SB Interviews… Fred Noe

6th August, 2012 by Richard Woodard
Fred Noe, master distiller at Jim Beam

“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?

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