Booker Noe, grandson of the legendary whiskey producer Jim Beam, toiled in the aging warehouses of his family’s Boston, Kentucky, operation for decades before he finally made a bourbon he was proud to drink.
The year was 1987. Whiskey was down, dominated by the popularity of vodka and other clear spirits. And the bourbon that did sell was similarly light-bodied. “My dad thought it was giving bourbon and whiskey a bad wrap,” said Noe’s son, Fred, who took over the reins at Jim Beam back in 2007.
That small-batch whiskey Noe concocted was anything but light. It was uncut and unfiltered, with a proof that’ll make your eyes water. For the first year, Noe reserved it for his favorite wholesalers, who were lucky enough to receive a bottle of the stuff around Christmas. But it was too good not to share. Booker’s Bourbon hit shelves in 1988, and its high-proof reputation has garnered it cult-like admiration among bourbon elite in the three decades since.
“It wasn’t like he set out to specifically create something that was important. It was just the culmination of his education, of his own self.”
Fred, who’s overseen Booker’s since the early 2000s, said his dad didn’t set out for any reason other than making good bourbon. “It wasn’t like he set out to specifically create something that was important. It was just the culmination of his education, of his own self.”
Fred isn’t like his dad. And he isn’t like his son, Freddie — the heir apparent to the Jim Beam dynasty. Fred is more bourbon evangelist than bourbon technician, and he has no problem telling you that over a glass of whiskey.
The great-grandson of Jim Beam, Fred is a storyteller through-and-through. Going on the road with Hank Williams, Jr. Making rye whiskey by hand in a three-hundred-year-old still at Mount Vernon. Burying his dad with the first bottle of his own bourbon (and his dog). No matter what you talk about in the wide world of whiskey, he’s got an out-of-left-field adlib to share.
With the release of Booker’s 30th-anniversary bottle, we caught up with Fred Noe, seventh-generation Jim Beam Master Distiller, to talk about how far whiskey has come since his dad’s days at the still.
Q: Your family is a bunch of whiskey old-timers — how have whiskey makers changed since Booker’s time?
A: In the Seventies, bourbon was real slow. There was one of this “bourbon boom” talk, nobody was asking if there was a bubble. We wished there was a bubble. And none of the money men were out here hankering for expensive bottles of bourbon, either. We were getting beat by the vodka and clear liquor guys. Everybody was looking for lighter spirits, so everybody started to make light bourbons and whiskeys. My dad thought it was giving bourbon and whiskey a bad wrap.
Q: How have drinkers changed?
A: I always say just look at them old guys and you’ll see pretty quick. They drank one brand and one bottle — that’s it. If my grandfather on my mom’s side was drinking, you better believe it was an old whiskey called Old Tub, and that’s what he drank. He didn’t drink beer, wine or vodka. If we didn’t have no Old Tub, then he drank water.
Q: Do whiskey drinkers know more about whiskey today?
A: Absolutely. I get questions from regular drinkers at a bar and I ask myself, “Are you gonna start making whiskey here soon? Are you about to be my competition?” Back in the day, the questions were more along the lines of, “How many times can you use a barrel?” Or, “What’s the difference between bourbon and whiskey?”
Q: What do people ask you about whiskey nowadays?
A: Shit, now I got people asking, “Well, if you were going to use a pot still…” Years ago, we didn’t even know the damn difference between a pot still and a regular still. You can’t bullshit these folks no more, and that’s a good thing. The second you make something and try to fib about quality, they’ll know. And they’ll roast you for it.
Q: Did you or your dad ever think bourbon would get this big? You’re basically a whiskey celebrity.
A: It’s still a bit unreal. We were at a Christmas party one year and [my dad’s] cousin Parker Beam, who ran Heaven Hill then, tasted an early version of Booker’s. Booker told him he was going to sell it at $50 because that’s what it’s worth.
Parker said something like, “Booker you really think them boys gonna spend $50 on a bottle of bourbon?” I still remember my dad’s reply. Looked him dead in the eye and said something like, “Parker, they’ll give $50 — look at what the give for that damn Scotch.”
It was really a test at the time. We were going someplace nobody had ever really gone before. We didn’t know if it had worked then, but we know now.