I’ve never claimed to be much of a fisherman, but this is becoming embarrassing. It’s a hot June afternoon in rural Kentucky, and I’ve managed to find a small spot of shade at the edge of a pond just across the highway from the Jim Beam distillery. The day seems to be about quantity over quality for me; I may be catching more fish than anyone else, but goddamn it if they aren’t small. I’m talking one to two inches small, space between your thumb tip and pointer finger small, small enough to make Fred Noe, Jim Beam’s legendary former master distiller and current brand ambassador, guffaw more than a few times.
We’re at the Noe family “honey hole,” which was Booker’s, Fred’s father, preferred spot to catch what were presumably bigger and more impressive fish – bluegill, catfish, and bass, to be precise. Today’s event is part of the Kentucky Bourbon Affair, a five-day bourbon bonanza that just wrapped up its second year a few weeks ago. After gorging on a Southern-style fish fry, complete with hush puppies, bourbon ice cream and some Jim Beam-spiked lemonade to wash it all down, it feels good to sit in my Jim Beam chair with my Jim Beam tackle box sipping a Jim Beam green tea slushy from my Jim Beam Thermos… yes, this event is well branded. But back to the fishing. I’m starting to suspect that I’m catching the same tenacious guppy over and over again at this point. But for Fred Noe, this is all part of the experience they are going for. “The Bourbon Affair wanted us to be interactive with folks,” he tells me, “and [my son] Freddie came up with the idea, why don’t we take them fishing in Granddaddy’s lake?”
The Kentucky Bourbon Affair’s events range from progressive dinners in downtown Louisville to outdoor barbecues to rare bourbon tastings, but Jim Beam seems to realize it’s wise to stay in its lane. This iconic American bourbon’s ubiquitous white-labeled bottle is a bar staple and often a go-to spirit for the novice whiskey drinker. But just because it lacks a perceived sophistication for some doesn’t mean Jim Beam doesn’t pour a tasty dram. For me, a shot of Jim Beam goes perfectly with cold, cheap American lager. And hell, Kid Rock loves it. So this sultry afternoon of lazy fishing in Booker Noe’s honey hole seems to be the perfect way for Jim Beam to promote its bourbon.
For a long time, Jim Beam wasn’t really trying to pretend it’s anything more than it is, which is solid, inexpensive, easy-sipping American bourbon. But the company’s whiskey portfolio has grown. Beam has four sibling small batch bourbons – Knob Creek, Booker’s, Baker’s, and Basil Hayden’s – that offer a deeper, more complex drinking experience. But these days Beam is also offering a surprisingly diverse portfolio of expressions under its own label, elevating the brand’s reputation while still staying true to its humble, good old boy origins.
There’s Jim Beam Single Barrel, a richly grain-infused bourbon that’s aged for 12 years with surprisingly light woody notes. There’s also the Signature Craft series, which showcases the distillery’s innovation in ways you might expect from a smaller, more refined operation. I tried two expressions from the Harvest Collection – the Whole Rolled Oat and High Rye – both of which are interesting and flavorful departures from traditional Jim Beam, each using a different mash bill focusing on alternative grains. I also sampled the Quarter Cask, which is a unique experiment. Here, Beam’s five-year old bourbon is combined with a variety of bourbon that has been aged in small, quarter casks (each aged for at least four years). The whiskey in the quarter casks soaks up a great deal more of the oak flavors because of its smaller volume, and the resulting spirit is smooth and deep, best enjoyed on the rocks. Beyond that, there’s Jim Beam Rye, Devil’s Cut, and Bonded, all of which are plays on the original white label that bring something new to the tried and true formula.
Even as Jim Beam’s portfolio of expressions expands, the company – which was purchased by the Japanese company Suntory for over 13 billion dollars in 2014 – still works hard to convey the image of being a family-run distillery that dates back many generations. Corporate realities aside, this is the truth, and Fred Noe wants consumers to know how much he appreciates their business. “We’re the number one bourbon in the state,” he proudly tells me. “Our family started this in 1795. I think it’s important to thank people for their support of our brand.”
Bourbon fans tend to regard people like Noe, Wild Turkey’s Jimmy Russell, and Heaven Hill’s Parker Beam as sort of whiskey rock stars. But Fred seems to get a kick out of this reverence. “When folks come here to Kentucky, they see how approachable all the master distillers are,” he says. “[We] put [our] pants on just like those fans do. Some people try to put us on a pedestal, say we’re celebrities, we kind of laugh. We’re old boys from Kentucky that make bourbon. That’s what we do, that’s what our families have done.”
In case you were wondering, Fred enjoys his bourbon with just a little ice and water. “You just gotta sit back, relax and savor it,” he says. He’s partial to Booker’s, which was created by his father, but don’t ask him to pick a favorite. “I only have one child, that’s Freddie, but people with multiple kids say you can’t love one more than others, but…It’s the same with the bourbon, you like them all, but you fancy some more on particular days.”