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.