That’s the Whiskey Talking: A Conversation with Fred Noe

Fred Noe’s first words to me are a rebuke, of sorts. “It’s Fred—’Mister’ is too stuffy,” he says as he saunters over and shakes my hand. Despite my initial misstep in calling him “Mr. Noe,” Frederick Booker Noe III is the very picture of good-natured amiability. With an accent that is pure Kentucky, a friendly bearing that comes from having one of the world’s most enviable jobs, and a girth that proves his love for good living, Noe is perhaps the perfect envoy for the world of bourbon.

A seventh-generation descendant of Jacob Beam, great-grandson of Jim Beam and son of legendary distiller Booker Noe, Fred Noe is the designated ambassador for Jim Beam Brands, a mighty beverage conglomerate that boasts, among its many products, four of the most respected bourbons on the market: Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, Baker’s, and his father’s namesake Booker’s, considered by many (including me) to be the world’s finest bourbon. To promote these whiskeys Noe regularly travels the country, giving tastings and speaking to groups of bourbon-lovers about Jim Beam’s small-batch bourbon collection. Last week Noe came to Seattle, and as part of my day-job in the fourth estate I was invited to come and enjoy the tasting, and to spend a few moments with Noe prior to the evening’s events. I’ve done dozens of interviews over the years, and Noe’s was one of the most enjoyable. As he talked with a rolling, rapid-fire drawl and a—of course—gravelly whiskey rumble to his voice, he kept turning in his chair to wave and point at friends and acquaintances as they entered the room. Here’s how it went:

What brings the Small Batch Bourbon tour to Seattle?

My dad started doing tasting events like this in 1989, after he released Booker’s bourbon in 1988, and it’s all about education. The people who got invited are members of the Knob Creek Network, about 70,000 members nationwide, and they can bring a friend, and we just want to educate people on bourbon. We’ll do about 20 of these a year, in various markets from coast to coast. It’s been a few years since we’ve done one in Seattle.

What kinds of trends have you seen in the industry over the last 10 years or so?

High-end bourbons have really re-ignited the whole bourbon category. These small-batch bourbons, single-barrel bourbons—Dad got the whole ultra-premium category started when he brought Bookers to market in 1988. That started this whole super-premium category for all of us in the bourbon business. And so, it’s growing—I think people are drinking less, but they want to drink better. These high-end bourbons are extra aged, have a little higher proof, and that all gives it more flavor. And I think bourbon is becoming more of a product that’s sipped and savored now, as opposed to shots, like in cowboy days. Cocktails, we’re seeing them come back—it’s a natural thing for bourbon to come into. It’s not just vodka anymore. Bourbon, I think you can make a better cocktail with bourbon because you’ve got more flavor with what you’re starting with.

Vodka currently dominates the cocktail market; how does bourbon measure up when it comes to mixing?

With bourbon, you’re starting off with a flavor that you can mingle with other flavors to come up with something unique. The thing with vodka, you mix it with whatever and it tastes like whatever. So, vodka’s not bringing any flavor to the drink—it’s just bringing alcohol.

What do you think is driving this trend to drink better?

Social pressures—drinking and driving, stuff like that. People aren’t going out and getting as loaded as they used to. Now, you think about it more, you’re more conscientious when you go out. Instead of having four or five drinks, you might just have one or two. And another thing, I think people are more open to trying things, they’re more open-minded now, and they might not be loyal to one particular spirit all the time. They might like to go out and drink bourbon, the next time do rum, or vodka, or wine. I think people bounce around and do different cocktails depending on their mood, or the time of year.

Years ago, your parents used to drink one thing, and that was all they drank. It got back as far as my grandfather on my mom’s side of the family, he drank one type of bourbon and that was it—Old Tub was the name of it, it was a product we used to do—if you didn’t have Old Tub, he didn’t drink anything. Nowadays, people aren’t that loyal to one particular brand, they bounce around and try different things. […] I don’t drink bourbon all the time—occasionally I’ll drink a little gin, maybe, in the summertime, a gin buck, taste a little scotch every now and then if I’m with the scotch guys, and I like to bounce around to see what’s going on, but my drink of choice is bourbon, because that’s what I produce. But I do try other things.

How do the premium brands you make differ from mainstream Jim Beam products?

It’s the same distillery, same grains, same barrels. It’s just the way you make them. For example, Basil Haydens, when we make the mash bill, it’s got twice as much rye—we cut back on the corn, double the rye. Booker’s, for example, comes off the still, second distillation, at 125 proof—everything else comes off second distillation at 135, and cut with water down to 125, because by law it can’t go in the barrel higher than 125 proof. Booker’s, there’s no water added at all. Baker’s has a little different recipe that Baker Beam [Noe's uncle] developed.

And then you start looking at the proofs, what they’re cut down to, length of time in the barrel—there’s really not that many variables when you start making bourbon. You’ve got your mash bill that you can change, the proof it comes off the still, then when it gets to the barrel, the length of time you leave it in the barrel, then afterwards do you cut it, do you filter it, if you are going to cut you don’t have to filter, or if you do cut and filter, then how much do you cut? Each one of those little pieces of the pie changes the product, so each one of these has its own set process from the time it’s made—like, we know it’s Knob Creek when it comes off the still, because of the mash bill percentages. When it gets to the warehouse, they stay in their spots—Booker’s is stored in a horizontal cross section—so it’s little things that we do, and that’s what makes it what they are. It’s not just the same whiskey in different bottles, like some of our competitors say.

What kind of things are on the horizon for Jim Beam?

Right now, we’ve got a Jim Beam Black, and that’s one we’re really going to be working hard on, I’ve worked quite a bit this year promoting, and the next year or so we’ll be working to bring it up out of infancy and let it take over. It’s a great bourbon—eight years old, 86 proof—I think, dollar for dollar, it’s probably the best value on the bourbon shelf. Eight years in that barrel, it’s got a lot of flavor, 86 proof—it’s all about getting that flavor.

Small batch bourbons, we’ve got them rolling, we’re doing tastings to introduce people to them. I think it’s important to get out here in the market and let people actually meet me, ask questions, talk about it—because like, these people here [he gestures to a group he’d been talking to earlier], they came to a tasting a few years ago, they found out we were going to be here, the guy went out and bought six or seven bottles, and I signed them for him and his friends. I think that’s important to do stuff like that: this guy’s that loyal a fan, to go out and purchase those bottles and give his time to come to this event, then I’ll be glad to sit there and write stuff on the bottles for him. When it’s over, I’ll sit up here and talk to every person until everyone leaves. I’ll be here until everyone that comes gets what they want, whether it’s just to come up and say hello, shake my hand, whatever—it’s important to do that, because if people give their time to come here tonight, I’ll give my time to talk and enjoy it. We’ll have fun—that’s what it’s all about.

What kinds of work have you been doing with bartenders to promote your brand?

We’ll get out—we did a food and wine thing last year in Aspen, Colorado, and they brought in some bartenders, Tony Abou-Ganim from the Bellagio—I’ve worked quite a bit with Tony, we’re friends, he’s come to our house to select barrels for the Bellagio casino. Now he’s no longer with the Bellagio, but we’re still good friends and whenever he’s got something going on with bourbon, if I’m free I’ll try to join him. He talks about mixing it, I talk about making it, and it’s a great combination because those guys are coming up with drinks that are out of this world.

It’s amazing—he taught me a lot, he and his boys from the Bellagio, on taking good quality ingredients and making cocktails. They’re the ones who said, “Hey, if you’re going to make a cocktail, why not use the highest grade bourbon there is? Don’t go out and get the highest quality ingredients, then use a bottom-shelf bourbon to make your drink.” Which a lot of people think, the high-end bourbons, you shouldn’t use them in cocktails. Well, why not? I heard a lady ask my dad one time if it was a sin to mix Booker’s and Coke, and he said, “If you take the very best bourbon in the world and mix it with Coke, you’ll have the best bourbon and Coke you could possibly have.” Somebody will go the extra distance and put out the money to buy a bottle of Booker’s, and they want to mix it with Coke, that’s fine. That’s their choice—it’s a free country. Nobody says you’ve got to just use Jim Beam in a whiskey sour; if you want to give a little extra, you can make them out of Booker’s.

Is there any possibility you’d introduce a premium rye whiskey into the market?

I never have really thought about it that much. We’ve got Jim Beam rye and Old Overholt, and if we saw more support for those, we possibly could. But those aren’t blowing out the—you see pockets of support for rye depending on what part of the country you’re in, but you just don’t see it across the board enough to develop, to do something.

That’s not to say we never would. At this point, there’s nothing really planned. You’re the second person to ask me tonight—that guy out there was asking me the same question, he said he was a bigger fan of the rye, and brought a bottle of Jim Beam rye for me to sign. He said, “I love the rye more, you ever thought of extra-aging some rye?” (laughs) Never say never, because you never know what you might do.

***

At this point we’d run out of time, and Noe had to go up and speak to the several hundred people who had come to the tasting. I’ll go through my notes on that and post any good details, but one point on the last question I asked: I’m a big fan of rye whiskey, and I desperately hope someone like Jim Beam introduces another premium rye into the marketplace. Fortunately, I’m not alone—at the end of the evening, during the question-and-answer segment, another person stood up and asked about a premium rye. Noe just shook his head and laughed, repeated what he’d said to me, but then remarked that maybe they’d have to put up a few barrels just for us rye freaks in Seattle.

The line starts behind me.

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