Bourbon, America's original spirit, lost an original spirit of its own Tuesday with the death of Booker Noe, the master distiller emeritus of Jim Beam, grandson of Beam himself and creator of Booker's Bourbon.
The first time I met Booker, I was a travel writer, researching a story on touring Kentucky by way of Bourbon distilleries. My wife and I had made a few stops and one morning while eating at the bed & breakfast at which we slept, we chatted with the owner, who wondered what a couple of Yankees were doing in Bardstown, Kentucky. We told her of our whiskey mission and she said, "Well, have you gone to see Booker Noe?"
While we were pleased to get tours of the distilleries that surrounded the little town that is known as the Bourbon Capital of the World and planned to go out to Jim Beam that day, we hadn't presumed that we would get an audience with one of its most prominent citizens, the Ambassador of Bourbon and the creator of Booker's, one of my personal favorite whiskies.
I told her that, and she said, "Would you like me to call him?"
"By all means," was my incredulous reply.
The woman got on the phone to Booker and said, "These two journalists are in town from New York and could you have them over to the house." It was fine with Booker, and we arranged that we'd come by at 10 that morning.
We arrived on time at Booker's house that sits on the main drag through Bardstown, just blocks from the business district. While it was certainly one of the nicer houses around, it struck me that this Greek revival home, which could have easily been the centerpiece of a plantation had it been surrounded by acres of cotton fields instead of a sliver of a lot, was kind of unassuming for such a lofty personality as Booker Noe.
We walked in and were greeted like old friends. A grandkid and a gaggle of his friends had the run of the place this Saturday morning and Booker wondered if we wanted any of the pancakes they'd been eating. When we declined, he took us into the parlor, where I began to earnestly interview him about points of Bourbon production. As I seemed to have absorbed some of the rudiments, he interrupted me to ask what distilleries I'd visited. I riddled off a list including Wild Turkey and he stopped me.
"Did you see Jimmy Russell when you were there?" He was referring to the master distiller.
I said that I had.
"Did he give you a drink?"
I allowed that he hadn't.
"Shoooot, I go there and we get drunk."
I continued to scribble away in my note pad and he, with a conspiratorial grin, said: "Don't write 'get drunk.' Say, 'We have a few.' The marketing boys don't like that."
I did as I was told even though by the strictest rules of journalism a source is supposed to go off the record before he makes his damning remarks. I only betray confidence today because it seems so telling of Booker -- and because it seems he can't possibly get in trouble with the boys in marketing now. Something about Booker drew you into his plot. Even though he was the master distiller emeritus of the biggest Bourbon maker in the world, grandson of the man whose name is on the bottle, you always had the feeling that he was a renegade, winking at the system while remaining its master.
The rest of our visit he kept the conceit, but with heavy irony. When he took us out back to a barn set up with a bar, he remarked: "We come back here and we…have a few." On several more occasions the phrase came up and also found more chances to get in his digs on the marketing team. Like when I asked him the advantage of a cork in the Booker's bottle over a screw top: "The marketing boys says it's five dollars a bottle."
When we finally left the house after viewing the room where Jim Beam had died -- "he was stuffed shirt," Booker divulged, "went fishing with a tie on" -- and meeting his lovely wife Annis, I had my arms full of Bourbon and a great story in my notebook.
After that I would take any opportunity for an audience with Booker, not only because he was what writers call a quote machine, but because with Booker you knew you were in the presence of a great man. I don't know who came up with the phase the Ambassador of Bourbon, but it wasn't a mere marketing honorific. He was a genuine diplomat for the spirit, drawing people in with his humor, kindness and homespun wisdom. Even if he hadn't created Booker's Bourbon, which certainly can be given a great deal of the credit for the return to interest in ultrapremium Bourbons, he would have been the man I would have put on the stump for the spirit. He was a gifted raconteur, whose stories rarely stayed within the strict parameters of whiskey and the lore he passed along created affection not only for the product, but the place in which it was made.
Booker was also a man of style, always wearing debonair hats with rakish flair. And when in his later years he began to use a cane, he carried it off like a fashion statement. He was also a spirited musician, sitting in on jug with the bands that would play for his barbecue parties. On the menu was, typically, some pork made by Booker and pyrotechnically doused with his Bourbon. Visitors might also get a tour of his ham-smoking house, which on more than one occasion caused neighbors to call the fire department.
But Booker always had the common touch and used it wisely. I have sat through a number of tastings in which overly sincere presenters would take the crowd through the swizzle, sniff and sip of gentile Bourbon appreciation only to be undermined when it came time for Booker and his namesake whiskey to be sampled. In his introduction, he'd hit the marketing mark by describing the excellent water and other goodies that are never filtered out of the spirit, but he'd also meander around the subject, going off on tangents like the time his grandfather supplied water to the local convent or how Jim Beam used to carry the label Old Tub. He'd typically instruct the audience to put some water in (it's a high-proof quaff much as its maker is) and take a good slug, chew on it a spell and then swallow and hold your breath. The last step would be a satisfied lip smack and a comment like "How about that?"
The message with Booker was always that while Bourbon is a national treasure and certainly ranks in connoisseurship with the other great spirits, there was never any reason to take it too seriously. And wherever he is now, I am sure the Ambassador of Bourbon is still spreading the word while exasperating the boys in marketing, and, yes, having a few.
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