University of Kentucky’s James B. Beam Institute Establishes First-Ever Whiskey Apprenticeship Program

by Matthew Memrick
(Photo by Bryan Woolston/Getty Images)

Jim Beam and the University of Kentucky have teamed up for the first-ever college-based whiskey apprenticeship program.

The James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits is behind the spirited program. The institute is working with James B. Beam Distilling Company to establish the James B. Beam Whiskey Apprenticeship program.

With many colleges and universities adopting trendy degrees in beer brewing, institute director Set DeBolt said this authentic program is certified by the Kentucky Department of Labor. 

DeBolt is also a professor in the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

The first class of tomorrow’s whiskey makers will graduate from the program in July.

Kentucky Whiskey Apprenticeship Crew Gets Right To Work

Thirteen James B. Beam Distilling Company employees are taking part in the program. The group mixes interactive training with UK coursework as part of their education.

They will benefit from a broad curriculum that includes safety, bourbon grains, bourbon engineering and fermentation. Additionally, the group works on public speaking, customer relations, sensory, maturation, and distillery science.

It’s important to realize these classes come together for 200 hours of customized technical content. Similarly, it’s the stuff that James B. Beam Distilling Company operators use on their jobs every day.

Importantly, distilling education coordinator Glenna Joyce is key part of the group’s learning plan. Specifically, she’s been heavily involved in creating and delivering the curriculum to the first group.

“It’s been a wonderful opportunity to coordinate this program and teach these individuals,” Joyce said. “They are excited to learn, and they have brought insightful questions.”

The baker’s dozen of apprentices currently work at the Fred B. Noe Craft Distillery in Clermont. Production at the distillery began in August 2021.

“The Beam Institute is all about educating our next generation of distillers, and this is an important part of that work that I’m honored to support,” Freddie Noe said.

The eighth-generation Beam distiller, said his “grandfather always said there was no substitute for real-world learning.”

Together with Fred B. Noe Distillery manager Michael Voils, Noe worked on his idea of a program.

After visiting Suntory Yamazaki Distillery, Japan’s first and oldest malt whisky distillery, the men pooled their ideas. Then, they wanted to have a hands-on approach to developing the Kentucky whisky apprenticeships with the university.

One Apprentice Already Has A Wealth Of Experience

Program first-timer Jerry Cunningham brings some knowledge of whiskey making to the table. He’s worked for has worked for Beam for 17 years.  

Cunningham worked as a distillery relief operator for ten years. He also worked in boiler operations for seven years.

“As a relief operator, I was responsible for operating the still room as well as the dry house, granary, and water plant,” Cunningham said. 

Evidently, he said this experience has been helpful. Cunningham called it “a catalyst for engaging in this apprenticeship.”

Equally, the university said it is willing to partner with other distilleries in the future. With this purpose in mind, the program like to bolster the Kentucky whiskey apprenticeship’s offerings.

“This program is the first of its kind, but we hope it’s just the beginning for the bourbon industry,” DeBolt said. “Kentucky is simply a special place for distilling.

Accordingly, DeBolt said this program and others hope “the entire distilling community benefits as do the future generations.”