In our May/June 2020 issue, Wayne Curtis explores the ongoing boom in the world of bourbon—how it happened, what it means for bourbon drinkers today, and what bourbon’s soaring fortunes suggest for its future. In an effort to explore this topic further, we’re having a series of Q&A conversations with people who are deeply entrenched in the bourbon world. Our latest conversation is with Fred Noe from Jim Beam. A seventh-generation master distiller, Noe is the great-grandson of Jim Beam and the son of Frederick “Booker” Noe Jr., giving him a unique perspective on bourbon’s current global boom. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Imbibe: Bourbon’s fortunes were up and down in the 20th century, but in recent decades, the trend has been pretty much nothing but up. What’s driving today’s bourbon boom, and how did we get here?
Fred Noe: Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the development by my dad and some of the guys I call the elder statesmen of bourbon industry—Jimmy Russell, Elmer T. Lee, Parker Beam—they developed more premium products. Dad did Booker’s Bourbon and the Small Batch Collection. And they actually went on the road and started educating consumers on what bourbon’s all about. Dad did tastings, Jimmy and Elmer did appearances, where they met people, shook their hands, and told the story of bourbon. They showed people how to enjoy bourbon. It was educating consumers on what bourbon is all about.
People had a vision of bourbon in the ’70s—it was your dad’s drink, or your grandfather’s drink, with old guys sitting in dim-lit rooms, smoking big cigars, kind of the aristocrats and the old guys. Young people weren’t fooling with bourbon, vodka was their thing, so Dad and Jimmy and these elder statesmen took it on themselves to go out to educate people on these great bourbons they produced. It was also a grassroots thing. Social media, writers started covering it, consumers started looking for information on bourbon, cocktails came along, and bartenders were creating really nice drinks with fresh ingredients, and that brought back cocktail culture. A lot of these things played into bourbon’s hands, but the big thing was the development of these new super-premium products, and getting them in people’s mouths. That’s what got it really started.
Bourbon overall has grown, but that premium end of the scale you mentioned—how has that helped drive this interest, and what does this surge in interest mean for the brands you make?
The big thing was the education piece. Dad traveled until he retired, and he pretty much put me on the road. A lot of this came about because of education—whether it’s through me talking, or articles that people read. If you look back to the ’70s, there weren’t many articles written on bourbon. People want information.
And people are always looking for new things. That’s why you’ll see so many limited releases—we might finish [bourbons] in different woods, or we might mingle [spirits], like my son Freddie’s Little Book creation, where he’s actually blending spirits together to create more unique spirits offerings. This last one was all different bourbons, but he’s done it with Canadian whisky, corn whiskey. People are wanting different taste profiles to tease their palates, and the mixology world wants different products to create new-tasting drinks with. They’ve got the old reliables they can fall back on, but they also want something new that has a good story.
We create products that have a unique story behind them. A lot of times, the story becomes bigger than the product itself. If it’s got a great story and some backbone to it, and there’s stuff people can dig into and tell, they like that. Everybody likes to tell a good story.
All of us in the bourbon industry, we’re pretty good storytellers in our own right, and we like to talk about our families. In my case, it’s talking about my family being in this business for 225 years, I think that gives us credibility to create products that people want to try. They know we have some knowledge behind it, some heritage, some legacy, and family members being involved, with me passing the reins on to my son Freddie as we speak.
The bourbon industry is kind of like a family thing. For an industry as competitive on the shelf as it is, the creators are very friendly amongst each other. When we get together at WhiskeyFest, we don’t take pot shots at each other, we truly enjoy being in each other’s presence, we like telling stories, talking about where we’ve been and what we’re working on, sharing information. It’s more like a brotherhood—bourbon drinkers are like a big family. People who make it, people who enjoy it—we love sharing what we do with each other.
It used to be that someone’s familiarity with bourbon was largely based on what they saw on the shelf, or what they drank at a bar. But recently—until Covid-19 forced some changes in both the short- and the long-term—bourbon tourism has become a big thing, with distillery tours, and bourbon-focused bars and clubs. How has this closer interaction with bourbon fans had an impact on what you do?
When I went to work 35 years ago, if somebody stopped by the plant, most times they had to be a liquor store owner or bar owner or a big customer, and they’d call me off the bottling line to give them a tour. That’s how our tourism worked 35 years ago: They just grabbed somebody who knew the plant. After I went to work there, my dad and the plant manager would snag me because I knew my way around, and I’d be the tour guide.
Tours back then weren’t like today—we pushed hard for tours. Dad would be on the road and people would ask, “Do you give tours of your facility?” And for years we said, “No, but if you come by, I’ll get you one.” In 2012, when we opened the American Stillhouse, that was really our first public tours through the plant. Before then, we’d just walk you through the place.
But there was the evolution of the bourbon trail, and bourbon tourism in Louisville—this all came about because of the concerted effort by the state of Kentucky to use bourbon as a hook to rekindle the fire under tourism. Kentucky’s tourism business was pretty much in the shitter, you could say—what was there to come look at in Kentucky? There wasn’t much going on. And our governor at the time, Governor [Steve] Beshear, he studied up on the wine industry in Northern California, did a little research with their tourism people, and they saw they could use bourbon the way the folks in Northern California used the wineries, to create a tourism boom for people wanting to come see bourbon. It was a gamble at first, but it’s paid off tenfold for Kentucky.
Adults are looking for things to do. I jokingly say our tour of American Stillhouse is like an adult’s Disneyworld—you’ll see families coming through, the kids aren’t having a great time because we don’t serve samples if you’re underage, but the parents who enjoy bourbon, they love coming to see where it’s made. Bourbon fans can bounce around and see 90 percent of the world’s bourbon production on one long weekend. That’s really ramped up tourism in Kentucky—and if you give them a great tour and educate them a little bit, you create an ambassador. When they get back home, they’ll tell their friends, “Man, you’ve gotta go on that bourbon trail in Kentucky!. I got to meet Fred Noe at Jim Beam, or Jimmy Russell at Wild Turkey—and I tasted a lot of great bourbons, and there’s more to bourbon than just a shot.”
People used to think about bourbon like a cowboy coming into a bar, and taking a shot of whiskey. But now with cocktails, and with different profiles in bourbon, and the small-batch and single-barrel bourbons, there’s a lot to choose from. People are realizing that bourbon is as versatile a spirit as any out there.
When you’re talking about bourbon, your terms of planning are years in advance. You have to anticipate what people will want, what kind of level they’ll be looking for five, 10, 15 years down the line. How do you take into consideration things like the 2008 recession, or the Covid-19 crisis and economic fallout? How does that factor into your planning?
We still see demand for the product. The bourbon we’re making today won’t go into a bottle for four years. If you stopped production now, it’d hurt you four years from now. So we’re continuing to produce bourbon; keeping our workers safe is the primary concern right now, so we’re really watching the people now, checking temperatures, and making sure we don’t infect our employees. But we’re still betting long term—we’re in the process of building a craft distillery at our Claremont plant, it’ll be called the Fred B. Noe Craft Distillery. And in that distillery, my son Freddie will be making the Booker’s, the Baker’s, and components for Little Book, along with small runs.
The coronavirus hasn’t really slowed us down for the future—we’re still planning on bourbon continuing at a good pace, we don’t’ see anything stopping it. The virus has hit on-premise extremely hard, it’s shut restaurants and bars down, but we’re still seeing some support through off-premise, and people are enjoying bourbon at home. We’ve actually seen a little surge there, but it’s nothing like when you have everything clicking. But we’re not shutting things down—because if you do, and things come back to normal in, say, two years, what will you have for liquid four years from now? If this thing drags on for a year, we may have to be looking at some things. but there’ll be a lot of things in trouble, not just bourbon.
Our big thing right now is trying to support our on-premise partners so they don’t disappear. If all of these bars and restaurants don’t open again, that’s gonna be a problem. If bars and restaurants don’t get to reopen because they’re not financially sound, that could hurt the bourbon industry going forward, because that’s a big demand that’s suddenly gone. But at this point, we’re hoping that most of the accounts are going to rebound, and we’re going to work with them to help them get back up and running. And everybody in the industry is doing the same thing, it’s not just us—it’s a concerted effort.
So, looking five or 10 years into the future, where do you see bourbon? What’s that state of the world look like for the category, and for your brands?
I think people will always enjoy their bourbon. Some of the things my son Freddie is doing with Little Book, or the products I’ve worked on with our Suntory partners, where we did Legent—taking some of the blending techniques from Japan and bringing them to Kentucky, and applying them to bourbon—I think people are going to be looking for something different. People are always looking for new things, with a great story behind it. That’s the kind of stuff for the future—as long as we can be creative and innovative, the future is still bright for the premium end of bourbon. And your old Jim Beam is always gonna keep plugging along, I think, for the people who love Beam and Coke. I think the bourbon industry is in good shape moving ahead. We were just getting the world really rolling on bourbon, and the coronavirus shutdown has really hurt us in Europe and China, but if we can get things moving again, we still see growth opportunities, for sure.
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