Beam, Straight Up

The Book of the Week is “Beam, Straight Up: The Bold Story of the First Family of Bourbon” by Fred Noe, with Jim Kokoris, published in 2012.  This autobigraphical book recounts the history of the brand of Kentucky bourbon known as “Jim Beam” as told by a descendant of the company’s founder.

The drink recipe dates back to the 1790′s, and the family first started selling whiskey in 1795. Bourbon is a kind of whiskey. The name Bourbon was derived from the county name in Kentucky in about 1820.

Whiskey is “a spirit that’s made from a grain like corn, rye, wheat or barley.” A whiskey can be called bourbon only if it is comprised of a minimum of 51% corn, that has been aged a minimum of two years “inside charred, new oak barrels that can only be used once.”

Other varieties of whiskey include scotch (mostly barley), Canadian (mostly rye) and Irish (mostly malted barley). “Thanks to our innovation and our premiumization (upscale brands), bourbon was the fastest-growing large category in the United States in 2011.”

In the early days, the family shipped the bourbon in oak barrels on flatboats via streams and rivers, of which Kentucky likely has more than any other state. In the 1850′s, railroads and steamboats began to serve as additional shipping channels.

The spirit industry had its share of problems through the decades. In the 1920′s, there was Prohibition. Other drinks containing alcohol including vodka, scotch, wine and beer rose in popularity. Even so, competing whiskey-making companies would assist each other when they faced various equipment failures due to disasters.

Noe writes, “Sometimes I think the whole world is like one big bar, and I’m the world’s bartender.”