All September on VinePair, we’re turning our focus to America’s spirit: bourbon. For our third annual Bourbon Month, we’re exploring the industry legends and innovators, our favorite craft distilleries, new bottles we love, and more.
As the great-grandson of Jim Beam, born in the “Bourbon Capital of the World,” and a member of the “First Family of Bourbon,” Frederick Booker Noe III’s passage into the American whiskey industry was all but sealed at birth.
Noe’s family has distilled fine Kentucky bourbon since 1795. For more than half a century, their flagship Jim Beam whiskey has enjoyed the undisputed status of best-selling bourbon in the world. Yet it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the family, or the category.
With clear spirits threatening whiskey’s crown in the ’70s and ’80s, Noe’s father, Frederick “Booker” Noe Jr., was tasked with shepherding the company through bourbon’s most trying era in living memory. By the time Fred Noe was able to seriously consider going into the family business, there were no guarantees there’d even be an industry to enter.
Along with a handful of peers, Booker would ultimately invert bourbon’s fortunes. Through product innovations and good ol’ boots-on-the-ground marketing, he helped shape its future worldwide reputation. Without the hard work of Booker, Fred, and the so-called “elder statesmen” of bourbon, the “boom” we so often talk of may have instead been little more than a rumble.
As the category goes from strength to strength, it’s easy to overlook those choppier waters and take products like small- batch and single-barrel bourbons for granted. But the journey, to use a lengthy aged cliché, is much more interesting than the destination. So VinePair caught up with Fred Noe and his son Freddie — the eighth generation of Beam family to enter the industry — to relive the modern history of bourbon.
Boom and Bust: Bourbon in the ’60s and ’70s
Born in Bardstown, Ky., in 1957, Fred Noe grew up in a golden era for the American whiskey industry. But the industry’s fortunes would soon change.
Fred: From the stories I’ve heard from guys like my dad and some of the other “elder statesmen” of bourbon, as I call them, bourbon was king in the ‘60s. There were several distilleries pumping out as much bourbon as they could — a lot of labels out there. Jim Beam was selling so well it had bought another distillery in Boston, Ky., in the ‘50s (we already had one in Clermont). In the ‘60s, Beam became the No. 1 bourbon in the world and still holds that title today.
Fast forward into the early ‘70s, and consumers shifted to clear goods. Vodka grew like a bandit and bourbon took a big hit. It slowed way, way down, to the point where a number of distilleries were consolidated into others or just shut their doors completely. The distillery that we bought in the ‘50s that my dad ran — today we call it the Booker Noe Plant — was shut down. Everyone was laid off, the salary workers became night watchmen, and the plant was pretty much put in mothballs because we had such a supply of bourbon that there was no need to make any more.
I was kind of a knucklehead so my dad sent me to military academy in the late ‘60s. He said, “Don’t bank on this bourbon business being here.” And I really didn’t realize what he was saying, but if bourbon had continued to go down the road it was going, it may not have been here today.
My dad gave me one rule before he even let me consider working at Beam: I had to finish college. I always joke that after eight years and a lot of my father’s money, I finally got out of college. He stayed fast on that rule.
By the time I got into the business, it wasn’t like it was walking into a totally depressed, ghost town — not like the automobile industry back in the day when it was shot to shit and everybody was losing their jobs. But the plants weren’t humming along at a hundred percent; they were loping along. Things were still selling but we weren’t expanding. We did get the Booker Noe Plant back open, but as far as prospects go, it was nothing like today.
Creating ‘Super Premium’ Bourbon
With sales slowly getting back on their feet, and other whiskeys enjoying new popularity in the United States, a handful of pioneering distillers sought to regain bourbon’s reputation as a high-quality spirit. Among them: Booker Noe and the elder statesmen of the industry, Jimmy Russell (Master Distiller at Wild Turkey), Parker Beam (Booker’s cousin and Master Distiller at Heaven Hill), and Elmer T. Lee (Master Distiller at Buffalo Trace).
Fred: A lot of the distillers looked for things that could rejuvenate the bourbon category and created what is now called “Super Premium” bourbon. Jimmy was working on some special stuff. Elmer developed Blanton’s and the single barrel concept. Dad went with small batch [for Bookers and later Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, and Baker’s] because he wanted his product to be more consistent every time you picked up a bottle.
For Jim Beam, we would dump a huge number of barrels, even in slow times. But these small-batch bourbons, we would take fewer barrels — 200 or so. There was more tax [because of higher alcohol levels], more labor, and it was hand bottled, so there was a reason that it cost more. But a lot of it was to show that it was a cut above Jim Beam.
Parker asked my dad, “Booker, are you going to charge $50 for that bottle?” He said, “Parker, look what they’re charging for that Scotch. Our whiskey’s just as high-quality as any of that.”
Life on the Road
New products in hand, the elder statesmen faced another challenge: How could they get their super-premium bourbons in front of consumers and convince them their whiskeys were indeed worthy of the higher price tags Scotch commanded?
Fred: The role of a master distiller shifted. In the old days — the ‘60s and ‘70s — my dad just worked at the distillery. Occasionally, he’d go to a meeting or something, but as far as getting out on the street and hand-selling the products, those guys had never done that before. But then they started.
They went on the road to get their products in front of people and educate them. At the time, people were drinking bourbon like cowboys at a bar. They’d belly up, order a shot, drink it down, and grimace in pain. They didn’t enjoy it. So dad and all of his counterparts would go to bars, liquor stores, and whiskey fests, and tell their stories.
One time, he flew all the way to Miami. He got down there and seven people showed up. Two of the guys worked for Beam, three worked for our distributor, and there were two consumers. When he got back, he said: “That was a wasted damn trip. I spoke to seven people and five of them were on the payroll.”
Later, I started doing the traveling. I was already working in the distillery, learning the trade, and dad said: “I can keep teaching you that but you don’t need to be here every day. I’d rather you go out.”
By the early ‘90s, the flame had already been rekindled in the bourbon category. I went to Miami and my dad said, “I hope you do better than I did down there.” I took my son Freddie with me. He was a little guy in high school and he kept saying he wanted to go to the University of Miami for college.
When I got down there, Freddie got to hang out by the pool and one of the salesmen took him for a ride around the campus. That night we had the tasting and over 200 people showed up. So in a period of maybe three to four years it had multiplied a hundred times.
I stayed after for probably as long as the tasting lasted, just signing pictures, bottles, and listening to stories. Everybody’s got a story about when they started drinking Jim Beam or how their granddad drank it. I think it was important to sit and listen to them and thank them for their support, because if you’ve got fans, you’ve got to reciprocate their love for your brand.
But Freddie was starving to death. The sales guys were going to take us to a Don Shula steakhouse for dinner and they told him they were going to give him the biggest steak he could eat. He was looking forward to that steak.
Freddie: I thought it was pretty cool that there were that many people that were interested in my family and in talking to him. Listening to dad interact with them and seeing how it lit him up — knowing his dad had walked in the same path — it meant a lot to me.
But we had already talked about both being hungry before it started, and so just knowing that he sacrificed that to listen to all those stories, shake those hands, and sign the bottles, I thought a lot of it. If it was me, back then, I’d have said, “We’re going to go eat dinner, we’ll catch you afterwards.”
It showed me what I’ve come to know — that this industry is very personable and relationship-driven, whether it’s us with consumers, our sales folks, or our distributor partners. The better relationship you can have, and the more information you share with them, the more it helps your brand.
Fred: When I got back home I told my dad: “I think I did a little better than you. We had over 200 people and they weren’t all on the payroll.” But really, it helped me when they put me on the road because I could go into a liquor store and if somebody complained about a bottle, I could take that feedback back to our production folks. Sometimes we learned from that; that’s where I learned there was a market for single-barrel bourbons, which dad was never a fan of. When I came back, I started talking in these innovation meetings about what I was hearing on the road.
Innovating Beyond Super Premium
With bourbon’s reputation reestablished, Fred Noe wanted to keep up momentum and expand bourbon’s footprint by attracting non-whiskey drinkers to the category. But would purists be happy with a new, non-traditional entrant to the space?
Fred: [We introduced] Red Stag to keep growing the bourbon industry. One of our R&D guys was a flavor engineer. He was making a lot of cordials and he was a big deer hunter. During deer season, he would take his bourbon and flavor it up with some of his flavors and take a little drink to warm up when he became cold. I said, “Well, let’s work on that.”
We got called everything from innovative to crazy, but the original Red Stag was Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey blended with natural flavors. Over the years, the proofs have dropped and they’ve turned more into liqueurs, but it brought people into the bourbon industry who’d maybe had a bad experience before.
When I was still out on the road and Red Stag came along, I would always start the tasting by saying, “This is not for everybody.” Bourbon purists, they’d make a face and raise hell. But the people they brought to the tastings, who might have found Bookers or Knob Creek to be a little harsh for their palates, when I got to the Red Stag and they smelled that cherry, they said, “I like this.” It wasn’t for everybody, and it was a little too sweet for me, but not every product is made for me and my palate.
An 8th-Generation Beam Distiller Emerges
After Booker Noe sadly passed away in 2004, the time came for the next generation of the Beam family to consider its place in the business.
Freddie: I wasn’t always interested in distilling. Or, it’s not that I wasn’t interested, but I thought about doing other things as well. A lot of things then fell in place around the time of my grandad’s passing.
I heard a lot from his friends and the people that he had worked around and worked with. And I just thought how cool it would be to carry that on, knowing what it meant to him. As I got a little bit older, dad started giving me some books to read. They talked about our family and when they started making whiskey and stories of Jacob. It spurred me to be so much more interested in distilling and in the preservation of my family’s history. I thought it was really cool that my family had always done this.
Fred: Freddie, he had the same rule that I did: He had to finish college. He must be a little bit smarter, though, because he got out in six years instead of eight.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Innovation formed the core of Booker and Fred’s contribution to the industry and the Beam family of whiskeys. True to form, Freddie would maintain this lineage by introducing Little Book, a blend of whiskeys pulled from Beam’s portfolios.
Freddie: With my granddad coming up with small batch, and my dad really pushing single barrels and education, it gave me the opportunity to go into blending, which hadn’t been well received before. But because I’m coming from credentials of high-quality whiskey making, I think it gave me a pass to show people that the word blending can mean and represent something different.
They brought people to our industry and people want more right now. Everyone’s very curious. So it’s given me the opportunity to think a little more outside the box and build off their work. I can innovate in a traditional way that represents our family, but also pushes boundaries enough to bring new consumers in.
Fred: People want quality and they want innovations. You can’t just have one brand, hang your hat on it, and sit back and be done. That’s why we’re doing a smaller scale “craft” distillery. As a side note, I think all distilleries are craft. What has size got to do with the makeup of the plant? I mean, the guys that are making Jim Beam at our Clermont facility are just as crafty as the guys who are going to be working at the Fred B. Noe distillery that we just built.
Freddie: As new technology arises in this industry, this gives us a smaller space to be able to implement some of it, study it, and determine the impact it has on our whiskey and ensure quality always comes first. That’s the No. 1 thing. But because it’s a replica of our bigger facilities, when we do things, and if they make very good whiskey, we can scale them up very easily.
On Family and Continuing the Legacy
With eight generations of Beam family accounted for in the bourbon business, are we just getting started?
Fred: Luckily, I’ve been around in a family that’s been doing this since 1795. What we do with Jim Beam, that’s protected — we don’t change that. I did everything I could to build the industry to pass it on to Freddie. And so he’s going to work on new flavors and expand the horizons of American whiskey.
Freddie, I’m sure, is going to nurture this industry and put his legacy on it. And with a little luck, one of his children will follow in his footsteps, and he’ll be able to pass it on to them and watch them flourish and take this industry to the next level. He’s got a daughter, she’s 12, and he’s got a 3-year-old son, Frederick Booker Noe IV. We call him Booker.
I think the bourbon industry will be around for a while because the story is great and the products are great. You can come to Clermont and see where Jim Beam’s made. It’s not a marketing story where somebody sat in a conference room with a bunch of creative writers and made up a bunch of shit. Jim Beam was a real guy. Booker Noe was a real guy. Fred Noe is still kicking. Freddie Noe — you come to Beam, you might bump noses with him.
Fred: If you look at most of these distilleries that have been around a while, there are families that are connected to them. (We don’t own Beam; everybody thinks that we own it but Jim Beam sold his part after Prohibition to get capital to expand.)
Now when times go bad, if you don’t really have families involved, if it is a conglomerate, they tend to consolidate or liquidate. I remember back in the day we bought National Distillers and they were a bigger industry plant than we were. They had two plants, one in Cincinnati and one in Franklin. And when we bought them, it was kind of earth-shattering in the bourbon industry because how many times does the little guy buy the big guy?
Freddie: We’ve got that lengthy history of where we’ve come from, and what caused the ups and downs in the past. I’m sure there’s a lot of companies that are probably very envious of having someone [like my dad or Jimmy Russell at Wild Turkey] with a lot of detailed knowledge of the ebbs and flows of the industry.
Fred: Families are going to be there for the long haul. Conglomerates, a lot of times, are there for the quick buck. If things go bad, they jump off quick. [Luckily], bourbon is scolding hot right now. If you can’t make money today in the bourbon industry, you better close the doors.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.