The history—and modern day marketing—of major American whiskey brands has a tendency to revolve around legendary men out of the past, progenitors of the legendary names of the present. Names like Elijah Craig, Jack Daniel, George Garvin Brown, or E.H. Taylor. Or of course … Jim Beam. The average whiskey drinker instantly recognizes these names as the symbols of flagship products or entire companies, even if they know little or nothing of the human beings behind such recognizable monikers.
It’s completely understandable, then, if a whiskey fan making a trip to the small, unincorporated community of Clermont, Kentucky were to assume that “Jim Beam” was the name of some mythic figure who was the sole creator of the country’s biggest bourbon brand. That is how these things tend to work, after all. But in reality? Though the company may bear his name to this day, Jim Beam—full name, James B. Beam—was in fact already a fourth generation scion of a distilling legacy that stretched back in continuous operation to 1795. Where Jim earned immortality was in preserving the company during the most trying era that American distilling had ever seen, the 13 years of the Prohibition of alcohol in the United States between 1920-1933. As he rebuilt the brand into a force after Prohibition, Jim Beam ensured the company’s survival, but he’s ultimately just one link in an ever-growing chain. And today, eight generations in, the chain feels stronger than ever.
As we enter 2023, it will be roughly 228 years since the pioneering Jacob Beam sold his first batches of whiskey in 1795, only a few years after Kentucky was admitted to the Union. In that time, much has changed—Beam went from being a one-man, backyard operation to the country’s biggest bourbon producer, with parent company Beam Suntory as the third largest producer of distilled beverages in the world. Today, the company operates with a sense of global scale and logistics that are difficult for the average consumer to even begin to conceptualize, but in actually visiting the Beam campus in Clermont, what is striking is the feeling of how little has really changed. The same family is still overseeing every drop of spirit distilled on site, more than two centuries after production began. And hell, 2022 even featured a whiskey tribute to Jacob Beam and his original well, a bourbon that made my own list of the best whiskeys of 2022. There’s a striking sense that the Beam campus exists somehow “outside of time.”
Beam, Noe and the Next Generation
Today, the last name most intimately associated with those distilling Beam bourbon isn’t “Beam,” but “Noe”—not a recent change, but tradition of its own at this point for more than 60 years. That doesn’t mean the familial line of succession was ever broken, though—rather, it simply broadened ever so slightly when fifth generation master distiller T. Jeremiah “Jere” Beam, who had no children of his own, handed off the distilling reins to his nephew Frederick “Booker” Noe II in the 1960s. Known universally in the company simply as Booker, he went on to preside over the period in which the modern, diversified Jim Beam brand truly emerged, including the birth of the company’s Small Batch Collection, which includes brands like Basil Hayden’s, Knob Creek, Baker’s and the namesake Booker’s. Booker Noe was there, overseeing production in 1965 when the company filled its one millionth barrel of bourbon. Today, they’ve filled more than 16 million barrels.
These days, the company functionally has not one but two leading distillers at the same time. At the helm, there’s Master Distiller Frederick Noe III, known around the campus simply as Fred, who has worked at the distillery for almost 40 years and served as Master Distiller since 2007. He’s still the ultimate authority on the production of the vast majority of flagship Beam brands that can be found on any package store shelf, but at the same time he’s also joined by his son Frederick Noe IV, aka “Freddie” Noe, who was likewise conferred “Master Distiller” status this year as he ascended to a leadership role as the visionary head of the experimental Fred B. Noe Distillery. That’s a lot of Noes, and a lot of “Fredericks,” so it’s perhaps easiest to simply remember that the line of succession goes “Booker, Fred, Freddie,” with the latter being the great great grandson of Jim Beam.
Freddie Noe in particular would seemingly have an opportunity ahead of him to have a career even more epic and decorated than that of his forebears, with many decades of distilling to come. Only 34 years old in 2022 when he became Master Distiller of the new facility named in his father’s honor, he has taken up the mantle of Beam’s in-house experimenter and tinkerer, with a state-of-the-art facility behind him to dream up exotic small batch releases that likely would have made his grandfather Booker’s head spin. His willingness to embrace new methods of maturation, or new mash bills outside of the two hundred years of Beam history, has already yielded projects like the Little Book expressions, but it’s the new Distiller’s Share series that truly captures Freddie Noe’s mission. Designed as an experimental whiskey series that will be released via the distillery’s American Outpost three or four times per year, it debuted weeks ago with Distiller’s Share 01 — Toasted Brown Rice, which replaces rye content with brown rice in its mash bill, before being finished in toasted (non-charred) oak barrels. The result is some of the company’s most sweetly aromatic bourbon, with copious notes of brown sugar-cinnamon, toasted bread and crisp roastiness. Freddie Noe sees it as just the first chapter in what will likely be an engrossing series of experiments, the most successful of which could eventually find their way into the flagship Beam whiskeys of the future.
Granted, the succession and continuation of the family legacy hasn’t always been something that could be completely taken for granted, and there have been moments along the way when it genuinely seemed as if the Beam/Noe bourbon pipeline might come to an end. Fred Noe in particular tells an amusing story about his youthful days working behind the scenes of country music star Hank Williams Jr.’s touring schedule, where he was eventually thrust into an impromptu role as the singer’s tour manager for several nights. Intoxicated by the excitement of the road, he told father Booker Noe that he might have found a new career in the music industry, given that there were currently no distillery positions open that he might occupy when he returned. And wouldn’t you know it—lo and behold, a night shift position on the bottling line immediately opened at the distillery, stopping a promising musical career in its tracks. The rest of us have simply had to make due with Fred’s ensuing four decades of whiskey excellence instead.
Together, the tandem of Fred and Freddie are focused on pushing the Beam brand into remote corners of the world it’s never occupied, and especially on expanding the reach of bourbon into markets where it remains an exotic novelty. Freddie keeps tinkering away at various aspects of reinventing the wheel, but they simultaneously keep alive the traditions of Booker, including the home smoking and curing of country ham in their tiny smokehouse. When I met the pair as a small group of press toured the facility, the father and son were avidly discussing their preparations for this year’s batch of hams. They have a legend to live up to, after all.
An Invitation to Join the Family
Given the remarkable nature of the 228 year family lineage distilling and patiently aging Beam whiskey, it was only natural that the Beam campus eventually tap into that history in a way that can also directly include the consumer. This, they’ve impressively executed via The Kitchen Table, an elevated southern cuisine restaurant concept that draws upon the family’s own personal, intimate moments in order to make guests feel like they’ve been invited into the Beam household. The title is anything but metaphorical—in the corner of the dining room stands a humble-looking, round wooden table that is an exact replica of the weathered piece of furniture where Booker and Fred Noe had supper every evening. Above it, framed family photos catch candids of Booker and various family members dining on country ham, bourbon and various southern staples. The table isn’t a museum piece, either; families have dinner there on a daily basis.
Those southern dishes are of course represented on the menu of The Kitchen Table, which opened during the pandemic and unsurprisingly faced stop-and-go operation before finally settling into more of a consistent groove in 2022. Chef Brian Landry, who splits his time between restaurants in New Orleans and orchestrating The Kitchen Table in Kentucky, conceives many separate menus for the space on a regular basis, ranging from fine dining concepts for private dinners and events, to more hearty brewpub-style staples for the regular lunch and dinner crowd. These include everything from smoked brisket and extraordinary hot honey fried chicken, to pizzas with dough leavened by Beam’s own proprietary yeast for whiskey mash fermentation—the very same yeast that James B. Beam caught and propagated on his back porch nearly a century ago. The distillery takes special pride in this detail, having worked out another way of highlighting the precious yeast that was so important to Jim Beam, that he reportedly took a jar of it home with him every weekend, just in case something were to happen to the distillery.
Although it primarily highlights classic Southern cuisine, The Kitchen Table also manages to offer a few particularly novel experiences that evoke the brand’s global partnership under Beam Suntory. Of particular interest is the special carbonated water dispenser the brand uses to craft Japanese-style highballs. Reading the menu, one would be forgiven for expecting “highly carbonated water” to simply be something like Topo Chico, but that phrase is truly an understatement if there ever was one. The unique machine, imported from Japan, renders carbonated water completely unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my life—water so fizzy and ebullient that a glass of it on its own literally looks like it’s boiling. It’s a special touch; the only way to truly replicate the proper style of highball one would be served in a Japanese hotel bar. One can’t help but note that it’s the sort of expensive flourish a small craft distillery would no doubt struggle to justify, but when you’ve got the scale of Beam, practically anything seems possible.
Looking to the future, the company continues to dream up more novel experiences it can offer to Clermont visitors, particularly when it comes to consumers interested in picking their own barrels of whiskey. Before our press group engaged in some sensory training, Fred and Freddie Noe described an upcoming program in which visitors will be able to go through the entire experience of taking whiskey from barrel to bottle within the course of a single day’s visit—tasting barrels, selecting one, and bringing it to the bottling line to leave with the newly filled bottles in the span of an afternoon. No doubt that won’t exactly be an inexpensive experience, but it certainly sounds like an unforgettable one. And for this company to still be generating experiences of that nature, 228 years and eight generations after Jacob Beam’s well produced its first whiskey, they must be doing something right.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.