Q & A: Frederick "Booker" Noe III

Jim Beam bourbon's international ambassador has some potables and advice to share at January's Mohegan Sun WineFest 2011.


I’ll say it loud: I’m a Manhattan drinker and proud. Unlike most fans of this classic cocktail—traditionalists who make it with rye whiskey—I prefer the smokier, sometimes sweeter bourbon version. But I certainly wouldn’t call myself any kind of expert on mixology. That’s why I’m glad Frederick Booker Noe III, 53, great-grandson of Jim Beam and seventh-generation distiller for the Kentucky-based whiskey company of the same name (founded in 1795), will bring his expertise to Mohegan Sun WineFest 2011’s “Whiskey & Bourbon Tasting” at Leffingwell’s Martini Bar, Jan. 28 at 6 p.m.

Representing Beam Global Spirits & Wine, Noe will host a guided tour of spirits ranging from the company’s most popular product, Jim Beam White (at 6 million cases a year, it’s the best-selling bourbon in the world), to Maker’s Mark and the small-batch bourbons Booker’s (120 proof, aged seven years) and Knob Creek (100 proof, aged nine years). For more info on Sun WineFest 2011, visit sunwinefest.com.

As Jim Beam's "bourbon ambassador, how far afield have you gone to talk about spirits?

I've traveled the world. I just got back from Europe a couple of weeks ago. I've been to New Zealand, Australia, the Far East, Poland, the Czech Republic. Just about anyplace bourbon is sold, I've probably set foot.

When did you start this role?

About 10 to 12 years ago, when my Dad hit 70 and retired from traveling. I've been working with the company for 27 years, and became a master distiller three years ago.

What do you do on these tours?

I do a lot of community education, as I'll do at Mohegan. This is an opportunity for people to ask questions and see that there's a real, live person who is Jim Beam's great grandson, who makes the bourbon and can answer questions about it. If anybody has any questions about how to enjoy bourbon, how to taste it, I'll be able to clarify. I'm sure a lot of loyal fans of Jim Beam will be there to meet the guy whose picture is on the bottle, as they say. I always like to tell people what makes a bourbon a bourbon, as far as the regulatory laws go. I'll explain how to taste bourbon to fully enjoy the product, and then we'll actually walk through a tasting of different kinds.

Okay—what's the best way to appreciate bourbon?

There's kind of a four-step process that my dad taught me. First, you want to look at the color—you can tell a lot about bourbon by doing that. The lighter the color, the lighter in taste the bourbon will be. As it gets deeper and darker, the flavor gets more complex; because 100 percent of the color comes from the new charred white oak barrels that we age it in. That's one of the laws regarding bourbon—we have to use a new barrel to age it.

During aging, bourbon will go in and out of the wood. And when the barrel is charred, a caramelized layer of sugar sets up right where the char ends and the wood begins. As the clear new spirit is passed in and out of the wood, that's what gives the bourbon its color. It develops over the change of the seasons: In the summer, the bourbon expands and goes into the wood; in the winter, the liquid contracts and comes out. A real dark bourbon has been in and out of the wood multiple times, and will be more complex in flavor.

The second step of any tasting is "nosing" the bourbon. The trick is to part your lips, so you don't get too much bourbon up into your nose when you stick it in the glass. That's different from a wine tasting. I always tell people: "Smell it with your lips parted and with your lips open, and see if it doesn't seem different to you." For step three, my father had a technique he called the "Kentucky chew," in which you draw the bourbon into your mouth and just chew on it a bit—you'll pick up different flavors in different parts of your mouth, and different sensations.

Step four is the finish. I explain that if you like bourbon neat, that's okay; a little ice and water is okay, even mixing with soft drinks is fine. My mother has always mixed her bourbon with ginger ale, and I never saw my father give her a hard time for doing that. A lot of people think higher-end bourbons should only be sipped neat out of a brandy snifter. But a classic cocktail like an old-fashioned, where you take a little fruit, muddle it with bourbon, sugar and bitters and serve it on the rocks—now, that's a very tasty product. With the popularity of classic cocktails making a comeback, interest in bourbon is growing all the time.

In our household, one of the preferred drinks is a Manhattan.

That's a great drink. But it's a little bourbon-y and strong for people who are not enthusiasts. You might want to start with an old-fashioned until you acquire the taste, then step up to a Manhattan.

We do Manhattans more often with rye—I prefer bourbon Manhattans, but I agree they are more of an acquired taste.

Well, rye was the traditional whiskey in the States, until the [18th century] Whiskey Rebellion, when the federal government ran distillers out of the Pennsylvania and Maryland area because they were going to tax them, and those farmers came to Kentucky and became bourbon makers. The western frontier was just opening up. Bourbon uses corn, which is the native grain of Kentucky; in fact, the government gave state land to farmers who agreed to grow corn. They used their rye whiskey talents to make corn whiskey, which later became bourbon.

I understand you were instrumental in the development of Jim Beam's four small-batch bourbons: Booker's, Baker's Basil Hayden's and Knob Creek.

My dad was more instrumental in development, but I've been the main promoter since they've come out. The small-batch bourbons are characterized by extra aging, longer periods of time spent in those barrels to give them more color and flavor. Three of the four are higher in proof, which gives them better flavor and finish. Booker's is bottled uncut and unfiltered, straight from the barrel. That's the way bourbon was sold 100 years ago, back when you'd bring your container to the distillery and they'd draw it right out of the barrel. We use demineralized  water to bring all our products down to the desired bottling proofs, or strengths. You can bring it down to the strength you want yourself, the strength you enjoy it at, just by putting it on the rocks and swirling. As the ice melts, the water will open the bourbon up, releasing more aromas and flavors.

Mixed drinks are increasing in popularity these days. What do you attribute that to?

There's a new breed of mixologists out there who have learned that the craft of making cocktails can be very entertaining for customers, especially if the drinks are a spin-off of the classics. And there's an increased popularity of fresh ingredients—I'm seeing more and more bartenders who make their own sour mix from scratch. Even bitters come in so many more choices that can drastically change the complexion of a cocktail. And bourbon brings its own flavor and character to the drink, as opposed to say, vodka, which is tasteless—the taste of the drink is entirely due to the other ingredients.

And consumers have become more adventurous. They're looking for new and innovative cocktails. They're much more open-minded now, more so than I was a kid. My dad and grandad drank particular brands of bourbon, and that's what they stuck to. My mom's father liked a brand of bourbon we used to make called Old Tub; if he couldn't have that, he'd have a glass of water. But people today bounce around and try different things when they go out. Tonight it might be wine, tomorrow bourbon or gin. It's really opened the door for the growth of bourbon and given mixologists license to experiment and make up signature cocktails of their own. Presentation is a big part of that—watching someone mix a drink increases your appetite for it.

What about the influence of a "retro" show like "Mad Men," which celebrates the cocktail culture of the early 1960s?

I'm sure shows like that are tweaking interest. Or shows on the Food Network, which demonstrate how to mix a cocktail at home. We have a mixologist on our board who goes out and trains bartenders and restaurant owners on how to properly make drinks and use bar tools. The more education we can provide, the more the interest grows. Also, with the economy in a downswing, people are entertaining more at home, and are becoming more interested in crafting cocktails themselves. They're looking for a special drink they can make for dinner guests.

A lot of people still think bourbon is just for cowboys in the movies, y'know, who bellied up to the saloon bar and said, "Give me a shot." But that's not true. People are watching their alcohol consumption more these days. Instead of having four or five shots on the rocks, they will limit themselves to a couple of really nice cocktails. I know that's what is turning a lot of women into bourbon drinkers—they can make a beautiful, tasty whiskey sour that won't knock their socks off.

Two of my favorite bourbons, taste- and feel-wise, are Knob Creek and Maker's Mark.

What makes Maker's Mark different is that they use red winter wheat instead of rye in the mash bill. Wheat gives it its sweeter flavor and more mellow finish on the back of your throat. With Knob Creek, the big distinction is nine years in the barrel, and bottling it at 100 proof. That gives it a big flavor, making it a tremendous bourbon to use in a Manhattan. It stands up very well to vermouth.

What's your most popular product?

Jim Beam White—it's the No. 1 selling bourbon in the world; we sell 6,000,000 cases a year worldwide. It's aged four years and 80 proof, and the big distinction there is mixability. That's the one you see people drink with Coke or ginger ale. It's very light with a nice finish. Those drinks tend to be where most bourbon drinkers start. Then as they get older and their palates mature, they move away from mixers and toward Manhattans and bourbon on the rocks, which allow you to taste the flavor and finish more. It's all about your tastebuds and what you enjoy.

You mentioned rye whiskey, that's making a pretty big comeback. We have a couple of the biggest selling rye whiskeys in the world as well,  Jim Beam Rye and Old Overholt. Old Overholt is an old recipe; we acquired the brand from a national distilling company. We've continued to make it the same way, with the same percentages, for a long time.

Bourbon is such an "American" product; it must be interesting to meet people worldwide and see their enthusiasm for it.

Bourbon was declared America's official native spirit by Congress in 1964. If you go to Bulgaria, say, you'll find that the people there love bourbon, and are looking for products from the West. Especially the younger people. When I was in Bulgaria, the U.S. Ambassador came to a cocktail party because he was so excited; Jim Beam Bourbon is one of his country's major imports. It's fun for people to meet an American who actually makes the bourbon.

How did you get into the family business? Did you ever think of doing something else, or was there no question this was how you'd make a living?

It was always the comfort zone for me, because I'd go to the distillery with my dad from the time I was a little boy. Dad tried every way in the world to make sure I did explore all my options, that I wasn't drawn to the business just because I was his son. This is a business that has got to be in your heart, so you can talk effectively about it and enjoy that process. My dad started me as a night shift bottling line supervisor; that was his way of trying to "run me off." It was one way of making sure I was really doing what I wanted to.

Q & A: Frederick "Booker" Noe III

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