Monday, August 20, 2012

The Genealogy Of Beam Yeast

The post earlier this month, in which Sam Cecil briefly outlines the careers of the many Beam family distillers, raised a question about the yeast all of those Beams were using, not just at Jim Beam but at Heaven Hill, Four Roses, Yellowstone, Maker's Mark, Barton, Stitzel-Weller, Early Times, and many others.

The specific question: Jim Beam's yeast has a reputation for imparting a 'foxy' taste, a characteristic not associated with any other producer, despite having Beams in their lineage. How come?

Historically, 'yeast making' meant propagating a strain from a wild source. Although the Beams all started from the same place, with the same yeast mash recipe, and were all taught the same organoleptic standards, each distiller in each generation would have made his own subtle adaptations after years of practice, and would have passed his way of doing things on to his son.

I say 'son,' knowing that some Beam family distillers were trained by their grandfathers more than their fathers.

Either way, the genealogy of the yeasts is essentially that of the yeast makers.

David Beam (1802-1852) had three sons who became distillers. If you're a fan of Underworld, think of them as the three sons of Alexander Corvinus.

The youngest, Jack Beam, started Early Times and although his only son followed him into the business, there was no third generation. That line died out. It's unknown if that strain was preserved and passed on to the people who revived Early Times after Prohibition, but it seems unlikely.

The other two were Joseph B. Beam and David M. Beam. Those two traditions split more than 150 years ago, and there have been many other subdivisions since.

Each of them had two distiller sons. Joseph B. had Joseph L. (Joe) and Minor Case, and David M had the famous Jim Beam and his brother, Park.

We know from Booker Noe, Jim Beam's grandson, that the Jim Beam yeast was 'caught' by Jim on his back porch in Bardstown as Prohibition was ending and he prepared to build a new distillery.

When Park's son, Earl, left the Jim Beam Distillery in 1946, he took the Jim Beam yeast with him to Heaven Hill, replacing the Joe Beam yeast Joe's son Harry was then using. Under Earl Beam, Heaven Hill's bourbon had a reputation for being oily, but not 'foxy' like Beam.

I should note that, to me, the 'foxy' yeast characteristic is only noticeable in the white label Jim Beam expression.

It's hard to say what changed at Heaven Hill. It may have been the water. Yeast can change for very subtle reasons -- different water, different atmospheric conditions, different airborne microorganisms, different mash temperature, a different amount of back set, etc. The loss of the 'foxy' characteristic may have been deliberate, or an accidental by-product of different practices in a different place.

In addition to training his sons Joe and Minor Case, Joseph B. Beam may also have trained Will McGill, since he was father-in-law to Joe's wife, who was Will's sister, Katherine.  McGill must have been a good student because he became Pappy Van Winkle's master distiller at Stitzel-Weller after Prohibition.

It is likely that they also learned from Joe's older brother, Minor Case, who was 11 years Joe's senior. Minor had his own distillery at Gethsemane, which made the brand Old Trump, and which eventually merged with the nearby Yellowstone distillery. Joe and Will worked together at many different distilleries during their early careers, including at the Tom Moore distillery, today's Barton.

So the Stitzel-Weller yeast that made its way to Maker's Mark would have originated with Joseph B. Beam and probably went through Minor Case to get to Will McGill, and from him into the hands of Elmo Beam, Joe's firstborn, who would already have been familiar with his father's version.

That Pappy gave the yeast to Bill Samuels Sr. is known, but what Elmo actually used is not, at least not by me. Sam Cecil probably knew, since he followed Elmo at Maker's Mark.

Among his many feats, Joe Beam restarted Four Roses (then in Shively) after Prohibition, and employed some of his seven distiller sons there, as well as some of their sons. Seagram's bought Four Roses during WWII and Roy's son, Charlie, spent most of his career with Seagram's, where he developed the Eagle Rare Bourbon brand before finishing his career at Four Roses in Lawrenceburg.

Minor's son, Guy, was a distiller or master distiller at several different distilleries, including Heaven Hill, Fairfield, and Cummins-Collins. During Prohibition he was a distiller in Canada. Guy had two distiller sons, Burch and Jack. A third son, Walter, who was better known as Toddy, operated a liquor store in downtown Bardstown that still bears his name.

Jack worked for Barton. The two brothers who recently started the micro distillery Limestone Springs in Lebanon are descended from Guy.

Nobody is catching wild yeast these days and if distillers want to tweak their yeast, they do it in the lab, not on a back porch as Jim Beam did.


Ethan Smith said...

Pennco in Schaefferstown, PA used the Beam yeast. Dick Stoll told me that under C. Everett Beam, a tube of yeast was sent up from Jim Beam as needed and was propagated at Pennco into larger batches. After the retirement of Everett, the tube of yeast never returned from Jim Beam and Red Star yeast was used from that point on.

jdl said...

Chuck-can I ask some stupid questions? I thought yeast converted the sugars to alcohol and imparted no taste, then when the alcohol was distilled into a liquid, it had no taste. So do you think that yeast actually adds to the taste of the finished product?

Smithford said...

This post is crying out for a diagram. :)

Chuck Cowdery said...

jdl: yeast eat sugar and produce alcohol along with a lot of flavor. Different yeasts produce different flavors and the same yeast can produce different flavors under different conditions. You may have been thinking about how the spirit is colorless before aging, but it's not flavorless.

Smithford: the diagram you seek is on the Jim Beam website at

Anonymous said...

Don't Scotch distillers use a common industrial yeast? Why is it not important there?

Anonymous said...

I am not a in depth critic as you are but I will offer my opinion and a question regarding Jim Beam.

I personally do not like Jim Beam because it has "corn flake grainy" taste (actually something akin to the underlying flavor in tequilla). It is a preference thing because I am sure a lot of people like that flavor. I have even detected that taste in some wine. Is it the wood? Is it the mash?

Curious your thoughts on it.

Chuck Cowdery said...

American distillers estimate that about 1/4 of the flavor for an American whiskey is from the grain, 1/4 is from the yeast, and 1/2 is from the barrel. The grain would seem to be implicated in a 'corn flake grainy' taste, but it could be a combination of things.

I heard that before, about scotch makers not concerning themselves very much with yeast. Not sure why that is. You'll have to ask them.

Eric said...

Now I'm wondering if there are any Kentucky distilleries that have NEVER had a Beam work there at one point in their history.

M Lange said...

I know that in brewing beer, the two biggest contributors to yeast flavor are fermentation temperature and pitch rate (i.e. the volume of active yeast you are adding to the wort). You can take the same yeast and produce two vastly different beers simply by changing those two factors.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Made a correction to the above today. Charles L. "Charlie" Beam was Roy Beam's son. I mistakenly had him as Jack Beam's son. Charlie, who retired in 1982, died in 2007, and was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2010.