Fred Noe’s family tree made him popular in college and scored him invites to many parties: “That’s why it took me so long to get out of college,” said the great-grandson of Jim Beam, adding that his father would not let him join the family bourbon business until he got his degree. Noe graduated from Bellarmine College in Louisville, Ky., seven years after starting his postsecondary education.
Noe toyed with the idea of touring with musician Hank Williams Jr., who was being sponsored by the bourbon company around the time of his graduation, until his father hired him as the night-shift bottle line supervisor.
“It’s not a very glamorous job,” Noe said. “It was a starting point for him to see if I would stick with it or bail.”
Nearly 30 years later, Noe serves as the master distiller at Jim Beam and oversees all production.
“I’ve been blamed for children, divorces … They say, ‘I was drinking Jim Beam when I met her,’” Noe joked.
Noe was one of many distillers who took part in the Spirits Confidential event at Bedford Village Inn in Bedford on May 16.
“It’s very important to get out, meet customers and let them put a face behind this bottle of bourbon they consume,” he said.
Making their mark
Bill Samuels Jr. was in middle school when his father started distilling bourbon as a hobby; the Samuels family has been in the bourbon business since 1784. At one point President Franklin D. Roosevelt shut down the family’s bourbon production in an effort to conserve grain during World War II.
What was only a hobby for William Samuels Sr. turned into a full-time business when his Maker’s Mark bourbon made the cover of the Wall Street Journal in 1954. Restaurants came calling, and Samuels had to make a lot of promises until his bourbon was finally aged enough to sell — six years later.
“We’ve had double-digit growth ever since,” Samuels said. Samuels did not plan to join the family business; he studied aeronautical science and attended law school. It was not until he began spending every Friday for three years with Jack Daniels chairman Hap Motlow that he decided to come on board.
Samuels, who retired from the company last year, said his father set forth to create a sophisticated bourbon that “actually tasted good.”
“Bourbon was created by pioneers,” he said. “They weren’t looking for ‘sissy whiskey’ and they didn’t get it.’”
Bourbon and scotch — what’s the big difference?
Well, first of all, bourbon is a corn-based product. Scotch is made with malted barley dried over peat fires that add smokiness to the grain. By law, each batch of bourbon must be made in a new American oak barrel, while scotch companies often buy the used barrels from bourbon producers.
Noe said the climate in Scotland is so different from that of Kentucky, where most of the country’s bourbon is made, that it can take upwards of three to five years to produce a 1-year-old Kentucky bourbon in Scotland.
The 100-degree temperatures in Kentucky allow for the whiskey to expand through a caramelized layer inside the wooden barrel, at which point it picks up more color and flavor. The caramelized layer forms when the barrel is charred, resulting in a sugar coating on its interior.
“Bourbon picks up 100 percent of its color and 70 percent of its flavor from the barrel,” Noe said.
Samuels created Maker’s 46 as his final farewell to the bourbon business. He and his master distiller spent six months jotting down ideas for what kind of product they were looking to achieve.
“We wanted the whole focus on the flavor profile,” he said. The pair decided the new release had to be “yummy,” with the flavor on the front half of the palate; had to be an intensified version of the flavors already found in Maker’s Mark, and should have a big nose and long finish. The distiller and the commissioned barrel-maker were able to help Samuels leave his mark on Maker’s with a product he could be proud of.
“I thank my stars we spent those six months writing out our objective,” Samuels said.
Pour me something brown
Bourbon has been going through a renaissance since premium versions of the product began to make their way to store shelves in the late 1980s, Noe said, and it was mixologists who helped shine new light on the brown barrel-aged beverage by putting their own spin on such classic bourbon-based cocktails as Manhattans, Whiskey Sours and Old Fashioneds. The blend of fresh ingredients and bourbon, if balanced correctly, can create a third layer of flavor in a mixed drink, Noe said.
Noe said there have been many times he has watched Bobby Gleason, master mixologist at Jim Beam, created a new bourbon-based cocktail and asked himself: Where is he going with this?
“People prepare these drinks that I never would have thought of,” Noe said. “[Gleason] has a method to his madness.”
Gleason uses fresh lemon, egg whites and homemade simple syrup in his Whiskey Sours; actually, all the ingredients he uses are fresh. He arrived at the Bedford Village Inn with a grocery bag filled with blueberries to work his magic at the Spirits Confidential tasting.
Gleason said he has seen a trend of bourbon being used in strawberry-basil cocktails.
“Strawberry and basil are things people are familiar with, so they’re not afraid to try them,” he said. “The basil adds a little bit of spiciness if you’re playing it off [Jim] Beam, and with Maker’s [Mark], the strawberry accents its sweetness.”
A new generation of bourbon drinkers
Samuels said he has seen a total transformation in bourbon drinkers since the start of Maker’s Mark. He now sees bourbon consumers as young and well-educated and noted that at least 30 percent of his customers are young professional women. “Twenty-five years ago that would have been so far-fetched,” Samuels said, also attributing the interest in bourbon in younger crowds to the fact that better bourbons are being produced. “Bourbon tastes a lot better than scotch,” he said. “You can’t disagree with that.”
The first trend of bourbon-based drinks was to pair bourbon with cola, and now Samuels said he sees more consumers ordering their Maker’s Mark on the rocks, with a splash of water.
“I like when people enjoy it for what it is, not just as a mixer but as a crafted product,” he said.
Maker’s Mark is featured in the Maker’s Peach Marg at Cotton in Manchester, a blend of the bourbon, peach puree and sour mix. “You can make it more of a summer drink with the peach,” said Cotton bartender Peaches Paige, who owns the eatery with her husband, Jeff. “It brings out more of a refreshing flavor.”
Jim Beam created its Red Stag bourbon line to better reach the mixed cocktail market, Noe said. Red Stag bourbons are infused with black cherry, honey tea and spiced cinnamon.
“Our infused flavors had to go with bourbon — we couldn’t do tutti frutti,” Noe said. The 80-proof flavor-infused bourbons also make bourbon more approachable for those who are new to it, Noe said.
The Red Stag black cherry bourbon is used in the Cherry Old Fashioned at Cotton. The bourbon cocktail also counts muddled sugar, orange and cherry among its other ingredients, and of course, a dash of bitters.
Noe said Jim Beam’s Red Stag line has also attracted more female drinks to the brand because of its sweet, light flavor.
“We have seen the female market as neglected for many years,” he said.
The Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark distilleries are two of the seven stops on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and the distillers of all seven are great pals, Noe said.
“We’re all buddies — everyone in the industry — it’s not like the Hatfields and the McCoys.” Noe said. “We’re all in this together. We’re not competitive like most industries.”
“Most people aren’t loyal to one label,” he added. “Bourbon enthusiasts see a new label and want to taste it.”