An excerpt from Fred Noe’s new book, Beam, Straight Up.
I started on the bottling line. Clermont plant. Night shift. Relief supervisor. In other words, they didn’t put my picture on the bottle right away. It wasn’t glamorous, and I was on my feet a lot. I remember wondering after my first night what Hank and the boys were up to, where they were. A couple of weeks earlier, I had been partying in Nashville, living the life; now I was in a hot and noisy room watching bottles whirl around on an assembly line. Four pm to 1 am. Sometimes 4 pm to 4 am. Half hour for lunch or whatever it is you eat at 10 at night.
Luke, this is your destiny
I need to be clear on one thing here: nobody, not Booker or my cousins, nobody forced me to come work for the business. Despite the legacy, despite the generations of Beams working there, no one pressured me, or even encouraged me for that matter, to go make whiskey. Booker in particular was very impartial on the subject. He wanted me to make up my own mind, be my own man.
“The distillery’s not for everyone,” he told me when I came back from the road. We were sitting at the kitchen table, waiting on breakfast from Mom.
“I know that.”
“Last time. You sure you want to do this?”
I admit, since I had returned home, I had been asking myself that question a lot. And I came up with an honest answer: “Because I think this is supposed to be what I do. This is what I know.”
Booker looked hard at me. “You know, this isn’t a party. No Hank Williams, Jr. It’s work. Hard work.”
He kind of chewed on his bottom lip, mulled things over. Booker was big into mulling. “All right,” he said. “We’re going to do it right then. You going to learn it from the ground up.”
That was the reason he started me in the bottling house (where we filled bottles with liquor). It was the only part of the business he didn’t know. Booker had never worked there, so he had never been able to teach me much about it. It was a gap in my education, as he put it, so that’s where my bourbon career officially started.
I can’t say I loved it at first. It wasn’t the most interesting job. Plus, the other workers there were wary of me; polite but distant. I found out later they thought I was a spy. Jim Beam’s great-grandson, checking up on them, ready to report back. But after a while, they saw that I was one of them, just another guy making a living. No special treatment. Bring my lunch bucket, just like them. Pretty soon, once they realized I wasn’t tape-recording their conversations or taking notes and running back to Booker, they relaxed.
I remember the night they officially accepted me into the fold. I was on the bottling line overseeing a run of margarita mix (while we only make bourbon at the distillery, we sometimes bottle other products there before we ship them out) when one of the older guys, a mechanic, told me there was a problem with one of the palletizing machines and I needed to check it out right away. I had nothing to do with the maintenance of the palletizing machines, and I told him that.
“Just go on now, go down there and check it out. Something needs your attention. Get your a– back here when you’re done.”
So I went over to one of machines off in the corner, and sure enough, there was the thing that needed my attention: a cold, tall margarita, waiting for me. I picked up that glass, turned around, and toasted my coworkers, then threw that thing back fast. From that moment on, I was just one of the boys.
I ended up liking the work. It was important, and it was straightforward. I liked the fact that we were some of the last people to see our bourbons before they were shipped off to points around the world.
Every so often, I got to do something that made a difference. After I moved over to the labeling room, I soon learned that we needed a system to track which cases were going where. So I came up with a code that we would put on each label before we put it on a bottle. Eventually it became known as the “F. Noe Code” and we used it for years, until computers came along. I was proud of that code. Made me think I had an impact.
We had some interesting situations pop up in the labeling room, things that kept us scrambling. During that time we were expanding overseas, shipping our product to Australia, Germany, Japan, South Africa, and Russia. We had to come up with different labels for the different countries, and in some cases we weren’t sure what we were putting on the label. No one spoke Japanese in the shipping department in Clermont, so we had to call over to Tokyo and ask our local sales contact how to spell “bourbon.” In South Africa, we learned that we couldn’t use the word “proof” on our labels; apparently it was a derogatory term down there.
Another interesting situation: We used massive containers to ship our products. We sent them overseas to Russia or the Far East full and they would come back empty on ships. Well, supposedly empty. More than once, workers unloading the containers in Europe found people, whole families hiding in them, stowaways, trying to sneak into the West free of charge. Like I said, interesting situations.
So the work could be more challenging than it sounds, and I ended up liking it all right. I suppose I also liked the routine. After years of excess, years of partying, years of no real direction (case in point: I took seven years to graduate college), I finally found my footing at the distillery, felt earth beneath my feet. Like I said, it wasn’t glamorous work, but it was honest work and it helped me grow up.
I mostly liked the people I worked with. They were solid people who had worked at the plant for years and years. Many of their fathers had worked there, and even some of their grandfathers. The Beams, I realized, weren’t the only family with bourbon-making roots. Bourbon and Beam had supported generations of Kentuckians for years and years. It was in a lot of families’ blood.
Sometimes, after work, we would meet at the bottom of the hill in the parking lot (the Clermont plant is built on a hill) and we would relax and have us a few. No crazy stuff, just sipping and smoking. Someone might be playing guitar, someone might be singing. We’d sit there on the bumpers of our cars or in the back of our trucks and watch the night fade, see the sun come up over the hills, the light hitting the rack houses, turning them pink, then a little orange. I remember staring up at the rack house, wondering what time the ghosts got up, wondering what they thought of me—the prodigal—now.
We drank our share of whiskey, but we didn’t overdo it. We were professionals; it was all about quality, not so much quantity. (Although, to be sure, there were a few who were into both, but they didn’t last too long; they tended to weed themselves out.) We were selective of what we drank, knew where the best whiskey was stored, which rack houses, which barrels.
Sometimes we sipped on new whiskey, bourbon that hadn’t been aged yet. White Dog, clear as water, but dangerously seductive too. Drink too much of that and the next morning you would wake up with an earthquake between your ears. Bust Head, Booker called it. “You got the Bust Head,” he would say.
Some of the workers, the old-timers especially, had something called a “mule.” It was a distillery secret, no outsiders knew about it. It was basically a plastic tube that you could hide down the front of your overalls. You would pull it out in the rack houses if no one was around, knock out the bung of a barrel (the plug), and slip it on in and have yourself a nightcap, or an afternoon pick-me-up, or a fat-free breakfast.
There was a trick to knowing which barrels to sip from. Since the barrels were aged for years and years, they naturally picked up their share of dust as they sat quietly, undisturbed in the shadows. But every so often you would come across a barrel with no dust on one side, and that’s the one you put your mule in. The reason they didn’t have any dust on them was because the men (many of whom had, shall we say, prominent stomachs) would lean against the barrel while sipping on it. Their guts kind of shined the barrel up. Those barrels were called the sweet barrels. The shinier the barrel, the sweeter the whiskey. I always thought we should come out with a special bourbon, call it “Shiny Barrel.” I know it would sell well in Kentucky. People who knew their whiskey would know what it was all about and line up to buy it for sure.
[Insert Text Break Here]
I worked at the distillery for 28 years, moving around the place, serving in a number of capacities. As Booker wanted, I was learning the family business from the ground up, all aspects. Bottling, labeling, the distillery, the fermenting room, the dump room. My knowledge of the business grew inch by inch, day by day. Looking back on it, I was like a bourbon myself, aging slowly, gaining flavor in the relative quiet of the Clermont plant.
Age and experience are important things in the bourbon industry. You can’t learn everything in one day, or one week, or even a year, especially in a business as old as ours. It takes time to absorb all the different facets and it takes patience to learn the nuances. There is a rhythm to making whiskey, it’s a slow, easy, and methodical process. This isn’t Silicon Valley where things change every day. This isn’t Wall Street with the big ups and downs. This is Bullit County, Clermont, Kentucky; things may change here, but when they do, they change slow.
I was content enough. By then I had met up with a girl who would later become my wife. I had met her driving “the loop” in Bardstown. The loop was a Saturday or summer evening ritual, and you’ve probably seen it in movies about small towns. Bunch of people pile up in a car and drive around. We started out at Burger Queen (that’s not a typo; in Bardstown, we had a Burger Queen; not sure why) and ended up about a mile away at the McDonald’s. Then we’d drive back again. It usually turned into a parade of cars, people honking their horns, the radios up high, seeing what’s going on. Teenagers did it, people in their twenties did it. Bardstown is a little isolated; there aren’t many other towns really close by, Louisville is close to an hour away and Lexington even further, so our entertainment options were limited. It was either drive the loop, or sit on someone’s front porch and watch people drive the loop.
Well, I met Sandy driving the loop, and we started hanging out and then going to ballgames, and later, the local night spot, Boots and Bourbon, and one thing led to another and pretty soon we were married and pretty soon, man, I was a father.
It was all good. Sandy was a Bardstown girl, so she had a basic understanding of the bourbon business, knew what it meant to be a Beam, so there was no major education needed. She knew that bourbon, whiskey making, was going to be my life and she was fine with that. She understood she wasn’t marrying a doctor or a lawyer. I tell you, having a spouse who is on board with your career, someone who gets it, that’s a big help. And Sandy got it from the start and she’s been there the whole time.
So I was all settled down and everything, Hank Williams, Jr. and that life, gone forever, the transgressions of my youth a memory. The days blended together, one after another, and my life kind of flattened out, no real highs and no real lows. I was happy enough. I had everything a man could want: a good wife; a son, Freddie (Frederick Booker Noe IV; we like to number our kids); a good job working with good people. Family nearby. Sandy and I were living in the Small House, next to Booker and my mom. I told myself that was enough
But I knew it wasn’t, knew something was missing. Down deep, I felt an itch to do something different, an itch to see the world. I didn’t leave Bardstown or Kentucky very often, it was pretty much my whole world, so that itch was understandable and over time it grew.
Booker was gone a lot, traveling, seeing new things, meeting new people, while he promoted the product. It was the 1990s and the Small Batch Bourbons, particularly Knob Creek, were on fire, demand high. When he came back, we would sit around the kitchen table, maybe sample a few batches of Booker’s the distillery had sent over, and he would tell stories about Australia, Japan, France. Places I could only dream about. That itch would get stronger after talking to Booker, but I ignored it, told myself to be happy with how things had turned out.
Things changed one day, though, when Booker came home from some faraway place tired. Being the ambassador for one of the world’s most recognizable brands, being the face of a growing and global company, being here and being there, constantly entertaining people, key customers, retailers, salespeople, media, was finally taking a toll. He was pushing 70 by then, and the front porch was calling.
“I’m done,” he said. We were sitting out back, staring at the smokehouse, waiting on supper. When Booker was in town, we still tried to eat together. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
I just sat there and let him blow off steam. He had complained about life on the road before, so I didn’t think much of this latest tirade about airports and too-small seats on airplanes. He had recently spent time in Japan and had to push two beds together to sleep, which he thought an outrage.
“You can’t quit,” I said.
“It’s not quitting. They got a word for what I’m doing and it’s called retiring. And that’s what I’m doing. I am retiring. Ball players do it. Hell, even racehorses do it.”
I wasn’t taking him seriously. “You can’t do that.”
“I can do whatever I damn well please. I’m not getting on any more airplanes. That last trip almost killed me. Waiting in line at the airport for an hour and then they lost my suitcase. Besides, I ain’t feeling too well. Gettin’ swimmy headed. My legs and my feet are swelling up all the time. No, I’m done, all right, I’m done. Besides, they don’t want to hear from an old man anymore anyway. They want someone younger. A different perspective. I’ve told all my stories and I’m getting tired of hearing myself talk.” He went quiet, started in on a good mulling. Then he softly said something.
“What?” I hadn’t heard him.
“I said it’s your turn.”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you think I mean? This is your time. Changing of the guard. I already talked to people about it. They’ve been watching you for a while and the reports have all been pretty good. You put your time in here, so they’re going give you a shot.”
“Yeah, a shot. Speaking of which, I’m getting a little thirsty.” He pushed himself out of his chair and went into the house.
I watched him walk away. Time to scratch that itch, I thought.