The Boehm or Beam family came to America to settle first in Pennsylvania and later in Kentucky. The family was part of the German and Swiss wave of settlers that arrived in Pennsylvania, between 1710 and 1780. A wave of settlers that also included the Overholt family. These early immigrants would have a huge influence on the distillation of American whiskey. According to Paul Pacult’s American Still Life, it is uncertain whether Jacob Beam was born in Europe or America. There has been research that does indicate that he was a second or maybe even third generation American but there is some confusion on the matter. It does seem that Johannes Jacob Boehm and his brother Conrad, served in the military during the Revolutionary War. The Beam Family Tree at the Jim Beam visitor’s center does have Jacob being born to Nicolaus and Margaretha Boehm on February 9, 1760 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Since that is what the family has presented to the public, I will go with that as the official origin of Jacob Beam. It is known that Jacob was taught the arts of farming and distilling at an early age. It is also known that he married Mary Myers in Frederick County, Maryland on September 20, 1786, before moving to Kentucky in 1787. Jacob Boehm became Jacob Beam somewhere along the line.
Jacob Beam was a typical pioneer farmer-distiller. Jacob brought a pot still and worm with him from Maryland. He raised crops and made his whiskey during the colder months of the year. There is little written record of his life. As a typical early settler in Kentucky such records usually take the form of correspondence between family members and friends. If Jacob was involved in such correspondence, it has been lost to the family. Chances are that Jacob Beam did not have a lot of correspondence because most of his family moved to Kentucky with him and lived close enough that writing was not necessary.
Family legend has it that Jacob probably started distilling as soon as he was settled in to his new home, but does not start selling it until 1795. I believe that is not the case – I believe he was using his whiskey for commerce as soon as he started making it. Whiskey was used to purchase many needed items under the barter system. The year 1795 may have been the first year he sold his whiskey for hard currency, but bartering with whiskey was part of the economic life of all Kentuckians in those years.
Jacob Beam illustrates that there is too much credit given to the Celtic influence on American whiskey. The Germans were distilling rye in the old country and brought that tradition to America with them. Distillers like Jacob Beam distilled corn in Kentucky but knew that adding a little rye to the mash made a more complex whiskey. This new style of corn whiskey would go on to become known as “Bourbon Whiskey” when aged in charred barrels.
Jacob Beam’s lasting contribution to the modern whiskey world is the fact that he and his wife Mary had nine sons and three daughters who inherited the “whiskey genes”. The distilling tradition started by Jacob Beam survived through his children and grandchildren to the present generation. What started as “Old Jake Beam” whiskey evolved into “Old Tub”, “Early Times”, “Heaven Hill” and of course, “Jim Beam”. All of these brands were created or distilled by a descendent of Jacob Beam. The Beams also married into other distilling families such as the Dants, The Wellers, Pottingers and the McGills. It is hard to find a Bourbon from the central Kentucky area that has not been touched by a member of the Beam family. It all started with Jacob Beam.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl