Toasting Booker: An afternoon with Jim Beam distiller Fred Noe, members of the Blue Knights motorcycle club and Booker’s Bourbon
The story goes something like this …
Back in the mid-’80s, Jim Beam master distiller Booker Noe befriended a pack of motorcycle enthusiasts who were part of an organization called the Blue Knights. Made up of active and retired law enforcement officers, the bike club took to Booker like bees to honey, and vice-versa.
In fact, the friendship was so immediate, Booker invited all 300-plus members of the Kentucky chapter to his home in Bardstown the very next day for a cookout. The party soon became an annual event, and everybody who was there on that first Memorial Day Weekend rally remembers it to this day.
“He touched our lives,” said Blue Knights member Steve Foster of Louisville. “We had so many good times with him.”
“You couldn’t not have a good time with him,” added Blue Knight Ruben Gardner of Radcliff, Ky.
Booker Noe died in February of 2004.
Foster, Gardner and three other members of the Blue Knights — Joe Gilliland of Stanford, Ky., Larry Meyer of Elizabethtown, and Dave Ernst of Louisville — joined current Beam master distiller Fred Noe, Booker’s son, at the Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont, Ky., in late April.
They were there to sample the latest Booker’s Bourbon release, which is dedicated to Booker Noe’s friendship with the Blue Knights.
When it hits store shelves in the next couple of weeks, it’ll be labeled “Blue Knights Batch” and include the group’s logo.
Since 2015, Fred Noe and the Beam organization have named each batch of Booker’s (there are a handful of releases each year) after an important person, group, memory or event in Booker’s life. There has been “Big Man, Small Batch,” “Dot’s Batch” (named after his dog) and, most recently, “Tommy’s Batch” (named for longtime Beam employee Tommy Crume), among several others.
A Toast to the Blue Knights
The Blue Knights is a nonprofit fraternal organization made up of active and retired law enforcement officers who have a passion for motorcycles. It was founded in 1974 in Bangor, Maine, by a group of seven cops who rode around on their bikes for fun.
After an Associated Press article profiled the small group in the late ’70s, chapters soon began to spring up all over the country, and eventually, the group went international.
Today, the Blue Knights boast 17,500 members throughout 638 chapters in more than 30 countries. There are 12 chapters in Kentucky, which fall under the Mason-Dixon Conference. The group organizes annual rallies and events for its members and often helps raise funds for good causes. To date, they have contributed more than $18.3 million to various charities throughout the world.
The five Kentucky members who were invited to the Beam Distillery were first treated to lunch with Fred Noe at — fittingly enough — Fred’s Smokehouse on the premises, then a distillery tour, followed by a barrel tasting in a rick house and, finally, a formal tasting of the finished “Blue Knights Batch” Booker’s (which hadn’t even been bottled yet at the time of their visit).
The men, most of whom are retired, recounted story upon story of the Booker days and the wild times that would ensue when 300 bikers join together and just add bourbon.
Noe would chime in when a story sounded familiar, and he added details the guys didn’t even know — like ones about that very first time they came over for a cookout.
“He invited all you over for lunch and didn’t tell my mom until last-minute,” chuckled Noe. “He made sure everybody had fun around him. It was Pop’s way — he never met a stranger and he always had a good time. He wanted everyone around him to have a good time.”
The Blue Knights gave Booker an honorary membership that year.
“Your dad lives on in all these stories,” added Foster. “It’s quite an honor for you to do this for us.”
As the group sat around a conference table and sampled the Booker’s, Noe read his dedicated description of the “Blue Knights Batch” that’ll be included with the bottle.
This batch of Booker’s is named for a group of law enforcement officers my father met many years ago. The Blue Knights are law enforcement people who ride motorcycles for a hobby. They have chapters all over the world. My father met several of them at a rally in Shepherdsville, Ky. In fact, my father invited 300 of them to our house for lunch. The group came and we fed them all. … I still see members of this great organization when I’m out promoting the bourbons.
Noe said it’s fun meeting people who knew his father and hearing them tell wild tales of their time with him — most of which are 100 percent true, he laughed. And that brought us back to the bourbon, and his concept to dedicate each batch of Booker’s to his dad’s legacy.
“I think it’s kinda cool to rehash things that Dad did because it was his bourbon, his batch,” said Noe. “That’s why we’re trying to come up with stories of people who touched his life — like you guys.”
A Toast to Booker’s
Booker Noe created Beam’s Small Batch Bourbon Collection in the early ’90s during a time when bourbon wasn’t so hot. Some Kentucky distillers decided to follow scotch trends by releasing single barrel or premium expressions, with the first single-barrel release being Blanton’s in 1984.
Back then, Fred Noe explained, the bourbon industry was more like family than competition — which still holds true today somewhat — and Booker would join his buddies Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey), Elmer T. Lee (Blanton’s) and Parker Beam (Heaven Hill) on the road to educate consumers around the country about the ways of bourbon.
“Those guys set the wheel in motion that helped set off the big boom today,” said Noe.
Booker Noe is actually credited with creating the categories of “super-premium” and “small batch” bourbons, and his Small Batch Collection included Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, Baker’s and, of course, Booker’s. Each of these brands is distilled and aged differently, and it’s up to the master distiller to know when each barrel is ready.
Booker’s, the highest proofed bourbon of the Beam portfolio, is barrel strength and bottled uncut and unfiltered. Booker essentially wanted consumers to experience what a bourbon tastes like straight from the barrel — adding water to taste.
Booker’s is made from a batch of around 400 barrels handpicked from the center of a seven-story rick house, and typically the age ranges from six to 11 years old. (The age listed on the bottle is, by law, the youngest barrel in the batch.)
As a sixth-generation distiller, Booker imparted his skills, secrets and knowledge of the industry on to Noe, and in turn, Noe is grooming his son, Freddy, to fill his shoes one day.
“The thing about Booker’s is it’s not Booker’s until I say it’s Booker’s,” explained Noe. “Same way Dad did. It was one of the last things Dad told me before he passed away: ‘Take care of the Booker’s for me.’ Alright, I’ll do that for you, Pops. It was always him who approved every batch. And after he passed away, it became my job. At some point, it will be my son’s job. I’ll pass it on to Freddy and let him do it.”
Noe said Freddy is more like Booker than he ever was — and that includes a heightened attention to detail no matter the cost.
“He’s getting to be more and more like his grandfather every day — it’s amazing,” he said. “My mother said it for years that he was more like Booker than I ever was — temperament and everything. He wants it perfect, he likes it a certain way, and that’s how Booker was. It’s funny watching him. He’s like Booker, who didn’t take much shit from nobody.”
Noe said an important quality for a master distiller to possess is patience — knowing when a barrel is ready by its flavor profile. It’s a trait that’s certainly been passed down the Noe line.
“Dad would say it’s like the guy who owns the orchard knows exactly when to pick the apples off the tree. You just have to taste on those barrels until you get that vanilla and wood influence. They’ll get there, you just have to leave them alone.”
And one last piece of advice from Noe to those people who hoard bourbon like baseball cards: “You better drink that stuff up — or someone will drink it for you.”
The “Blue Knights Batch” of Booker’s will be released in late May. The bourbon is 127.4 proof and aged six years, three months and three days. The batch consists of 403 barrels from four production dates located in different locations within the rick houses. The nose is sweet, and the flavor is chock full of vanilla and woody notes, with a slight spice that lingers. The oldest barrel in the batch is 10 years.