Interview with Steve Beam
Steve Beam and his family started Limestone Branch distillery in 2011 with plans to resurrect that branch of the Beam as well as the Dant families distilling heritage and with an eye to bringing back some of the family’s well-known brands. Steve started off with producing and marketing “moonshine” products including flavored liquors and contract distilling product for Climax Moonshine in order to create cash flow and brand recognition prior to chasing the bourbon and rye whiskey dream. In recent years a firm from Saint Louis known as Luxco has bought a controlling interest in Limestone Branch but has left Steve in place as the creative heart and soul of the distillery while infusing the business with much needed capital and access to much purchased bourbon from which to blend and create new expressions for the firms Yellowstone Bourbon product. I consider Steve amongst some of my closest distilling friends.
Steve, I know you get asked a lot about your family’s bourbon history, could you expound on that a little here. I know you have mentioned in the past that your dad referenced your branch of the family as the blended Beams and not the bonded Beams, could you elaborate on that?
I believe what he was referring to is our post prohibition status, his play on words. After prohibition my grandfather Guy Beam, his Uncle Joe along with Joe’s 7 sons (Minor Case passed shortly after repeal) were associated with many different distilleries and brands, Heaven Hill, Stitzel Weller, Four Roses, Frankfort Distilling, Old Taylor, Old Granddad, Yellowstone, Schenley, Michter’s Maker’s Mark and many others, however they never owned a distillery, or brand. Therefore, we are a blend of many distilleries, not a single distillery.
I prefer to say I am blended because my mother was J.W. Dant’s great-granddaughter while my father a Beam, and yes that goes all the way back to Jacob Beam from 1792. The Dants have been somewhat forgotten, in the days before prohibition, and until the 1950’s the Dant family were well know and well-respected distillers.
Interesting the Dants and Beams have collaborated on Yellowstone throughout its history.
I know the family history drew you to wanting to get back into the business, I have to ask, do you think it is something in your blood that makes the Beams want to get back in front of a still?
For me there was, I grew up around distillery memorabilia, stories and derelict distilleries. My Mother was extremely proud of her heritage and made sure her children knew the story of JW Dant. Many of my aunts, uncles and cousins were all involved in different aspects of the business. From a young age, I always felt this was an unfinished chapter in my family history and was driven to getting our family back in the business. When I graduated college, I sent for a distillery application I believe it was under ATF at that time that’s how long it has been. The 1980’s was not conducive to small distilleries and not a high point for Kentucky Bourbon, although I could have bought a distillery CHEAP. I shelved the idea. At Jim Beam’s 200th anniversary celebration I met a buyer from, New Hampshire and we began talking about my side of the family. I mentioned I had a recipe that was made by the bucketful… he encouraged me to open up a small” bucket at a time” distillery, looking back he was a visionary, still the time was not right for me. In Spring 2010, I attended the ADI conference in Louisville and that was it. Bill Owens was a craft distillery evangelical, and I was taken. Craft brewers paved the way, the distilling industry now had more favorable regulations, the Internet was available for marketing and consumer interest in quality of products made the concept viable. I came back from the conference told my brother it is now or never and by Fall I had sold my interests in the restaurant and started the journey.
Obviously, you are relying on tradition a great deal, a few years back you had some yeast salvaged from a Donna jug did you not? What was that process like and how has using that yeast effected your product/how is it different from what you had previously used?
We attempted this twice, our first attempt failed to provide anything usable. As technology improved Ferm Solutions in Danville Ky. went to extraordinary lengths and were able to extract DNA from Minor Case and Guy’s Donna jug. Using science way above my pay grade Pat Heist and his team produced results that have allowed me to use the same yeast strain as my ancestors had used. What an honor!
It’s a great yeast, I had to do some adjusting to our process when we began using it. It produces a distinctive clean spirit with fruity notes.
I know you rely on tradition a lot and use that familial knowledge in your methodology but I also know you are a pretty analytical guy, is there anything you have learned or created that runs contrary to what you were taught by family? Tell us about some of your personal innovations.
Well you know I have old recipes/mash bills, and some techniques. I have my Grandmother’s cookie recipe too, but they didn’t turn out well the first time I made them. Luckily, I had some great instructors along the way, I am especially grateful to Sherman Owen and Jim Blansit for their help.
As far as my innovations, we have always used heirloom (Trucker’s Favorite 1899) white corn. I also enjoy working with the different malts available. I have an awesome wheater made from 28% malted wheat. I am also experimenting with different toast/char combinations in my barrel selections, currently our barrels are a #3 char over a medium toast.
When you are working on an old venerable brand like Yellowstone how does the flavor profile of what was done in the past effect what you are aiming for in the present? Do you use old samples to try to match a profile?
A venerable old brand it was, many people do not realize that Yellowstone was the bestselling bourbon in Kentucky in the 1960’s. I have been told that one out of every three bottles of bourbon sold in Kentucky was Yellowstone, that is insane. I have some older bottles, and it is quite tasty. While I am replicating as much as I can, yeast, mash bill, techniques, it will never be the same. Instead of making an imitation, I am working to bring as many historic characteristics along as I can, while creating an original that will stand on its own. Much like myself, a storied history which I respect, but determined to be my own.
You have a great collection of family bourbon relics, of all of them do you have a favorite, can you tell us about it?
I believe it is the donna jug, this played such an important role in my ancestor’s lives. My father remembered as a young boy my Grandfather bringing the jug home at night and placing it in their cistern. I believe pieces like this, pieces people used every day carry and certain residual energy with them. The old Gethsemane distillery site is another place where I draw energy, inspiration, and solace from.
Will we be seeing some Limestone branch Gin or Brandy in the future? Plans for line extensions?
We are actually reducing our offerings to concentrate on Bourbon and Rye. We have such a limited production capacity that this will continue to be our focus. That said I have a gin recipe I’ve been working on that is quite nice, and I do have an alembic still, perfect for brandy production so who knows. Like you I get bored easily and love to experiment.