American Still Life: The Jim Beam Story and the Making of the World’s #1 Bourbon
In the preface to American Still Life, drinks journalist F. Paul Pacult ac-knowledges that he was focused almost solely on wine until 1989, when he was given an assignment by the New York Times to write editorial copy for a special advertising section on Scotch whisky. Pacult’s world up to that point was pretty much red or white. Suddenly, the color brown took on new meaning and importance.
Pacult’s decision to venture beyond the vineyard and write about spirits has served to elevate the general public’s understanding of and appreciation for some of the greatest beverages in the world. After all, if the New York Times, Bon Appetit and Sky Magazine are willing to devote space to spirits, it must be all right to enjoy a glass before dinner.
In American Still Life, Pacult traces the roots of the Jim Beam Bourbon dynasty. Starting in the 1780s with Jacob Beam, the story is a true American dream: Immigrants with an Old World recipe and hopes for freedom land in America and find economic success. American Still Life goes into great detail to show the role that bourbon production played on the Kentucky frontier and how the drink survived Prohibition, the Great Depre-ssion, and a pair of world wars. Along the way the descendents of Jacob Beam proved that whiskey is almost as thick as blood.
When a family has been in the same business in the same geographic area for parts of four centuries, roots run extremely deep. Pacult shows how the Beam family has branches that influence most of the great bourbon houses, including Heaven Hill, Stizel-Weller, Early Times and many others. He rightfully says that the Beam family tree is a “towering American oak.”
An interesting side note to the Beam legacy traced in American Still Life describes the collector’s item china de-canters that the company began mar-keting in 1955. The limited edition bottles celebrated everything from the Kentucky Derby to Elvis Presley. More than 100 collectors clubs formed around the country and at least one counterfeit ring sprang up to try to cash in on the craze. Police in Ohio broke up the ring and destroyed the fake bottles and the manufacturing molds.
Pacult’s affiliation with Beam began in 1992 when he made public relations trips with Booker Noe, the distiller emeritus at Jim Beam and a member of the seventh generation of distillers in the family, to introduce the Booker’s, Basil Hayden’s, Maker’s and Knob Creek family of small-batch bourbons. Clearly, this access to the scion of the Beam clan and to the legion of bourbon fans that turned out for the events greatly influenced and enhanced Pacult’s writing.
Noe pays Pacult a great compliment in the book’s foreword by saying, “While I thought I knew everything about my family, American Still Life taught me that you can always learn more about who you are and where you came from.”