A Beam Who Makes Gin — Well, Bourbon, Too
Steve Beam, 63, a seventh-generation descendant of the Jim Beam founder, is finding his niche in the spirits industry with Limestone Branch Distillery in Kentucky
:: Tom Bedell
Kentucky became the 15th U.S. state on June 1, 1792, the first west of the Appalachian Mountains. Three years later, Jacob Beam distilled his first whiskey in the state. His three oldest sons continued in the bourbon trade, as did his grandson, Jim. We know how that worked out.
Less well known today is J.W. Dant, an important Kentucky distiller who started rolling out his barrels in 1836, not to mention a septet of sons, all of whom took up the family trade.
Without getting lost in a mash of genealogy, suffice it to say that a seventh-generation descendant of the Beam patriarch is involved in the bourbon trade today — Steve Beam established the Limestone Branch Distillery with his brother, Paul, in 2011. And if the Beam connection wasn’t enough, the brothers are also descendants of J.W. Dant, from their mother’s side.
One of J.W.’s sons, J.B. Dant, distilled a brand called Yellowstone to commemorate the 1872 opening of the national park. Despite changing corporate hands any number of times, the brand still exists today, and it’s back in family hands, so to speak, being distilled at Limestone Branch.
Born and raised in Lebanon, Kentucky, not far from where Limestone Branch is today, the brothers grew up with all sorts of relatives active in the business of bourbon. And while Steve Beam always had a hankering to do the same, it didn’t pan out, at least at first.
Nor did either brother take up golf, though their father spent every Saturday and Sunday at the Woodhaven Country Club in Louisville — where the annual member-guest tournament is called The Battle for Barrel, and the winners naturally take home a small barrel of bourbon.
“I never caught the bug,” Steve Beam says. “I spent my time playing tennis, swimming in the pool and fishing in the lakes there.” He never designed a golf course, either, even though he graduated from Purdue University with a degree in landscape architecture.
That skill he turned into a residential design and build company in Atlanta and later in Miami. But around 2000, his parents aging, Beam decided to move back to Kentucky and join his brother Paul in the restaurant business for 10 years, mainly Italian and pizza venues.
Steve Beam is only half-joking when he says, “I had a lot of experience with yeast at that time.” And his never-abandoned idea of designing his own whiskies took firmer hold.
“There weren’t really any craft distilleries to speak of then. All the laws and regulations were geared toward the big distilleries. But I started looking into it, seeing what craft beer had done. And eventually some small distilleries — Dry Fly in Spokane, Washington, and Anchor Distilling in San Francisco — put it more firmly on my radar.
“One barrier in the ‘80s was recognition and advertising, then limited to print in national publications, which was prohibitively expensive. It was a real barrier to entry. The internet made things easier, a great leveler for all small business. That was a major thing.”
Other than what he’d picked up from relatives, Steve Beam didn’t really know much about the business or about distilling, but he read every book he could find on the craft, visited some small distilleries, and joined the American Distillery Institute in 2000, a budding group of craft distilleries.
“I knew from the beginning I wanted a rural distillery and I wanted to be in the area of Kentucky where our family originated,” he says. “So we went looking, and Marion County embraced us. It was a great partnership right from the beginning. It’s right in the center of the state just south of Bardstown, where Maker’s Mark is.
“We started out small on a tight budget. We built it from the ground up; I designed and cobbled together most of the original equipment myself. Our first release was a white moonshine and corn whiskey in 2012, since moonshine was then having a moment.”
Ten years later the company is in partnership with MGP Ingredients of Kansas, Paul is no longer involved, but Steve Beam, turning 64 in February, is busily jetting around the country promoting the company’s varied line of Yellowstone and Minor Case whiskies at tastings in bars and restaurants. (Minor Case Beam was Jim Beam’s nephew, and Steve and Paul Beam’s grandfather.)
Steve Beam is also touting another passion project, Bowling & Burch Gin.
The Bowlings and the Burches come from another branch of the Beam family, emigres to the eastern U.S. from England in the 1600s, whom Steve Beam credits with his life-long fascination with plants: “I had my first greenhouse when I was 12. My grandmother piqued my interest. She had big gardens, loaded with exotic plants.”
When it came time to plan Limestone Branch, Beam says, “I wanted it to be like a botanical garden, with lots of different plants.” By nature a tinkerer, it was a natural progression for Beam to start using the plants in distilling. That led to the gin.
There was a big launch of Bowling & Burch in Manhattan in 2020. “Not the best time to launch a brand, since within about four weeks everything was shut down,” Beam says. “But it caught on, and now we’re doubling down, refocusing and relaunching it.” It certainly caught on with the judges at the 2022 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, who awarded the gin a gold medal.
Like all gins, juniper is the prime flavor ingredient in Bowling & Burch. Then the tinkering begins. Beam says, “There are 19 different botanical elements blended into the gin, some of which we grow on site and collect for use — like black cherry, blackberry, mulberry, honeysuckle. We grow a representative of all the botanicals, and we’ll take some of that, but it’s just a small percentage. Mainly it’s just a gin garden so visitors can see what licorice, for example, looks like when it grows.”
And while Steve Beam won’t name all of the botanicals involved, he also lets on to hibiscus, bitter orange, rosemary, coriander, lemon grass and lemon verbena, among others.
“We do it in a London dry fashion, though I like to call it a New World gin,” he says. “We don’t macerate anything. All the botanical components are placed in baskets inside the still and infused into the gin by vapors rising through the distillation column. A lower basket contains the heavier components—the juniper and the regular citrus ingredients. A higher basket contains the lighter notes. It all makes for an evolution of flavors on your palate, starting from very floral to citrus and then onto juniper.”
At 96 it’s a relatively high proof, yet it has delicate qualities that Steve Beam believes are best appreciated neat, or with just a touch of seltzer or tonic, or in a classic martini.
Beam tinkered with the recipe for about two and a half years, until he knew he had what he wanted: “Gin is a means for self-expression in real time. Whiskey takes years; with gin you’re tasting what you’re creating right off the still.
The Limestone Branch Distillery is located in Lebanon, Kentucky, and open for tours — and instantly gratifying tastings — seven days a week. It’s also one of 18 distilleries along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail for those looking to soak up more of the state spirit.
Mother of Dragons
An unexpected pairing of green tea, coconut, and lemon results in the ideal patio sipper.
2 ounces Bowling & Burch New World Gin
1 ounce green tea syrup (recipe below)
1 ounce coconut water
.75 ounce lemon juice
Lemon twist for garnish
Green tea syrup: Bring 2 green tea bags, 12 ounces of water, and 12 ounces of sugar to a boil in a saucepan.
Add all ingredients to a cocktail tin filled with ice. Shake and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Photos: Limestone Branch Distillery