Fred Noe was in Chicago last week and we spent a little time together. Fred is the great-grandson of Jim Beam and the son of Booker Noe, a legendary whiskey-maker who died in 2004. Fred splits his time between the distilleries in Kentucky and the road, where he promotes Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey and other Beam hooch.
Although they haven't owned the company since Prohibition, the Beam family is key to the success of Jim Beam Bourbon. A lot of that rests on Fred. Fred has showmanship, but is he the real deal? As the Jim Beam advertising campaign says, “It’s the stuff inside that counts.” Does Fred Noe have the stuff inside?
Yes, he does. If Fred Noe were any more real he’d be bourbon.
Fred learned whiskey-making from his father and cousins, just like his father learned it from his uncles, who learned it from their fathers or uncles, all the way back to Jacob Beam in the 18th century. There are scads of Jacob Beam descendants but the Beam company likes to focus on Jim's line. Only one of Jim’s three children, his daughter, Margaret Beam Noe, had children. That’s where we get Fred and his cousin, Jim Beam Noe, who is a manager at the distillery.
Although Fred isn’t at the distillery every day, he knows about the important stuff.
Like rye balls.
Rye whiskey was America’s first whiskey and, historically, many bourbon distilleries also made rye. Jim Beam was one of them. They have made straight rye whiskey at least since the company was reconstituted after Prohibition. Beam is coming out soon with a new super-premium straight rye (more about that when they do it), so Fred and I got to talking about making rye.
Although bourbon must be at least 51 percent corn, and rye must be at least 51 percent rye, bourbon is usually more like 70-75 percent corn, but the same is not true of rye. Most straight rye, including Beam’s, is “barely legal” at just 51 percent. I’ve always wondered how come?
One reason is taste. Rye has a very strong flavor and more rye doesn’t necessarily mean more flavor. A little goes a long way. Cost is another reason. Rye costs about twice as much as corn. Fred mentioned another one.
The reason you don’t want to use any more rye than you have to, Fred explained, just enough to get that full, rich, spicy rye flavor, is because rye can be hard to work with. Some of the dry clumps of ground grain don’t break up when they go into the mash. Instead, "they form rye balls," says Fred. "They don’t break up and they stay dry inside, which allows bacteria to grow." Bacteria means off flavors. "Using more rye doesn’t give you more flavor, it just causes you more trouble," says Fred.
I know many members of the Beam family. Some who aren’t making whiskey feel like they should be and most who are can’t imagine doing anything else.