A Whiskey Pilgrim Finds a Kentucky Home in the Capital of Bourbon
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99
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At a tasting of the four-brand Four Roses line held afterwards, a group of journalists from Britain eye the provincial liquid suspiciously, still not convinced anything can replace their Scotch.
Back in Bardstown, the Yankee has wangled an invitation to a backyard barbecue. Booker Noe, the grandson of Jim Beam and master distiller emeritus as well as something ofan ambassador of bourbon for the company, sits on the porch of his stately house just outside downtown Bardstown. Sporting a Panama hat and brandishing a cane, he welcomes visitors and sends them through the house to a large garage in back that doubles as a tasting room. The solemnity of the occasion, at which are assembled three noted whiskey writers, as well as distinguished guests from England, Japan and Denmark, is broken when Booker's grandchildren skate through followed by a dog.
When everyone is seated, Jim Kokoris, the executive director of the Kentucky Bourbon Circle, leads the gathering through a tasting of Baker's, Basil Hayden's and Knob Creek, before surrendering the floor to Booker to introduce his namesake bourbon. A natural raconteur, Noe rambles through the origins of the Beam brand names before getting to his whiskey. Beams have been making bourbon since 1795, when Noe's great-great-great grandfather Jacob Beam, a German immigrant, first made whiskey as part of his grist mill operation. In 1882, the company's first liquor with a label--Old Tub--was made. "Old," it seems, is almost a family name in the bourbon industry. More than a hundred brands have used the word in their titles. After Prohibition, Noe's grandfather, whom he describes as a "stuffed shirt" who wore a tophat and tie to go fishing, rebuilt the distillery in 120 days. The first bourbon named for him, "Colonel James B. Beam," was a two-year-old rushed to market to revive interest in bourbon, which was losing ground to imported blended whiskies that hit the stores immediately after repeal. In 1945, the now well-known "Jim Beam" brand, a four-year-old, was introduced. While bourbons can be as young as two years, those that have no age statement--which is usually the case--must be at least four years old.
The bourbons sitting in front of Noe, the Beam small-batch collection, were all released in the past 15 years. Baker's is named for Noe's cousin, Baker Beam. Knob Creek is named for the farm where Abraham Lincoln was born and which his father sold for $20 and 10 barrels of bourbon. Basil Hayden's, with its heavy rye content, is named for an eighteenth-century distiller who came upon bourbon by way of rye making.
"Before we do anything, just get a good whiff of that good stuff," Noe says, and holds a glass of Booker's to his nose.
Launching into a reverie over the quality of Kentucky water, which filters through a large limestone shelf in the state to create strong race horses and good bourbon, Noe tells a story of his grandfather piping water from the distillery spring to a girls' school run by nuns. "Those nuns were so thankful they said a prayer for Jim Beam every night."
A woman asks the ill-advised question: "Don't you ever worry that the spring will dry up?" Noe's face becomes a mask of discomfiture. "The spring will dry up?! Oh no, no," he dismisses the suggestion as blasphemy.
His brand came about when "a fellow came by and said, 'What do you drink?' I said, 'I drink uncut, unfiltered, straight out of the barrel, before they filter out the goodies.' We got some out for Christmas and there was such approval we decided to market it." One of the philosophies behind Booker's is that bourbon ages best in the middle stories of the warehouse, where temperature fluctuations are least. "If you like this, that's where you have to go to get it," Noe explains, noting that he tastes every barrel that becomes Booker's.
Uncut as it is, the bourbon has an alcohol content in the rarefied range of 124 to 126 proof. By way of example, Noe tells the story on his lovely wife, Annis, of how she once made her famous Pork'n'Beam recipe using Booker's instead of regular Jim Beam: "It blew the oven door and lifted a 100 pork chops." This is all to explain that he suggests drinking it with a little water. Then forgoing the sip and swizzle method employed in the earlier tastings, he says, "Take a good slug!" He slams down his shot. "Hold your breath." Smacks his lips. "How about that?!"
Everyone repairs to the yard for barbecue, and Booker gives a tour of his smokehouse, pointing out hams hanging in anticipation of Thanksgiving. The Yankee ends up seated with the director of the Japan Bourbon Whiskey Promotion Association, who explains--through an interpreter--the effect his country's economic downturn has had on their thirst for fine bourbon. "We skimp on other things. Not bourbon."
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