Jim Beam’s history goes back more than 225 years through 8 generations of family leadership. Since 1795 (when their first barrel of bourbon was sold), 8 generations of the Beam family have been ceaselessly stewarding the company’s bourbon production. This was only interrupted by the Prohibition (1920 to 1933).
Eponymous James “Jim” Beam (1864–1947) of the fourth Beam generation - rebuilt the business after the Prohibition ended and practically saved the company. In honour of him, the company adopted “Jim Beam” as its brand name.
Along the way, the distillery began producing smaller batches of more premium bourbon for the discerning consumer. Frederick Booker Noe II (1929–2004) of the sixth Beam Generation believed that true bourbon fans would prefer un-cut and un-filtered bourbon straight-from-the-barrel (also known as “cask strength” by the Scots). This led him to introduce Booker’s Bourbon – the company’s first small batch bourbon that was commercially positioned for the mass-premium market.
Not long after, the family introduced the Baker’s Single Barrel bourbon, named after Jim Beam’s grand nephew, Baker Beam who worked at Jim Beam for 38 years as a distiller. Baker’s bourbon uses a special strain of yeast developed in the family for over 60 years, which provides the bourbon with a silky smooth texture and consistent taste across batches.
After the forefathers have made their mark, Jim Beam is now stewarded by seventh generation distiller Frederick Booker Noe III (“Fred”) and his son, eighth generation Frederick Booker Noe IV (“Freddie”).
The new Fred B. Noe “craft” Distillery
As the elder Noe considers his legacy, the company decided to build the new Fred B. Noe Distillery to expand its whiskey operation, innovate and push the boundaries in American whiskey.
With a name honouring seventh generation elder Fred Noe, Fred B. Noe Distillery will be the new home to many of Beam’s award-winning premium small batch whiskies including (1) Booker’s Bourbon, (2) Baker’s Bourbon and (3) the junior Freddie’s own Little Book Whiskey. Launched in 2017, Little Book Whiskey is an annual, limited release series featuring new combinations of blends each year, chosen by Freddie.
Beyond carrying on the family legacy in producing Jim Beam’s premium small batch whiskey, the new distillery would be an incubator for innovation; a playground for the 8th generation Beam family to research and develop new styles of American whiskey. As the junior Freddie said:
“In this new home, I look forward to honoring all of my dad’s contributions and continuing to innovate and push the boundaries in American whiskey. Over the last five years, I’ve been exploring new and interesting blends, ages, and flavors on my quest to build upon the legacy my dad and granddad pioneered. I’m eager to show the world what we’ve been up to, and to offer fans everywhere a taste of the special whiskies we’ve been cooking up.”
This spanking new distillery would also offer interactive programmes for people outside the distillery including:
- distillation sessions and seminars with Freddie Noe to promote experiential learning
- A hands-on blending lab
- Tasting bar to sample new and unreleased innovations
- A state-of-the-art classroom for the University of Kentucky’s James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits to allow future leaders of the American whiskey industry to learn the craft from experts at the James Beam Distilling Company
Did I also mention, the new distillery would be entirely powered by renewable energy?
So why does Jim Beam need a craft distillation arm?
With its established legacy and popular brands, why does Jim Beam still need a craft distillation arm?
“Here we have the opportunity to do some ‘oops!’,” said the junior Freddie Noe. The Fred B. Noe Distillery allows Freddie to play around with different mashbills (i.e. ingredient recipes), alcohol content, and experiment with different woods for maturation. If Freddie’s team stumbles upon something that turns out great, they can easily scale it up on the bigger distilleries to increase volume.
On a daily basis, Booker’s, Baker’s and Little Book will be the main whiskeys made at the distillery. Their production process will stay true to what consumers already know and love. However, with the smaller scale, this is a playground for Freddie to have endless freedom to experiment with no practical limit on what he can try to distil.
To have a sense of what new whiskies may come out from Freddie Noe’s lab, just have a look at the unusual styles released under Freddie’s Little Book brand of cask-strength releases with an experimental and free-wheeling twist. The most recent Little Book Chapter 5: “The Invitation” is a blend of four whiskey “streams”- a 2-year-old bourbon, a 3-year-old pure malted rye, a 5-year-old bourbon and a 15-year-old bourbon. So much deviates from the typical Beam recipe, including the mixture of exceptionally young and exceptionally old whiskey, to the use of spicy rye which is unlike the typically smooth Beam.
On the notes, The Invitation has plenty of caramel corn, brown sugar, gentle nuttiness with peanut butter and roasted walnuts, some musty oak, cinnamon and orange notes. On the palate, also significant caramel, vanilla bean, which develops into more intense toasted bread and significant rye spice. The spice is described to linger on the tongue for a considerable time- like Sichuan peppercorn.
This expression has been said to be rather evocative of Beam’s flavour profile but with several unique aspects that add complexity.
This isn’t marketing b**s***. I certainly understand why Jim Beam invested in facility to enable the younger generation to experiment with new styles that may appeal more to new consumers of American whiskey. It also demonstrates a commendable self-awareness and humility of the Beam family. Having an established place in the American whiskey market and great brand popularity doesn’t mean they could rest on their laurels and not innovate. Across the Atlantic, Irish whiskey makers at Midleton Distillery are doing something similar with their micro-pot stills and Method and Madness operation.
It is worth closely following the new releases and innovations that would arise from Beam’s new distillery in the several years to come. Given Freddie Noe’s track record and decent showing with his Little Book series of expressions, things are looking promising.