Fred Noe is the seventh-generation master distiller at Jim Beam in Kentucky. He took over in 2007, and is a direct descendent of Jacob Beam, who sold his first barrel of whisky in 1795.
It amazes people that I’m a real person and not some drawing on the side of the bottle. The story of bourbon is a chunk of history of the United States. It takes in Prohibition and the depression – my family was involved in bourbon through those times. I grew up in the distillery with my dad. When I was a kid, I used to go down to the distillery, learned to fish, learned to hunt – it was a pretty neat place to grow up.
How old were you when you tasted bourbon for the first time?
Well, mothers used to put a drop of bourbon in babies’ mouths while they were teething, to ease the pain, and I’m sure I was like every other kid. And the best cough medicine in the world is bourbon, honey and lemon juice. Where we live, bourbon is a huge part of our culture.
Did you go straight from school to working at the distillery?
I studied marketing and management, but when I started at the distillery, I was the night-shift bottling line supervisor – I think it was a test from my father to see if I was serious about it. But now, I go to the R&D labs, I check samples, and I’ve even been known to pick up a broom and sweep the floor. It’s not just sitting around sipping bourbon – a lot of people think that…
How should bourbon be served?
I talk to those Scotch guys, and they have all these rules, like no ice and so on, but we don’t like rules in Kentucky. You drink bourbon any way you like. My mum drinks her bourbon with ginger ale, no problem. And cocktails are really making a comeback.
Is it fair to compare bourbon with Scotch whisky?
There’s no way we can age bourbon as long as Scotch, some of which are aged for 30 or 40 years, because of our climate. One year in Kentucky, with our new barrels and our climate, translates to between three and five years in Scotland. The general public doesn’t think like that; they just look at the age, but it’s not fair to judge a distillery by the number of years on the bottle.
What makes a good distiller?
You have to have a good nose and palate, and you have to have a love for the product. Making bourbon is like being a chef in a restaurant. Naturally, I think my stock’s the best, but I would never criticise someone else’s stock. We’re like a fraternity. We’re good friends with the guys at Makers Mark, Wild Turkey, and so on – but with the sales force, it’s a different story…
Does it irritate you that everyone thinks Jack Daniel’s is a bourbon?
It doesn’t irritate me; it just shows me how much work needs to be done to educate people about different whiskies.