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SB Interviews… Fred Noe

When you get a moment, take a look at the YouTube video, from October last year, of Beam CEO Matt Shattock ringing the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).

Fred Noe, master distiller for Jim Beam

Shattock is surrounded by gleeful company employees, but one bearded, balding man behind him seems to be enjoying the scene more than most, clenching his fist and clapping his boss on the shoulder.

He’s Frederick Booker Noe III, and if he seems a little over-excited about events at NYSE, it might have something to do with seeing the Beam name back on the stock market following its spin-off from Fortune Brands last year. And something to do with being the great-grandson of Jim Beam himself.

Master distiller and brand ambassador at Jim Beam, Fred Noe represents the seventh generation of the Beam bourbon dynasty, inheriting the role from his father, Frederick “Booker” Noe Jr. But if Noe was almost literally born to do his job, it doesn’t appear to have dampened his almost childlike enthusiasm. Just ask him what it was like growing up around the distillery in Clermont, Kentucky.

How times change…

“Oh, for a boy you can imagine with the trains delivering grain and the engineers there what it was like,” he recalls, eyes lighting up with the memory. “They would see me, stop and get me up in the engine with them, let me ride the railcars. Or it’d be trucks moving trailers, and they’d get me up with the drivers and ride around, dumping the ashes from the boiler. They’d let me pull the lever. I was like a kid in a candy store!

“I still see some of the folks from back then from time to time, and they still see me as a little kid running around with my dad, even though I’ve got a son of 24. But they’re pretty proud to see me doing what I do now.”

What Noe does now, however, differs hugely from the role played by his father and by the company’s earlier distillers, thanks to the never-ending demands of the modern marketing age.

“It’s changing dramatically,” Noe agrees. “With the master distiller’s role 30 or 40 years ago, you were there at the distillery 24/7, running the production. “When I was a kid, my dad was there all the time. He got up in the middle of the night to go and oversee maintenance issues, to get the plant up and running. Now 50% of my job is on the road, promoting the brands. Everybody else, like [Wild Turkey master distiller] Jimmy Russell for instance, is doing the same thing. It’s part of the nature of the job these days.”

“We’ve got people asking to select their own barrel of bourbon; we can do that now,” says Noe

You might expect Noe to resent this slightly – the craftsman forced to sully his hands by getting involved in the grubby art of selling – but not a bit of it. In fact, he thinks it’s a crucial part of the job.

“Education has been key in the development and growth of the bourbon category,” he argues. “It’s important, I think, to get out on the road and to educate customers and thank them for their support. I think the key to it is showing them that there is a seventh generation Beam family member involved in the production of these bourbons. I’m not some figurehead who’s been hired as a marketing person – it’s important to keep the heritage alive.”

If he’s passionate about bourbon, Noe has a similarly strong, almost evangelical zeal for telling the world about it. He says he loves “going to places where bourbon isn’t cool and getting in there and educating people, watching their eyes light up. That makes me feel good – you can tell by the questions they ask and the look in their eyes if they’re enjoying it”.

But he doesn’t see this as a one-way street where his role is simply to raise the profile of bourbon and Beam and, hopefully, persuade people to buy more of the stuff. There are less direct benefits to the company too, he says. “That’s where a lot of new products come from, from talking to customers – what they think innovations should be, what I can do to make their job easier.

Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve

Exhibit A: Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve, released in the US last year. “We’d be travelling around and people would say: ‘Why don’t you produce a single barrel variation?’” Noe recalls. “Dad never did that because of consistency. He liked to mingle the barrels together so they tasted the same. But people’s tastes have changed: they like not knowing how it’s going to taste until they pull out the cork. Now we’ve got people asking to select their own barrel of bourbon, and we can do that now because it came from customers from all over the US.”

Jim Beam’s most high-profile launch of recent years, however, came not from direct consumer demand, but from one distillery worker’s passion for outdoor pursuits. “Red Stag came from a guy who worked in our lab as a flavour expert,” Noe says. “He liked hunting deer and he’d take a little flask of bourbon with him. Well, he played around with this flask and found the perfect combination of natural flavours with the bourbon, so he wrote down the formula.

“We shelved it. But then we were talking about innovative products, so he came out of retirement to bring it to life, and it’s been a tremendous success in bringing people to the bourbon category.”

Red Stag chalked up volumes of 300,000 cases in the US alone in 2011, and has been joined by further variations, such as Honey Tea and Spiced with Cinnamon. Its international roll-out so far includes the core black cherry version and a less sweet honey variant.

However, as bourbon simultaneously tries to build its luxury image and rolls out superpremium single barrel and overproof offerings, don’t Red Stag and its many imitators risk undermining the category’s credibility?

“We took a pretty good beating from the vodka boys in the ’70s,” says Noe

Noe firmly disagrees. “It’s not like we’re shifting our production from Jim Beam to Red Stag – it all still comes back to Jim Beam. That’s what allows us to go in different directions. Our leadership role with Jim Beam White Label is what fuels the fire and allows us to grow. It all drives growth for White Label.”

But is he surprised by flavoured whiskey’s success? “Well, there were people who thought we were crazy with the first variation of Red Stag. Writers thought we were either very smart or very, very dumb. When you go to the plate with a new innovation, you can strike out, get a single, a double or a home run. We did our homework well, looking at our market, did a lot of case studies and it worked out. Now our competitors are doing the same.”

Furthermore, Noe adds, innovation is playing a crucial role in bourbon’s continued vitality. “You need to have some open-mindedness to appeal to young people coming into the beverage alcohol category. Otherwise you’re losing your fan base – they’re going to the big place in the sky.

“We took a pretty good beating from the vodka boys in the ’70s. Now people are discovering that bourbon can be just as good as vodka in mixed drinks and cocktails. So you have to be ahead of the curve a little bit and be open-minded.”

And as a result, Noe believes, things have rarely been better for the distillers of Kentucky and beyond, both for the flavoured variants and for the small batch ultra-premiums which he predicts will become increasingly popular as the economic recovery takes hold.

Knob Creek Rye

“The bourbon market is growing worldwide,” he says. “We’ve seen growth in the US, which is a well-saturated bourbon market. These are exciting times for all of us in the business.

“Today we realise that the super-premiums from the mid-’80s reignited the industry. Now here we are in 2012 and the sky’s the limit – experimenting with extra aging, higher proofs, different expressions. We don’t see it slowing down: we’re producing a Knob Creek Rye this year, bottled at 100 proof with a bigger, bolder flavour. That’s the future – we’re going to keep releasing innovative products and trying new things.”

Five years after becoming Jim Beam master distiller and nearly five decades since he rode the railcars as a boy, Fred Noe’s passion and enthusiasm show no sign of waning. It’s entirely possible that his son, Frederick Booker Noe IV, could become the eighth generation to get involved, although Fred insists that it will be his decision. “Our CEO Matt Shattock has asked if he can be his mentor, and the opportunity is there for him,” he says.

And what about Fred? Could he conceivably ever have done anything else? “My dad did try to push me away a little bit,” he reveals. “In the back of his mind, he wanted me to make up my own mind and not feel pressure to enter the industry.

“It’s more than a nine-to-five job, it’s a lifestyle. You’ve got to enjoy it – if you didn’t, it would be absolute torture. I thought about other things, but this is where my heart lay.”

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