It’s Derby Week here in Louisville, and for many of us that means the next several days will be spent decked out in our finest clothes, cocktail in hand, enjoying the finest horse raising and people watching on earth.
And it’s likely that the cocktail will include a bourbon made right here in Kentucky under the watchful guidance of Frederick Booker Noe III. In 2007 Noe became the seventh generation of his family to serve as master distiller for Jim Beam, which was founded by his forefathers in 1795. With the exception of the Prohibition years, it’s possible that the family’s bourbon has flowed at every Kentucky Derby since 1875.
It takes moxie to lead the Kentucky’s First Family of Bourbon, and I had the chance to experience that first hand when I sat down for an interview with Fred Noe III a few years back. Here’s my take:
Moxie appreciates heritage.
Most of us are lucky if we even know the names of our great-grandparents and what they did for a living. Can you imagine tracing your family heritage back more than two hundred years, not only knowing the names of those that had come before you, but knowing that their work had a profound impact on the culture? Can you imagine the profound sense of responsibility you might have to carry on that work?
It’s a responsibility that Noe gladly shoulders, but he grew up with a strong awareness that nothing was guaranteed.
His father, the late Frederick “Booker” Noe Jr., frequently reminded him that he had more than a dozen cousins waiting in the wings who might be more willing or able to step up and take over if he was not up to the task. After all, members of the Beam family have played key roles in other distilleries throughout the region, including Heaven Hill.
Booker Noe also reminded his son that the existence of the distillery itself was not guaranteed. It was shuttered by Prohibition for a time, and had to be re-started in 1933. Consumer tastes and other market forces are a fickle thing, and it takes unrelenting effort and creativity to stay in the good graces of the consumer.
Leading Jim Beam is more than a job; being master distiller means being keeper of the family’s heritage. That takes moxie, and not only does Fred have it, it looks like that moxie will extend to an eighth generation, too.
Moxie knows how to market.
You can have the best product in the world, but if no one knows about it, does it really matter? “If you build it, they will come” only happens in the movies. If you distill it, no one will necessarily drink it.
For a long time, bourbon was underappreciated. Tastemakers didn’t really know how to understand and appreciate bourbon. It took passionate enthusiasts like Booker Noe to innovate with products like small batch bourbon, then travel exhaustively introducing influencers to the brand and getting them excited about it.
Booker Noe’s efforts paid off, and bourbon has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years. A culture of appreciation has sprung up, and fans now travel from around the world to experience the Bourbon Trail.
Noe continues his father’s efforts to innovate and introduce bourbon to new generations. He’s an ambassador not only for Jim Beam’s products, but for bourbon. It takes moxie to be the face of a movement, and Fred Noe has it.
Moxie is honest.
While you’ll often find Fred Noe on the road singing the praises of Jim Beam’s distinctive family of products, you won’t find him engaging in marketing doublespeak.
A decade ago, the company found itself in a crisis of sorts. One of their premier brands, Knob Creek, became a victim of its own success when production couldn’t meet demand. Bourbon takes years to produce, and Knob Creek in particular takes a full nine years to age. In 2008, the supply of Knob Creek ran out, and it would be months before the next batch was ready to go to market.
Noe faced a choice: push out supply that hadn’t aged to full nine years, or wait until the batch was fully mature and risk disappointing fans and driving them to other brands.
What should we tell customers, executives fretted.
“Why don’t we just tell them the truth? They are drinking it faster than we can age it,” suggested Noe.
His honest answer sparked a brilliant marketing campaign that caught the attention of journalists and fans. It takes moxie to stick to your standards and tell the truth, and Noe has it.
In our interview, I asked who Noe would most like to host for a dinner party, and what he would serve. I wasn’t entirely surprised by his answer.
He’d invite all the generations of master distillers in his family. He’d serve them Booker’s small batch bourbon, and he’d ask them if he’d done right by them and made them proud.
I suspect I know their answer.