Mighty fine,” seems an apt description for Booker Noe, the Kentucky bourbon making legend, and for his namesake whiskey, Booker’s. It also happens to be an expression that peppers his conversation on a frequent basis if you have the good fortune to meet up with him.
I had the fortunate pleasure to meet him earlier this spring on his home turf of Bardstown, Kentucky, the bourbon capital of the world. He had invited me to share dinner with him and his wife, Annis, at their home – a short, five minute walk from the centre of town. When I arrived he was sitting on the front porch, taking in the societal ebb and flow of a Bardstown twilight. “You’ll have some Kentucky tea?” he asks rhetorically, handing me a tall glass of Booker’s with lots of water and ice. “Goes well with dinner or just about any time, for that matter.” Dinner, Booker Noe style, is no ordinary affair. Our chef for the evening is Booker’s friend, Marilyn ‘Toogie’ Dick, on a one night sabbatical from the Kurtz Restaurant in Bardstown.Toogie’s parents started the restaurant in 1937 and the family has been serving classic Southern food ever since. How good is Kurtz cuisine? A national magazine rated the skillet fried chicken the best in the United States a few years back. Soon afterwards a half dozen executives from Kentucky’s better-known fried chicken franchise arrived in Bardstown, cheque book in hand, wanting to buy the recipe. Toogie sent them
packing before they could even loosen their corporate ties.With Booker acting as interpreter of Southern food and Annis filling me in on the finer points of Bardstown history, Toogie started bringing out the dishes: Fried chicken, mashed potatoes and skillet fried corn bread, Kurtz coleslaw and creamed corn; butter bean soup, creamed corn and green beans with bacon, Kentucky country ham with red eye gravy and baked apples, rounded out with biscuit pudding and chocolate bourbon sauce. “Here’s how you eat the country ham,” Booker helpfully explains. “You put a dab of butter in a warm biscuit, then put a slice of ham with fat on it into the biscuit. You keep the fat on it or it won’t taste like anything ... mighty fine.”Struggling through my ninth course I begin to wonder how Booker has survived for 70 years on such a diet without keeling over. “You need to sip the right proportion of Kentucky tea to appreciate the food, and the whiskey should be one part Booker’s to two parts water, with plenty of ice,” he says enlightening me. I had at last stumbled upon the Kentucky Paradox: bourbon is good for you. In a weak solution of water and ice, it will counteract the insidious dangers of butter and fat, possibly negating the need for any type of exercise except fishing and golf. I begin to contemplate the possibility of a similar Speyside Paradox, given the atrocious diet the Scots have traditionally enjoyed, when Booker breaks my train of thought by suggesting a tour of his smokehouse.Waddling out back we pass by a behemoth of a barbecue, complete with a rotisserie and a variety of bells and whistles to enhance the southern religion of smoking meat. “Enough for a whole hog,” comments Booker with pride before pointing out his latest project – a fish pond where he raises native Kentucky species for food. “Fish sounds dangerously healthy to me,” I tell him. “Not really,” replies Booker, “we fry the hell out of them.” His smokehouse is a fine piece of architecture, built for the purpose from brick with a high domed roof. About 50 country hams are hanging from the rafters, wrapped in newspaper. “I wrap the hams in paper around mid-April before the flies come,” Booker explains, “and then the hams age for one year to eighteen months.”The man is a venerable font of southern food and bourbon recipes, and a youthful glint comes into his eyes when he describes his latest discovery. On the way round to the front porch for a parting dram, he tells me he has started using Booker’s instead of sugar in iced tea and that he always splashes a hog with plenty of his bourbon before he barbecues the critter. So what about the recipe for his own bourbon, and how does he select the casks? “Booker’s has so much more flavour,” he tells me, “it’s uncut, natural proof whiskey and it’s not chill-filtered. It’s the way whiskey was done originally. “Booker’s goes into the barrel at 125 proof while a lot of other bourbons are distilled at 135 to 145 proof, then water is added to bring it down. We take Booker’s bourbon from the centre cut of the old nine-floor warehouse in Clermont, the fifth and sixth rows, and this is where the best whiskey comes from. It comes off at 126 proof, so there’s a tiny increase in strength.” Why don’t other bourbon companies bottle full-strength, unfiltered whiskies if the results are so good? “They’ll catch up soon enough,” answers Booker.By this time we’re sipping straight Booker’s with a couple of ice cubes and it seems a mighty fine testimonial to a man who has spent 50 years making and supervising the creation of bourbon.
Booker Noe is a sixth generation Beam, the pre-eminent whiskey clan of Kentucky. And Booker is pure Kentucky bourbon blue blood. His great, great, great grandfather was Jacob Beam, a German immigrant who came over the Cumberland Gap and sold his first barrel of whiskey in 1795. His grandfather was the illustrious Jim Beam who built the Clermont distillery after prohibition, and Booker himself lives in the house Jim Beam built. As he puts it: “There’s been Beams in these parts for over 200 years.” These parts of Nelson County include Bardstown and Clermont, about 15 minutes up the road from where the Jim Beam distillery and Jim Beam’s American Outpost are located. Booker began working at the Clermont plant when he was 21 and retired as master distiller 41 years later. But his whiskey career was not quite over: Booker’s signature whiskey was launched in 1988. It was first created as a holiday gift for his friends and Booker has spent the last 10 years supervising the production of it. He’s also been the roving ambassador and raconteur for the Small Batch Bourbon Collection (Booker’s, Baker’s, Knob Creek and Basil Hayden’s). Baker’s is named after Baker Beam, another Clermont graduate and Booker’s cousin. Booker is in his seventies now and is less of the wild rover than he used to be. “It’s time for someone else to carry on the Beam legacy,” he says as we share the last dram. He then asks if I’d met his son, Fred. I had not, so we walk all of 30 yards to the porch next door and Booker introduces me to Frederick Booker Noe III, seventh generation Beam, Clermont distiller and current roving ambassador for the Small Batch Bourbon Collection. Fred, who learned his trade at his father’s side, introduces me to his young son, Frederick Booker Noe IV.With three generations of the whiskey making Beam family bidding me farewell from the house Jim Beam had built, I stumble into Bardstown for a night’s rest feeling mighty fine indeed.