By Debbie Shocair
I’ve been writing about whiskey for approximately a bazillion years. Sometimes I enjoy thinking of myself as, in the way I put it, “sort of a big deal” in whiskey circles. That’s what I like to think. And then I knew better. I met a real “big deal.”
Fred Noe, seventh-generation master distiller at Jim Beam and a bourbon legend, held court in Clermont, Kentucky, and I was part of a press tour and was absolutely spellbound as he stood, ready to regale us. Noe is colorful and entertaining, and altogether charming in a way that somehow supersedes the stereotyped “good ol’ boy” sold as the image of a Southern whiskey magnate. While his stories have likely been told countless times, his passion shows through in that each time he tells them they are as fresh and sincere as ever. He is brilliant and embodies much of what every whiskey fan yearns to embrace.
Touring The House Of Beam
On a cloudy morning in Louisville, Kentucky, peaceful but with the the vague promise of a pending thunderstorm, I boarded a comfy tour bus along with a small group of journalists and watched the rolling landscape pass by as I contemplated the day ahead. The budding trees and a smattering of flowers every now and again whispered at the arrival of Spring. Our small group prepared for a special behind-the-scenes tour of the Jim Beam Distillery, maker of some of the most popular whiskies in the world.
From my first step off of the bus and onto the distillery property, I smiled. It was arranged just so, perfect for tourists. There was a barn-like (fantastic!) gift shop, and a statue just in front, made photo ops. Jim Beam pushes a folksy image here with a deft hand, but with some genuine hospitality to go with it. Just note the Cracker Barrel-esque rockers on the front porch of said gift shop. Oh, and they also make pretty good whiskey, and our visit ended with the man who makes it.
Frederick Booker Noe III, Jim Beam’s great-grandson, met us outside of one of the sensationally large, dark and dusky rackhouses that dot the rolling hills on the distillery property. While these days they are painted a sober black, through the years the rickhouses have donned a number of shades, including pastels. The current hue was settled upon as a compromising nod to the fungus Baudoinia, which, indifferent to the color painted on the rickhouses, persists in specling them in black. It happens everywhere, all over the world, wherever spirits age in barrels, for it seems the angels are a bit messy as they take their share.
I have to admit I liked the black paint. It made the rickhouses seem as if they were in the midst of longstanding, very serious work. And, of course, they are.
Fred Noe is a man of tremendous presence, his friendly grin a seemingly permanent fixture. As a child, when I pouted ruefully, my granny would caution that my face might “freeze that way.” Fred Noe’s has the countenance of someone who lives fully immersed in doing what he loves and it seems to have quite happily “frozen that way.” Even when not actively smiling, his eyes have a sparkle that never quite disappears. And no, it’s not just the bourbon.
After chatting with the journalists and answering a few questions, he then invited us inside the rackhouse itself to taste some bourbon, destined for Jim Beam Black, right from the barrel. Well. Into the dark barrel warehouse we filed, our little group looking forward to our first taste of whiskey at 10-ish o’clock in the morning. I’ve always been a fan of day-drinking, and so was probably the most enthusiastic of all. While my not-as-whiskey-centric companions made feeble jokes about the early hour, I simply giggled.
One of my fellow writers was invited to bang the barrel with a wooden mallet, so as to remove the bung. Then Noe picked up a proper copper thief and, giving a speech he had no doubt given countless times, spoke about the distillery, the bourbon before us, and generally everything charming about Beam. We were each handed a branded glass, and Noe then proceeded to dip the thief into the bunghole and give us each a generous taste of bourbon straight from the barrel.
Color me giddy at this point. While I continued to listen to Noe’s charming banter and sampled what was arguably very nice and exciting barrel-proof bourbon, I looked about and wondered why I was the only one present who was (probably visibly) brimming with enthusiasm over the experience. We were instructed to keep the glasses, if we liked, and I saw several of the other journalists set their glasses down as we exited the rackhouse. One of them muttered something about “having too much branded crap.” I didn’t make eye contact. I just grinned, grateful that my own enthusiasm for such events and such goodies never wanes. I was already considering where I would display my latest treasure.
Noe led our little group, by now warmed up/loosened up by the bourbon as well as the happy proximity to a personable, living whiskey legend, to the T. Jeremiah Beam house, a scant walk from the rackhouse where we had been. The house was originally built as a boarding house for distillery workers, but after post-Prohibition renovating it became T. Jeremiah Beam’s home and since been home to generations of the Beam family. It isn’t a usual part of a distillery tour, but in we marched, led by Fred Noe.
The house has, of late, been transformed into a sort of public relations mecca. The main rooms that were visible on the bottom floor seemed to be offices with lovely whiskey and Beam-related historic knickknacks scattered here and there. We marched up the staircase and were led into an impressive gathering room, where an enormous conference table had been set for us, a flight of Jim Beam whiskey and bite-sized tasty morsels for pairing waiting at each seat. Even some of my more jaded companions smiled and looked about appreciatively. We each took a seat and watched as Noe sat at the table with us, ready to lead the tasting and regale us with his stories of growing up Beam.
Fred Noe has a particular gift for storytelling. His timbre, cadence, and easy gesticulation with a whiskey glass in-hand all belie the genius within his smile and gentleman’s southern drawl. As a teen, he was once accused by his father, Booker Noe (namesake of Booker’s Bourbon) of drinking from his private stock of bourbon and then watering it down to hide the misdeed. No amount of denial convinced Booker of his innocence, but some years later the cleaning lady was discovered to be the real culprit.
Speaking of his father, Noe said, “The distillery was his [Booker’s] first born and I was his second. The distillery was his life and, y’know, that’s the way it was. We didn’t have any problem with that.”
I had already gleaned a wealth of information about the Jim Beam distillery from this most expert of tour guides, but you have not lived in Whiskeydom until you’ve heard Fred Noe do the “Kentucky Chew” in person.
After delighting us with his stories and presiding over tasting of the whiskey laid out before us, Noe invited us to ask questions. Of course, I took my turn:
DS: What is your earliest memory of the distillery?
FN: I was a little boy about 5 or 6 years old. It was my playground, really. I used to climb up and play in the trucks when they were parked. There was always a little air left in the airbrakes and the horn. When the trains came to bring the grain, the engineers would let me play on the train and ride while they moved the train cars around and delivered the grain.
TWM: Your dad left a legacy in ‘Booker’s”. Are you working on a namesake or legacy for generations to come?[There was a special sparkle that came to his eyes as he answered – as if he had a lovely secret…]
FN: We might be working on something like that. I came across a 1960’s era bottle of Jim Beam and it was… different. Really nice, but different. The techniques were different then. We may try to revisit those old-school techniques and hopefully we can meet the challenge. The guys in white coats can test it all they want to in the lab, but ultimately it will be a matter of trying until we get it right. It’s something Freddy [Fred’s son] and I have been discussing, working on. But, you know, it may end up being like Booker’s salt-rising bread. He didn’t leave us a recipe and we’ve tried for years to replicate it.
But, yeah….we’ve been talking about it. Working on something. Hopefully we’ll get the results.
The busy day ahead was to continue for another twelve hours or so. We were heading to a special tour of a local cooperage with a fine dinner to follow. Along the way we would make stops at Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse in downtown Louisville and end the evening at a couple of bars known to feature some lesser-known Beam products. All-in-all it was a very full and enjoyable day. I would go so far as to say a good time was had by all, and later, as I queried even the most jaded writers of our group as to what they enjoyed best, the answer was unanimous. The time spent in the company of Fred Noe, whose genuine hospitality and passion for his family’s 200+ year business, was certainly the highlight of the day.