1836. His oldest son, J. Bernard Dant, started the distillery. It was called Cold Spring in Gethsemani, Kentucky. He was selling to a distributor, Taylor and Williams. Taylor and Williams sold their whiskey around the country. Bernard started out making some and then eventually he made all their whiskey.

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They had a salesman who was out West. His name was Charles Townsend. He actually knew the guy. He came back and he was all excited about this new first national park, and convinced them to name a bourbon after it. So, it was branded in 1872, and it has been on the shelf ever since. It even went through prohibition. You could get a prescription for Yellowstone. It was actually licensed through Brown-Forman during prohibition. It was actually the best selling bourbon in Kentucky in the 1960s and 70s. It has a storied past.

Then, it was sold from the Dant family to the Thompson family. They had it up until the early 90s, and they sold it to United Distillers. Shortly after that, United merged with Guinness and became Diageo. Diageo decided they didn’t want to be in the bourbon business and shut the distillery down and sold off the brands. That’s when Luxco acquired the Yellowstone brand, so then it went with Luxco.

In the early 90s until 2015, it was not a distillery. The brand was there, but there was no distillery. Then, after 2015, we started distilling again.

TWW: What made you decide you wanted to open a distillery versus just being a non-distilling producer?

Beam: That was my personal goal from the beginning. I didn’t want to be a brand owner. I wanted to be a distiller. That’s what my family history was and my heritage, so I actually wanted to be a distiller and have a distillery because that was lost on my generation. My father was in the industry briefly and then moved on. It was not available to me, so it was something that I wanted to reestablish for our family and our side of the Beams.

A lot of people don’t realize there’s actually three different branches in the Beam family that come from Jacob. His grandsons, all three grandsons that had distilleries, were David and Jack and Joseph. David was Jim Beam’s father, and of course that line went on to become Jim Beam. Jack had Early Times, and he also had just one son. They both died within a year of each other. 

Then, our ancestor was Joseph, who bought his father’s still and ran that as his distillery. Those were the three different branches. All but two had gone by the wayside, as far as distillery ownership, after prohibition. Minor Case died just after prohibition. My grandfather and his uncle Joe L. Beam, Minor Case’s younger brother, were responsible for really getting many of the distilleries in Kentucky back up and running again after prohibition. 

TWW: It was in late 2015 that the Yellowstone brand began a climb. It had become, prior to that, what we call maybe a bargain whiskey. Now it’s much more of a premium offering today. What was the thinking behind that at the time?

Beam: It was certainly since we were, as a small distillery, very interested in a well-crafted whiskey. While we are purchasing barrels from Luxco stocks, that allow us to put out some aged whiskey before ours is aged enough. It is still blended, and there is an art in that as well. It was just important for me to put out a quality product.

TWW: In 2017 you guys, for the first time in the Yellowstone release, mixed in some of your own distillate. Talk a little bit what that felt like being able to add some of your own product the first time. Is that something you guys have continued to do in the same amount each year, or are you slowly blending in more of your own product?

Beam: That’s in the Limited Edition, that is the first year that we had done that in the Limited Edition. We started in the Yellowstone Select as well. It was just important to start the process of switching to our distillate. We produce so little – we just produced about a barrel a day up until a year or so ago. Now, we produce two barrels a day and we’re getting ready to increase our production again. The Yellowstone Select will be a blended product of ours and source barrels for quite some time.

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It’s important to be able to be part of that product, just a little bit of our DNA into that bottle. Soon we’ll be having our bottled-in-bond, it’s going to be a six year bottled-in-bond. That’s why it’s taking a little bit longer, but we’ll do a six year bottled-in-bond and of course that will be ours.

TWW: Yellowstone has Select and Limited Edition. Talk a little bit about the differences between the two variants you have in your lineup.

Beam: Yellowstone Select is our flagship. It’s our bourbon that’s out in every state and available year round. It’s a blend of four year and seven year. Of course, that’s a blend of ours and Luxco. To me, it’s a quintessential Kentucky bourbon. From the four year, you get a little bit of the grain notes that come through and a little bit of coarseness that actually helps it stand up really nicely in a cocktail.

Then, the seven year really adds to the complexity and to that finish that I like. You get lighter notes of the barrel, caramels and vanillas. To me, when I do the nose on that, which follows through very nicely on the palate, there’s not a disconnect. Sometimes there’s a disconnect with whiskeys. It brings back a lot of memories to me. Like I said, I blend to what I like and that’s a bourbon that I liked.

Our Limited Edition, we put out each year just a smaller amount of barrels, so it’s not as widely distributed. It allows me creativity. That’s where I can just do whatever comes into my mind that I like. Each year is a different expression, and no two years will be the same.

TWW: Which comes to now, your 2020 release, which has both gone through a packaging redesign and also takes a rather interesting deviation in that you’ve finished it in French Armagnac barrels. Talk a little bit about this specific release and why you guys decided to go with the French brandy barrels for finishing.

2020 Yellowstone Limited Edition Kentucky Straight Bourbon

2020 Yellowstone Limited Edition Kentucky Straight Bourbon (image via Limestone Branch Distillery)

Beam: First of all, I like Armagnac, so that helps a lot. When we were looking to do a product this year that would be finished, we did research on the kind of cask and I thought that the Armagnac would blend really nicely with the barrels that we had selected. That’s how we ended up with the Armagnac.

I don’t want to overpower the bourbon. I want things to compliment the flavors that are in the bourbon, compliment and enhance. I wouldn’t want it to be just all about the Armagnac. I really want it to be about the bourbon with subtleties from the Armagnac that help round out that bourbon.

TWW: We’ve seen, in the last year or two, a few other distilleries sourcing Armagnac barrels for finishing their bourbon. We know Armagnac barrels are generally hard to source. Talk a little bit about what you went through to get the barrels you have for this particular product.

Beam: That is where having a larger partner comes in quite handy because they have the resources and people available to help through that process. It was not as difficult certainly as it would have been if I’d have been by myself. We were able to choose from a variety and were able to get the ones that we wanted, so it worked out real well.

TWW: Having added the bourbon to the Armagnac cask, how long was it finished in them for, and what did you find it did to the flavor profile to get it to the point where you thought it was ready to bottle?

Beam: It was about four months or so, and it added some different flavor notes. One of the notes that I found interesting is it added a honeydew melon flavor in the mid palate, which I found really unusual.

TWW: Changing gears – with the heritage that you have in your family and by your name, talk a little bit about what it’s like living with that. How does it look when you get together with other folks in your family? Do you guys sit and talk about distilling the whole time or do you just act like a normal family, and that goes by the wayside? What is it like?

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We’ve seen over the years these things about a Beam family reunion. One has to imagine that’s quite a party, so just talk a little bit about what it’s like to be a Beam.

Beam: The reunion has been going on for over 50 years, since the 40s. Anyway, it’s been going on, it’s a yearly event, been held all around Kentucky. Now, there’s not as many Beams in the business, actually distilling, so it’s more talking about the family history and the ones who were. There are some that are in the business and we talk.

For example, there’s my cousin Betty Joe, who’s the barrel rolling champion. Then, there’s Ben, now, who’s over at Michter’s. It’s nice to see some of the other family members getting back into it as well. It’s a great time. If you get that many Beams together, it’s a good time.

I do remember, I was fortunate enough to talk to Buddy Thompson about a year before he passed away. He said, “Everybody talked about having trade secrets, and secrets about that.” He said, “How many Beams would get together at Thanksgiving,” and he said, “There weren’t any trade secrets in the bourbon business.” That was back when my Uncle Joe, his seven sons, were over in all the distilleries and helping. 

TWW: Thinking for a moment about your family and how you guys do distilling. You do have a rather unique story about your yeast strain. Can you talk a little bit about that for a moment?

Beam: When we started distilling, I thought it would be great if we could get our family yeast strain. Well, the yeast jug that my grandfather and great grandfather had used was in the Oscar Getz Whiskey Museum in Bardstown. My uncle had donated it there. That sat there from the 80s up until we opened. It had been over 40 years sitting there on the shelf in the Oscar Getz.

They loaned it to us so that we could display it at the distillery. I got to thinking that what would be the possibility of getting a yeast out of that jug? We did some extraction and we sent it to a yeast lab out in California. They were unsuccessful.

Then, about a year later, we were talking to the guys over at Wilderness Trail. They said, “Let us try.” Pat and Shane took it over. They worked on it and they weren’t able to get the live yeast, which we had hoped. But, they were able to get the DNA from a yeast strain that was in there. That yeast strain was a bourbon yeast strain, so we were able to follow that. We now have that same DNA, that same yeast strain, that was in our grandfather’s yeast jug. That was really exciting to be able to use that same yeast.

TWW: Thinking back, what was in the jug when you guys opened it?

Beam: It was completely empty. They had to scrape the sides. I’m just glad that no one had scrubbed it out with bleach or something.

TWW: What else can you say of your family’s connections to what you do now?

Beam: Well, we follow my grandfather’s recipes and instructions. I have that written down. We follow that. We use an heirloom corn. I know that’s in vogue now, but when we first started we were using heirloom corn and then, the yeast strain. We can’t reproduce what my grandfather did. I can’t reproduce what Yellowstone was. I don’t want to try.

I just want to try to make a really, really good bourbon whiskey and be true to our roots. I feel like right now I’m one of the many stewards through the years of the Yellowstone brand, so I just want to make sure…that I keep it true and produce a really quality product, something that I can be proud of, and something that people can enjoy drinking, and know that it comes from the heart, it comes from the heritage that I had that I’d like to share with people.


Nino Kilgore-Marchetti

Nino Kilgore-Marchetti is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Whiskey Wash, an award winning whiskey lifestyle website dedicated to informing and entertaining consumers about whisk(e)y on a global level. As a whisk(e)y journalist, expert and judge he has written about the subject extensively, been interviewed in various media outlets and...