An Interview with Fred Noe, Distiller for Jim Beam

British Invasion Cocktail - Courvoisier Cognac
British Invasion Cocktail. Photo Credit: © Darko Zagar

For many Jim Beam was their first taste of bourbon. The name is almost synonymous with Kentucky whiskey and played a significant role in bourbon's revival in the later half of the 20th century due largely to well planned marketing campaigns throughout the years. While Jim Beam is as popular as ever, the Beam family has taken their love for making great bourbon to craft a line of spectacular bourbons that make up the company's Small Batch Collection.

As the 7th in a generation of bourbon distillers, Fred Noe is now in charge of carrying on the Beam family legacy and oversees the making of not only the Jim Beam bourbons, but Knob Creek, Booker's, Basil Hayden's and Bakers. During the first National Bourbon Heritage Month in September 2007, I was able to chat with Noe about his family's bourbon, their legacy, how to drink bourbon and what it was like growing up a Beam.

Growing up a Beam
The Beam tradition of making whiskey began in 1795 and the family is often referred to as "the first family of bourbon." Although the Samuels, who continue to produce Maker's Mark, are technically the oldest distilling family still in Kentucky, the Beam name is more familiar to the public thanks to the brand developed to commemorate the life of Jim Beam, which still carries his name. Fred Noe is the 7th in the line of bourbon distillers to take on the family business and grew up in the middle of the bourbon industry like his father and grandfathers and is proud of his lineage and the opportunity to "share the product my ancestors made."

Many families have a niche and it just happens that when you're born a Beam your niche is producing fine bourbon whiskey. To Noe the distillery was always there and a "neat place to grow up, I always enjoyed hanging out there." He admits he may have taken the family business for granted, not always realizing the significance of it.

As a child the distillery was filled with all the adventures a young boy wanted, it’s where he not only learned the craft he now pursues but where many childhood milestones took place such as learning to drive. "I was very popular in college, that's for sure," says Noe, yet he's very humble about being in such a well-known family and simply admits that it was how life was. Noe has been officially employed at the distillery for 23 years and serves as distiller, concentrating on the Small Batch Collection, and Bourbon Ambassador for Beam Global Spirits.

National Bourbon Heritage Month
The legacy the Beam family has left for the bourbon industry is significant and the designation of September as National Bourbon Heritage Month is for the family (as it is with other distilling families) a tribute to their lineage, the industry and the country's history. Fred Noe sees it as national recognition of the history of Kentucky and its influence on the United States. "It's probably the best news to come out of the Senate since Repeal," Noe says with a chuckle. The Kentucky bourbon industry is fueled by an interesting group of people, many with shared ancestry dating back to the birth of bourbon, yet as close in proximity as all of the distilleries and distillery families are, they are all producing different bourbons and finding two that are the same is nearly impossible.

Noe sees this diversity as a true benefit to the craft and to the consumer because "being different is what is making bourbon rise" as a whole.

More about the bourbon and Fred Noe's advice on drinking it.>>

Jim Beam Bourbon Whiskey
The "entry level" bourbon, Jim Beam White is described by Noe as "a great bourbon that's moderately priced." The formula for the whiskey is taken from a family recipe from way back and it's nice, clean finish makes it a great cocktail and shot whiskey. It’s a whiskey you can trust when the choices are limited and it is often a stepping-stone for bourbon drinkers who tend to migrate to higher-grade whiskeys like Jim Beam Black Label (aged 8 years) or the Small Batch Collection of bourbons.

Noe notes that even though the premium brands are favored, some people prefer to stay with the "original" simply because it suits their tastes better.

Small Batch Collection
A true Kentucky gentleman, Noe is diplomatic when it comes to his bourbons and admits they are all examples of good bourbon whiskey. There was a little hesitation when asked his favorite from the Beam distilleries, but Booker's and Knob Creek made the list for different reasons: Booker's due to sentiment and Knob Creek for its extraordinary sweetness. It's clear though that the distillery's Small Batch Collection is where his focus lies and the four bourbons included have a special place in the distiller's heart. We spoke specifically about those two personal favorites of Noe's.

Booker's True Barrel Bourbon Whiskey
To Noe, Booker's is his favorite of favorites and he admits its more out of sentiment than anything else, not just because "it was my dad's baby," but also because it is like tasting the past.

In 1988 Booker Noe (Fred Noe's father) introduced it as Booker's True Barrel Bourbon because it is, in fact, "true barrel." The elder Noe wanted to make bourbon the way it was "uncut, straight out of the barrel." This was how whiskey used to be distributed, before the days of bottling, when drinkers would bring jugs to the distillery and have them filled straight from the barrel for a price of fifteen cents a quart.

Prior to his father's death, Fred Noe would select barrels for this high-proof bourbon with Booker, creating many memories the younger Noe has held on to and leading to his preference for the "true barrel bourbon that reignites the flames" of the past.

Being bottled straight from the barrel, Booker's is proofed between 121 and 127, depending on the barrels chosen and is meant to be cut with water or another mixer to bring it to a more palatable proof. This is how it was done in the old days and this is how it is intended to be done now. Noe does not suggest drinking Booker's neat because it is simply too hot, but when cut with water the flavors open up, leading to a bourbon drinking experience from times long gone. Booker's has intense aromas that jump out the glass, led by the vanilla and caramel taken from the barrels which have a #4 char (the heaviest allowed). Noe also describes Booker's as hot and smooth with a warm finish, the entire experience being that of "full, real bourbon."

Knob Creek
If you are not familiar with Booker's, you may know Fred Noe's other favorite small batch bourbon, Knob Creek. This sweeter whiskey with its deep, rich color was designed to give drinkers a taste of pre-Prohibition bourbon, before mass production was implemented.

Knob Creek is aged for 9 years, which allows the bourbon to soak in more of the sweet, caramelized flavors of the oak barrels, and is bottled at a true 100 proof. Like all of its premium bourbon counterparts, Knob Creek is meant to be cut to taste by the drinker and, again, Noe suggests cutting with water to get the true flavor of the bourbon. He describes Knob Creek as having a sweet, syrupy nose with toasted almond notes and a warm, glowing finish that "sticks with you, but not forever." This bourbon is a mixer and a sipper. Noe notes having seen some fantastic cocktails coming out from behind the bar that include Knob Creek, including one that is headed to this years Cocktail World Cup in New Zealand, but he is also quick to point out that it's just as deserving of the simple and classic Highball or Knob Creek and Coke.

Drinking the Beam Family of Bourbons
Fred Noe and I had quite the conversation about drinking habits and spirit quality. It has been the tendency for a long time for people to choose well whiskies when mixing with Coke, the thinking being that it's a waste if premium brands are used. Noe recounts a common scenario throughout his years in which a husband will say how much he loves Knob Creek and water, but since his wife prefers bourbon and cola, he buys her Jim Beam. When Noe points out to these gentlemen that they're cheating their wives of great tastes and that Knob Creek (or any other premium bourbon) is better with Coke and that there's no need to skimp on that drink in particular, the wives usually beam with satisfaction. He says, "If you enjoy it, drink it the way you want. There's no reason you can&'t mix the high-grade bourbons." The resurgence of interest in bourbon cocktails has crossed that gender line and Noe thinks it neat that he's seeing more women ordering traditional bourbon drinks simply because that's what they enjoy.

It's this preconception that Noe is passionate about correcting in his role as Bourbon Ambassador, but he also has a great appreciation for the new whiskey (in particular bourbon) cocktails being created. "These mixologists are like chemists in a lab," comments Noe. And the fact that "bourbon brings something to cocktails, where vodka brings nothing" is stepping up the use of bourbon in original drinks. When mixing a drink with vodka, the drink tastes like the mixer(s) used, however, Noe points out that when you mix with bourbon you create a drink that is more complex in flavor because you're marrying a richly flavored spirit with complimentary mixers to create something entirely new. Fruits, cucumber, lemonade and ginger ale are just a few things he's seeing mixed with bourbon. The recipes are becoming more complex and on paper some ingredients may not seem like a good pairing with each other, but once they're in the glass the surprising mixability of bourbon shines.

Noe also suggests that while drinks may not sound pleasing, "Don't make your mind up until you taste it."

The Beam Bourbon Portfolio and Cocktails >>

The Jim Beam Portfolio
Jim Beam whiskey is available at bars and liquor stores everywhere and the label list is impressive and covers a nice range for different palates. The Small Batch Collection is also available in a sampler set so you can compare them to one another.

  • Jim Beam White Label- Aged 4 years, 80 proof, around $15/750ml
  • Jim Beam White Label- Aged 7 years, 80 proof, around $17/750ml bottle, available only in KY
  • Jim Beam Green Label "Choice"- Aged 5 years, 80 proof, around $16/750ml bottle, charcoal filtered
  • Jim Beam Black Label- Aged 8 years, 86 proof, around $25/750ml bottle
  • Jim Beam Yellow Label- Aged 4 years, 80 proof, around $17/750ml bottle, rye whiskey

Small Batch Collection

Jim Beam Bourbon won Best Bourbon in the 2013 About.com Readers' Choice Awards.

Cocktail Recipes from the Beam family of bourbons: