Food & Drink

Noe Knows Bourbon

Booker and Fred Noe
Booker and Fred Noe | Courtesy of Beam Suntory
Booker and Fred Noe | Courtesy of Beam Suntory

When Fred Noe arrived for dinner at Scopa Italian Roots in Venice, California, he was leaning on a cane. Bum knee. Damn thing’s been bothering him for years, but been flaring up badly enough that he’s scheduled for knee replacement surgery. Despite his ever-present smile, Fred was clearly in some discomfort. “It hurts like a sum’bitch,” he said, lingering on that last syllable like a snail moving through peanut butter. “But fuck it, there’s bourbon to drink tonight.”

A seventh generation bourbon maker, Fred was born in the same Bardstown, Kentucky, house where his great grandfather Jim once lived. (Jim as in Beam. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.) Fred’s master distiller of the family’s ur-whiskey brand, and over a 30-year career, he says he’s worked every damn job there is at the distillery, from bottling to marketing. He took over his current gig 12 years ago after the passing of his father, Booker Noe, godfather of the craft whiskey revival.

In 1988, Booker Noe released Booker’s, an undiluted, unfiltered bourbon that planted the seeds of a bourbon revolution and just recently won a major whiskey award. When he died in February 2004, The New York Times wrote that Booker’s Bourbon “helped revitalize the bourbon business, which had been battered by the rising popularity of 'white goods,' like gin and particularly vodka.” Just as single malts created a new market for Scotch, Booker’s and the rest of Beam’s small-batch portfolio (Baker’s, Basil Haydens, Knob Creek) set the stage for a brown liquor boom in America.

Simply put, Booker was a legend.

“I’m just doing my best to carry on his legacy,” Fred said. “It ain’t always easy, but I wouldn’t trade it for nothing.”

Fred was in Los Angeles promoting the release of a new Jim Beam expression called Double Oak. As the name suggests, Double Oak undergoes two separate agings in two new charred American oak barrels. To be called bourbon, whiskey must be (along with several other conditions) aged in new, charred oak barrels. This specific conditioning gives bourbon its distinctive woody bite. By contrast, many scotches and other whiskies are aged in former bourbon barrels, giving them less bite and more mellow overtones.

By law, bourbon must also be aged two years. Conventional wisdom, however, holds that you want around seven years in wood to get an exceptional product. The idea behind Double Oak is to age the juice conventionally for four years, then to hit it with another fresh-charred barrel for eight months, amping up the intensity and accelerating its aging. In the age of instant gratification, we’re not about to quibble.

What surprised me most about Double Oak is how subtle the wood’s influence is on the whiskey. With two charred barrels in play I was expecting a burnt forest. Instead I found a temperate easy-drinking spirit, one that bourbon beginners will find quite obliging. Hardcore whiskeyphiles, on the other hand, might want to stick with the more complex offerings in Beam’s ample portfolio.

I’m also happy to report that, in addition to his big new whiskey, Fred brought his big old mouth. Damn thing runs like a scalded haint, and I loved every minute.

Our conversation started with his mother, Annis, who’s 83 years old and takes her bourbon one way and one way only: mixed with ginger ale over lots of ice. “She says that’s the best way to drink it, and ain’t nobody gonna tell her any different,” Fred said. Annis has had a clear influence on Fred’s philosophy on the precise and proscribed ways bourbon should be consumed. To wit...

“There’s no right way or wrong way to drink bourbon,” he said. “And anybody tells ya any goddamn different is full of shit.”

Damn straight, Fred.

Unsurprisingly, he amplified this point with a story. A few years back, Fred had just finished a staff training session at a bar in Tampa when a guy—we’ll call him Bill—came in and ordered Knob Creek with a splash of cola, then confided to the bartender that Knob Creek was his favorite liquor in the world. The bartender asked Fred if he should let Bill know that he was sitting a few stools away from Jim Beam’s very own kin and the man who now engineered his favorite hooch. “Nah,” Fred said. “Leave ‘im be.”

A few minutes later Bill was joined by a few friends, one of whom started giving him a hard time for “polluting” such a fine bourbon with cola. Bill, undeterred, proceeded to make such a convincing argument about the merits of Knob Creek and Coke that all four of his friends wound up ordering the drink. That’s when Fred decided he should introduce himself.

Flustered by Fred’s appearance, Bill wondered aloud if he had violated some sacred whiskey code. On cue, Fred called the bartender over and ordered a Knob and Coke.

“The way you’re supposed to drink bourbon,” he told Bill and his pals, “is any damn way you want to.”

Listening to Fred, I couldn’t help but be reminded of his old man. Back in 1998, I was working at a newspaper in Phoenix and had the pleasure of spending a few hours with Booker. He was nearly 70 years old and carried his considerable weight around with the assistance of a wooden cane. But in all the ways that mattered, he was the same bourbon-swilling Kentucky boy who learned the family business back in 1950.
“Our first label was called Old Tub, established in 1882,” Booker told me. “A lot of the bourbons are named ‘old’ something. Old Grand Dad. Old Crow. Old Tub. Old Bardstown.”

I wondered aloud why that was. Without missing a beat Booker shot back, “Because they’re old.” When you’re right, you’re right.

Booker also told me about a night when he and the late Carl Beam were taste-testing a batch of 2-year-old bourbon that wasn’t quite right. “We were sitting up in Carl’s office in this old beat-up wooden distillery,” Booker reminisced, “and we drank up all the whiskey that we had there. We were feeling pretty good then, but it was getting late. So I says, ‘I got to go. I better go on in.’ Then Carl goes over to this cabinet of his and pulls out a half pint. So we finished that off—one for the road, you know, which you can’t do no more, by the way.” [Note: Booker was from a different time. Today there’s a thing called Uber. It’s there for a reason. —Ed.]

When Carl called Booker the next day to see how he was doing, Booker groaned, “To tell you the damn truth, I got the bust-head.” The bust-head, he explained, is a hangover of such magnitude your head feels as if it might bust right open.

When I relayed that story to Fred, he shook his head and smiled, “Ol Booker, well, he was a true original.”

Indeed, I thought, raising a whiskey. Like father, like son.

Dan Dunn’s head is oft-busted. Check out Dan’s latest book, American Wino: A Tale of Reds, Whites and One Man’s Blues. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.