It was the mid-1980s. The Bourbon industry had been on the skids since vodka's popularity overtook it in the 1970s. Single-malt Scotch was becoming the emblem of connoisseurship in whiskey, and Jim Beam's master distiller was casting about for a way to re-establish Bourbon's virtuosity. Working in secret and with no budget, Booker Noe devised his own crypto-focus group.
He assigned an apprentice distiller to bring him all the mules (rubber hoses used by still men to sneak a dram from a barrel while on the job) in the warehouses. When they came back to him, Noe asked where most were found. The answer (fifth floor of the nine-floor rackhouse) confirmed his suspicion: The location was where all the best Bourbon was aging. The still men knew it and hid their hoses there. Not only that, but the usually dusty casks were shiny on that floor from being crawled over for a drink.
A few years later, that information (as well as such innovations as being bottled at cask strength without chill filtration) led to the creation of Booker's, one of a vanguard of specialty Bourbons that would lead the category back to the top the market. The story of its creation is charmingly told in The Big Man of Jim Beam, Booker Noe and the Number One Bourbon in the World (Wiley, $24). The biography of Noe, by Jim Kokoris, is being released in conjunction with the fifth in the 2016 Booker's Batch Collection, dubbed Off Your Rocker.
The new Bourbon's name is a playful jab at Noe's habit of holding court in a rocking chair while "cracking jokes, speaking his mind and surprising people." The provenance of the whiskey is now wider, having been selected from four different rackhouses. Noe's son Fred, the present master distiller, now does the culling and adheres to the "center cut" concept, which calls for concentrating on middle floors. The company promotes the new whiskey as perfect for sipping during crisp fall evenings.
While much of Noe's popular good-ol'-boy persona is shaped by his later career in the capacity of Bourbon ambassador for the Jim Beam Small Collection (Booker's, Baker's, Basil Hayden and Knob Creek), the book spans his entire life and paints a multifaceted picture. Kokoris, who spent 10 years traveling with Noe as a publicist and is now a Beam family spokesman, interviewed dozens of friends, family and coworkers from throughout his 74 years of life. "Everyone knew him as this big, bombastic guy," says the author, "but he had many traits." One of which, he reports, was a natural curiosity, which fed his genuine interest in other people and what they did.
Not surprising is that the huge man was a hell-raiser as a kid and spent some time knocking about, dropping out of college and traveling the country before settling down in Kentucky. What may seem odd—given his size—is that Noe was the Fred Astaire of the local honky-tonks. Another misconception debunked is that Noe was on a predetermined career path, given his pedigree as grandson of Jim Beam. "In truth, he was indifferent to distilling," says Kokoris, "and on a path to be just one more Beam" in the large clan in the Bourbon region of Kentucky. His mother was largely responsible for moving him from laborer in a lumberyard to the whiskey-making world.
Once there, Booker found his home and dedicated himself to the work—partly because he wanted to prove he wasn't resting on family laurels and partly because he had a drive for innovation. Not that his earlier personality deserted him. Kokoris describes a partial party atmosphere at Beam's No. 2 Boston, Kentucky plant that Noe first ran. While striving always to outdo the productivity of the flagship Clermont distillery, he maintained a bit of a party atmosphere where something was always cooking on the grill. "In one way it was Animal House. It was a hoot," says Kokoris.
The author also reports that his relationship as the handler of the big guy on the PR circuit was never guaranteed. "He went through PR people like Bourbon. It was always a party with him. You were always kind of on edge, but I never had a boring moment."
And Kokoris adds what may be the best epitaph for Noe: "He was a man. He did whatever he wanted."
Booker's Off Your Rocker Batch 2016-5 (129.7 proof, or 64.85 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement; $59.99 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Deep copper color, takes forever to give up its fat legs.
NOSE: A fittingly big ol' aroma of vanilla, orange peel, sweet woods, rose attar and licorice.
PALATE: Orange explodes on the tongue, then settles to a parade of the aroma flavors, before showing hard candy in a variety of fruit flavors, The flavor spectrum goes on and on with the addition of chocolate, nuts and toffee.
FINISH: Very long finish based on the flavors of the nose and palate. The one surprise is a bit of toast. (Note: As Booker always said, his whiskey cries out for the addition of water. That is particularly true with this release, which registers at an extra 5 degrees of proof compared to the average Booker's.)
CIGAR PAIRING: Daniel Marshall Red Label Torpedo Box-Aged 1 Year (6 1/4 inches by 54 ring gauge, $8.90; 92 points, October 2016 Cigar Aficionado) The chocolate-hued wrapper of this cigar foreshadows it rich array of confectioner's notes from light cocoa and coconut shavings to German chocolate cake. Elegant and balanced.
We choose this cigar for its elegance and the chocolate note it shares with the whiskey and were rewarded not only with that confirmation, but other surprises. The Daniel Marshall's coconut opened up some spice notes on the Booker's, while the whiskey added fruit flavors to the torpedo. The synergy came about with an array of nuts, which included walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds. The confection spoken of in the cigar's description blossomed into full a candy-bar mode.