SB Interviews… Fred Noe

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

“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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