Monday, August 1, 2016
"Rubba Dub Dub, Make Mine Old Tub"
The bourbon pictured above is only sold at the Jim Beam Distillery in Kentucky. The whiskey itself is nothing special, just one more iteration of Jim Beam. Its significance is historical.
Beam family lore has it that Jacob Beam sold his first barrel of whiskey in Kentucky in 1795. The event isn't documented but it is consistent with the overall history of the family, so it is probably close to right.
The end of the American Revolution triggered a large influx of settlers into Kentucky and other western lands. Originally part of Virginia, Kentucky grew fast and became a state in 1792. The Beams (then Boehms) came west with a large group of Catholics from Maryland, who all settled in what are now Marion, Washington, and Nelson Counties. Even though the Boehms/Beams were Mennonites, they had attached themselves to some Catholic relatives in Maryland and came west with the Maryland tide.
Many Kentucky settlers brought stills with them. The distillation of spirits was a common farm activity, like baking bread or curing hams. Distilled spirits also became a form of currency. In those early days most of the business was local. If you bought whiskey you usually bought it directly from the person who made it.
Throughout the 19th century there was a slow evolution from farmer-distillers to commercial distillers, but it took a convergence of factors to turn it into an industry. They included the Civil War, the development of steam-powered boats and trains, the settlement of the West, and the conversion from pot to column stills. Suddenly distillers in Kentucky and adjacent states were supplying the whole country with bourbon and rye whiskey, which led to the development of something else.
In 1892, Jacob's grandson, David M. Beam, transferred the family distillery to his sons James and Park, and his son-in-law Albert Hart. They called their company Beam & Hart but gave their distillery the name of their best-selling brand, Old Tub Bourbon.
As whiskey marketers are wont to do, these newly large scale commercial distillers tried to cast themselves as old-timey. Jack Beam, an uncle to Jim, Park, and Al, called his brand (and distillery) 'Early Times' and used terms like 'hand made' and 'old fire copper' to suggest timeless craftsmanship. His nephews' 'Old Tub' was a reference to the wooden tubs in which mash was cooked, laboriously stirred by hand. Historic Old Tub labels show the mash being stirred by a dark-skinned worker, possibly a slave. The modern version just shows the tub.
That same management team was still in place 28 years later when Prohibition struck. The Beams, like most distillers, had whiskey in their warehouses that they could sell only to pharmaceutical companies bearing the proper permits. It was understood if not explicitly spelled out via contract that the pharmaceutical companies could sell the whiskey so obtained under its original brand name.
The distilleries assumed this was temporary and that the names reverted to them after Repeal, but they often got push-back. Booker Noe recalled that being the case with Old Tub. Whatever the reason, the company shifted its marketing emphasis to the Col. James B. Beam brand, which evolved into the brand we know as Jim Beam.
Beam continued to sell Old Tub on a small scale, eventually restricting its distribution to Kentucky. They dropped it altogether when the industry tanked in the 1970s. A few years ago it was revived for sale in the distillery gift shop. (The slogan in the headline above is my invention, but Beam is welcome to use it.)
Many old companies have an uncomfortable relationship with their history. For marketing purposes, they usually prefer a simplified version that emphasizes brand attributes. But bourbon history is American history. The expanded stories deserve to be told because they give us a better understanding of who we are and how we got that way.