UK & Jim Beam Partner to Create the James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits


By Laura Skillman and Molly Williamson

Working in the printing industry, Nancy Savage saw the need for her services steadily decline. More businesses were using online resources, and readers were shifting from printed books to electronic readers. She wanted a career that had a future and returned to the University of Kentucky to find it.

“I chose sustainable agriculture, because I figured people always have to eat,” Savage said. “No matter what area I specialized in, I knew I would have a career until I retired.”

But she never expected to find a passion for fermentation. Now a research analyst in UK’s viticulture and enology program, Savage was the first person to graduate from UK’s Distillation, Wine and Brewing Studies certificate program in 2015. The College of Agriculture, Food and Environment launched the program in 2014, teaching students the fundamentals of fermentation, which is the basis for distillation, brewing beer and making wine.

“It is a great program, because it shows students whether they want to be in the industry,” Savage said. “They give you a foundation in fermentation, and then allow you to specialize. You learn everything from how to press grapes and apples and how to test sugar levels to data analysis, bottling, marketing, economics, craft writing and production. It gives you all of the skills you need for the industry, which saves your future employer time. You don’t need basic training, because you are ready to work when you complete the program.”

Now, the program is growing. In April, UK announced that Jim Beam® Bourbon will donate $5 million to establish the James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits.

“As the University for Kentucky, we are the engine of our state’s industry — the pulse of its economy,” said University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto. “When we envisioned ways to prepare our workforce to meet the changing needs of our rapidly growing bourbon industry, a partnership with Jim Beam was a natural fit, and I can’t thank them enough for the generous gift that will help bring our vision to life.”

This $5 million gift represents Beam Suntory’s largest single philanthropic or educational gift in the company’s history. It also contributes to the $2.1 billion goal of UK’s comprehensive campaign, Kentucky Can: The 21st Century Campaign. The campaign will increase opportunities for student success, fund innovative research, improve health care, strengthen its alumni network and supporting athletic programs. UK has already raised $1.2 billion toward the campaign’s goal.

“This donation is an investment in the future of bourbon, and Kentucky’s future workforce, and we are confident that the future for both is very bright indeed,” said Albert Baladi, president and CEO of Beam Suntory. “We are excited about the key role that this program will play in the continued global expansion of America’s native spirit.”

The James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits will offer courses across engineering, chemistry, business, law, horticulture, forestry, food science and entomology to address spirits industry needs in sustainable agriculture, research and development.

“Very few places in the world have a historic landmark product like bourbon,” said Seth DeBolt, horticulture professor and institute director. “The institute is a collaboration to increase the longevity and the economic development for the spirits industry in Kentucky. It is really driven from an interdependence that we see between the university and the industry, and of course, remembering UK’s land-grant mission is to serve the economy of Kentucky. It’s a win-win all the way around, and we’re really excited about it.”

UK also will launch an online version of the certificate program this fall. It is a collaboration between the UK colleges of Agriculture, Food and Environment, Arts and Sciences, Engineering and Business and Economics.

“With the continued global growth of bourbon, we need to focus on educating the next generation of distillers, scientists and engineers who can tackle the needs of this industry well into the future,” said Fred Noe, Jim Beam’s seventh generation master distiller. “And there’s no better place to make bourbon than right here in Kentucky.”

According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, there are nearly two barrels of bourbon resting in the state of Kentucky for every person living there, valued at $3 billion, up 300% from 2009. Bourbon contributes $8.6 billion to Kentucky’s economy each year, including $1 billion in payroll, and $235 million in state and local tax revenue. The bourbon industry also provides more than 20,000 jobs in the state.

“Our signature bourbon industry is an incredible economic engine for the Commonwealth and a thriving global symbol of Kentucky craftsmanship and tradition,” said Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. “In the coming months, we look forward to sharing details of an impressive statewide initiative that will leverage many of our universities' strengths and prepare the workforce of tomorrow for careers in bourbon hospitality, business and tourism, in addition to distillation and research and development.”

Savage is excited to see how the distillation, wine and brewing program grows with the Beam gift. It will further her knowledge of wine making as well as give her new tools to do testing and data analysis.

“Having a supporter like Jim Bean will provide students so many more opportunities,” Savage said. “UK already produces students with a strong knowledge of the industry, but having a resource like this will further our reputation as the leader in educating future distillers. This institute and gift are making UK stronger and the industry stronger. As a result, they are making the state stronger, and that is good for everyone.” 

Emily Bryson York, corporate communications leader at Beam Suntory, contributed to this article. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of the Kentucky Alumni magazine.

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