Behind the scenes at Jim Beam

One of the benefits of membership in the Bourbon Women Association is the opportunity for bourbon-related experiences not available to the general public. A small group of Bourbon Women enjoyed such an experience Friday night at the Jim Beam Distillery, first having a private tasting with master distiller Fred Noe in the T. Jeremiah Beam House and then a barbecue dinner at the Knob Creek Guest House, above, a private facility on the distillery grounds in Clermont, Ky.

Before getting into the history of the Beam family, which has been making bourbon for seven generations, Fred talked a little bit about what’s coming next – namely, $18 million in improvements at the distillery, including a greatly expanded visitors center scheduled to open next year. Also in 2012, Jim Beam will start offering public tours for the very first time.

“Our visitors’ experience has been ‘minimal’ – I’ll be nice,” Fred said. “But we’re stepping it up.” 

Then it was on to the program, during which Fred encouraged us to ask questions. “If I don’t know the answer, hell, I’ll make one up.”

He pre-empted one question immediately: If he’s the seventh generation of the Beam bourbon dynasty, why is his last name Noe? The answer: T. Jeremiah Beam, the great-great grandson of founder Jacob Beam, had no children. But he did have two sisters, and it was the son of sister Margaret Noe, Frederick “Booker” Noe II, who carried on the family business as the sixth generation.

Booker was Fred Noe’s father, but it was not a foregone conclusion that Frederick Booker Noe III would become the seventh generation to make Jim Beam, Fred said. “Booker’s rule for me was, ‘You finish college and we’ll put you to work.’ After about, oh, seven and a half years and a lot of Booker’s money, I did finish college, and he did put me to work – supervising the night shift bottling line.”

Twenty-eight years later, Fred Noe is the master distiller at Jim Beam. Booker died in 2004. He is memorialized with a statue on the distillery grounds – and still very much present in Fred’s memories and stories. He told us Friday that at Jim Beam, the 4 percent or so of the bourbon that is lost annually to evaporation isn’t called the “angel’s share” – it’s called “Booker’s share.”

“And I’m pretty sure we’re losing more than 4 percent now,” he said, smiling.

Tomorrow: How to taste bourbon Booker’s way.

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