Interview and photography by Simon McGoram
Bartender magazine and 4bars.com.au were lucky enough to catch up with a seventh generation Beam, Fred Booker Noe III on his last visit down under early August. Noe has worked at the Jim Beam distillery for over 25 years overseeing Bourbon production and is the son of legendary master distiller emeritus Booker Noe. When he can pull himself away from the distillery this southern gentleman likes nothing more that to share his love of Bourbon whiskey around the world as the worldwide ambassador for Jim Beam Bourbon.
May I suggest that you pour yourself a nip of Kentucky’s finest and enjoy the following transcript.
Hi Fred. This isn’t your first time out to Australia is it?
“No. This is my second time. The first time was in 2002.”
So what brings you back down under?
“To come back and just visit the market, you know, and to spread the good word of Jim Beam. You guys [the Australian industry] are tremendous supporters of our brands and I think that it is important to come and thank the supporters of the brands, you know for their loyal support of Jim Beam over the years.”
Do you get to do a bit of travel in your role with Jim Beam?
“Yeah that’s the understatement of the day! I travel quite a bit. I travel the world; I’m the Bourbon ambassador as well as the distiller so I make the Bourbon and go on the road and we try and sell a little bit of it and do what we can do to educate people on our brands or just to say thank you for the support that we have from a lot of our customers.”
Do you get good feedback from your trips; are people pretty please to met you?
“Oh yeah; it’s amazing. Loyal supporters of the brands, when you come into their establishments they feel very special, which they are, because when Jim Beam’s great grandson walks through the door and comes to thank you for your support it makes them feel really big. And that’s what it’s all about because we’re all in this together. We have to partner up with good customers and work together to make sure that our brands get promoted correctly and educate people on how to promote and how to sell the brands.”
“You know family is big and me and dad had a good ride together and one of these days we’ll be back together. My job is to make sure that his Bourbon is still as good as it always was.” – Fred Booker Noe III
What would be your favourite aspect of your job?
“I’d say when I’m selecting the Booker’s Bourbon. You know, when I do that it is one of my favourite things because my father and I would work on that before he passed away. It’s something that I still do in my mum’s kitchen where dad and I did it and it kind of reminds me of him and it’s kind of cool to be able to think about Booker and sit in… I’ll never sit in his chair because that was his chair, but I do the selection in the kitchen just like he did. And that’s what brings me back. You know family is big and me and dad had a good ride together and one of these days we’ll be back together. My job is to make sure that his Bourbon is still as good as it always was.
You might have already answered my next question and that is do you have a favourite amongst your Bourbon brands?
“Booker’s is one I’m really proud of because it is my dad’s; it’s his baby with his name on it. But, Jim Beam Black is another one of my favourites too as I’ve worked quite a bit that one. Knob Creek is one I’ve travelled quite a bit. I wouldn’t really say I’ve got a favourite – I kind of like them all – but those three are the ones I consume the most of. I stay away from the Booker’s if I have much speaking to do. You’ve got to watch it or the Booker’s will kind of bite you and I don’t speak from notes very much so sometimes I found myself thinking: “Now what did I just last say?” But, I kind of get that from my dad; you got to just be yourself and enjoy what you do. I love this industry and I mean it. I was kind of born into it and I’ve taken to it pretty well I guess.”
What has been your most memorable experience in all the years you’ve worked for Jim Beam?
“When they added my picture to the label of the Jim Beam bottles. That was two Septembers ago? It was kind of a surprise. I heard about for about a month; I didn’t know that it was going on. All of a sudden it got out at a sales meeting I was at. I said: “what else is there?” and they replied: “By the way we’re going to add your picture to the bottle.” So that is probably the biggest honour and most memorable. I got pretty emotional that day because I was thinking of my dad and all that.”
If you weren’t in the Bourbon business what would you do?
“Oh what would I do? I’d probably be (and this is what I would have done if my father hadn’t put me to work) travelling around with one of these with country music singers that I’ve met over the years – Hank Williams Jr. or a band called Montgomery Gentry. I could see myself riding on a tour bus with them boys. They drink a lot of liquor and have a lot of fun.
It was funny, when I go out of college that was dad’s only rule; finish College and I’ll put you to work. Well, after eight years and a lot of his money I finally got out of school and he didn’t really have a spot for me. He told me to hold on and that he’d get me a job. So I got to running around with Hank Williams Jr. a country singer back home in the States, and Hank fired his road manager – which is the guy that makes all the hotel room bookings and makes sure everybody is there and I had travelled with them and knew the job and I thought that would be a pretty good job. I can remember saying something to dad about going to work for Hank and he said; “No you’re not. That ain’t no life for you or me boy. Come on we’ll go put you to work.”
So I went on to work for Jim Beam and have been there ever since. But I could see myself travelling around the country. I guess I like the road too much to sit at home too much.”
How would you say the whiskey category has changed in your lifetime?
In my lifetime, I’d say that the biggest change has been a development of the ultra-premium or premium line of Bourbons. You know dad really started the ultra premium line with Booker’s and it got the whole Bourbon category re-ignited back home. You see it around the world too. People are maybe wanting to drink a little less, but they want to drink better. This has opened up the doors for extra aged and higher proofs and these craft Bourbons; the super premiums. That’s the one thing I’ve seen in my lifetime that has really got people looking at Bourbon again because when I was a kid you just had Jim Beam – that was it. But now, we’ve got Jim Beam White, Black, small batch Bourbons; Jim Beam Small Batch, and all these different things and we’re working on some new things all the time to try and open the window a little wider for the whole Bourbon category.”
“People are looking at classic cocktails and a lot of… well we used to call them bartenders, but back home we are calling ’em mixologists now; they’re kind of like guys in a lab putting together different things.” – Fred Booker Noe III
Are you happy with the perception that Bourbon has around the globe?
“Oh yeah. You know Bourbon, I don’t think now it is so much considered as your dads’ drink or grandfather’s drink; I’m seeing a lot younger people coming into the Bourbon category and I think that a lot of that is because cocktails are coming back. People are looking at classic cocktails and a lot of… well we used to call them bartenders, but back home we are calling ’em mixologists now; they’re kind of like guys in a lab putting together different things. Some of the drinks that I’ve tasted the guys ‘n’ galls have created using Bourbon are amazing. The thing that one bartender told me (I can call him a bartender because I’ve know Bobby for many years) he said: “Bourbon brings something to a cocktail. When I’m looking at this clear stuff it doesn’t bring anything but alcohol to the cocktail.” I’ll go on to quote him: “If you mix it with shit it’s going to taste like shit.”
He’s talking about anything you mix it with that’s going to be what it tastes like. He said: “Bourbon, when you put it in a glass it’s got some character, it’s got some body, it’s got flavour then you’ve got to work to build from that to come up with a unique flavour.”
Bobby Gleeson is his name, from Las Vegas, he does some tremendous drinks and every time I see him he’s got something new for me. Some of the stuff when he starts to mix it I go “What?!” But he has done some amazing stuff and a lot of his compadres, you know that are mixologists or from the bartenders’ guild that I’ve spoken to love seeing what they can do with the Bourbon. The future is now. You never know what is going to be the next great drink. It may be a Bourbon drink and not a vodka drink.”
Are there any new trends in whiskey production? What can we expect to see in the near future?
“Well, I’ll tell you about a product we just released this summer; Red Stag. It is Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon whiskey that has been infused with natural black cherry flavour. Right now it is brand new for us, we don’t know what is going to happen, but if the early indications are anything to go by we might have hit something here. What it is doing is allowing non-Bourbon drinkers to enjoy Bourbon. Some of the tastings that I’ve done where we are presenting it chilled sometimes with just a little bit of soda mixed with it; the response has been overwhelming. It’s a little sweeter, just a little bit, just a little touch of black cherry to finish when you sallow it, but it is still Kentucky Straight Bourbon whiskey; four year old Jim Beam which we have naturally infused. It’s pretty exciting for us because the ladies are really enjoying it because it softens up the bite so they can take a chilled shot of it just like the guys can. We’ll see what happens… it’s something new for us at Jim Beam.”
What about the rye category? There has been a lot of talk about rye seeing a huge come back. Are you seeing that?
“We are seeing that in the States. We actually just released a year ago a brand we call rye one [(ri)1] which is our venture into the ultra-premium rye market. You know, rye whiskey, I think a lot of its popularity is coming from people who are getting to know Bourbon and are getting on the world wide web and seeing all the information and they are discovering that rye whiskey was what the distillers were making before Bourbon came along. So they’re looking at it and saying; “what about this rye whiskey?”
“Dad always loved making it and drinking it because rye has got a little bit more bite to it. It’s one of those things that until you’ve actually had it you don’t know what it is all about…” – Fred Booker Noe III
A lot of bartenders and mixologists are wanting to go back to the classics and have found that the original Manhattan was made with rye. So you’re starting to see people starting to want to make drinks with rye. We’ve always had our Jim Beam Yellow label rye whiskey. Dad always loved making it and drinking it because rye has got a little bit more bite to it. It’s one of those things that until you’ve actually had it you don’t know what it is all about; it’s got a little more bite and a little more tingling sensation in the mouth.
Is it going to be a tremendous come back? I don’t know, but there is some interest in rye right now. There are not many rye brands out there and we are lucky enough to be one of the biggest producers of rye in the United States and probably in the world.”
What is your favourite way to enjoy a whiskey?
“I like just a cube or two of ice and a little water, or a great cocktail. In the summer time back home when the weather is hot maybe with a little ginger ale. We’ve got a small batch Bourbon called Basil Hayden that is made with twice as much rye – a very popular drink during the summer back home has been Basil Hayden with ginger ale.”
How would you say the future is looking for Bourbon?
“I think the future for the Bourbon industry is looking very good. In fact, at Beam Global we’ve expanded our Booker Noe plant – after my dad passed away we named his Boston plant after him. We’ve actually expanded it by 50 percent capacity, so we’re actually banking on Bourbon getting bigger and bigger. We’re ramping up to make more and I’ll probably be on the road more trying to sell it. But I don’t think that it is going to be that hard to sell. I think that once people learn about Bourbon and learn what its all about and learn how to enjoy it… if you make a face then it’s too strong. A lot of people thing that it is all about shots, but drinking Bourbon is not just about a shot and a beer. There are some great cocktails, cut it with a little bit of water sip it and savour it. I mean on a setting like this [Manly beach] with a good Bourbon, well hell it don’t get much better than this.”