By Richard Thomas
Some controversy was recently focused on a price hike for a cask strength Bourbon that bears the name of one of the industry’s modern legends: Booker Noe. As it so happened, I was reading a new biography of Booker Noe at the time, The Big Man Of Jim Beam by Jim Kokoris. Flipping through the pages, I gathered I knew what Noe would have thought of the re-positioning of his namesake whiskey as a more upscale product (approval), but I was given cause to wonder what he would have thought about the uproar the price hike sparked (who knows?). Such is how much I gleaned from the biography: I felt I could answer one question, but not the other.
Kokoris’s book, who worked with Booker Noe for several years during the latter stage of his career, can be neatly divided into two parts. The first two-thirds are the story of a big boy from a small Kentucky town with an outsized personality and even more outsized appetites, one who grows to take his place at the helm of the family business. Much of the rural Bluegrass color of this tale is familiar to me, from countless novels and biographies of men from similar places and the same period.
Then comes the Bourbon bust of the 1970s, and the book transitions from familiar yarns of post-war Central Kentucky and into the tale of the aforementioned whiskey brand, Booker’s. That part of the story is Booker Noe laying one of the early stones in the foundation of the industry revival. Along with the rise of Maker’s Mark, three expressions from the 1980s pointed the way out of the bust and into the modern era: Blanton’s (the first single barrel); Elijah Craig (12 years old and the first to use the term “small batch”); and Booker’s (the original modern cask strength). From there, the book also charts Noe’s evolution from a plant manager into a kind of prototype for the rockstar Master Distillers we have today.
Kokoris delivers a fine, if workmanlike biography. It’s short and sweet and does the job, although the actual text is only 180 pages, and this is a smaller than normal printing format. One is left wondering that if Noe was such an outsized, important personality (and he undoubtedly was) why there wasn’t more to tell. In particular, those looking for a wider context, one with more discussion of Booker Noe’s place in the wider industry of his time or his interactions with his peers, should look elsewhere. That said, if what you want is a feel for Booker Noe as a day to day person, Kokoris will give it to you.