Bourbon Legend Fred Noe On Knob Creek 15-Year, Kentucky’s ‘Statesmen’ Of Bourbon, And More

Bourbon Legend Fred Noe On Knob Creek 15-Year, Kentucky's 'Statesmen' Of Bourbon, And More

iStockphoto / MarianVejcik

  • Fred Noe is a seventh-generation master distiller at the James B. Beam Distilling Co. and a living legend in the bourbon world
  • Fred spoke with us about what makes the limited-edition Knob Creek 15-Year Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey so special while swapping bourbon and drinking stories about anything and everything
  • Read more articles about Bourbon right here

Fred Noe is a living legend in the bourbon world. Even if the name doesn’t ring a bell your life has undoubtedly been touched by his family and his craft in some way. Frederick “Fred” Booker Noe III took over as Jim Beam’s Master Distiller in 1992 with the passing of the torch from his father Booker Noe, and kept the Jim Beam family tradition going for over 200 years.

I was fortunate enough to catch up with Fred Noe to talk about the recent release of Knob Creek 15-Year Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. It is an award-winning limited-edition release that first hit shelves in 2020 and came back again this past holiday season.

In the interview below, we tasted our way through various age statements of Knob Creek. Knob Creek Bourbon is 9-years so it was a special treat to be able to age statements that don’t exist on shelves on the way to the 9-year and then dive into the exquisite 12 and 15-year limited releases.

Our conversation ranges from how three different generations of the Beam Family might feel about the Knob Creek 15-Year, when and how bourbon gets its vanilla flavors, drinking stories with other legends of the Kentucky bourbon scene, and more.

Tasting Knob Creek 15-Year Bourbon With Fred Noe

Cass: I was curious how your dad would have felt about the 12-year and Knob Creek 15-Year versus the younger age statements at this point?

Fred Noe: He would probably say, to be perfectly honest, it’s too damn old. ‘Cause he’s kind of the old school when you look at his opinions, and Jimmy Russell’s. If you look back at the guys who really got this Bourbon boom going, very few of them aged the Bourbon that much.

They kind of saw that sweet spot, eight, nine, you know you’re getting them out
there. They didn’t want the wood to take over.

Cass: And then, how would your son Freddie‘s opinion on the Knob Creek 15 and 12-year expressions differ from your father’s?

Fred Noe: I think Freddie’s a little more open to trying new things. He’s a younger generation, he’s more experimental, and Booker was in his time.

But he was experimenting with younger, nine and that was about his range. He didn’t wanna get that old. I mean, we had some really old barrels that dad created to still his masterpiece, ’cause he thought they were so woody that he finished them in Cognac casts.

And then we had some more, it was 18 years old then, and then we had some 20 year
old same barrels that got two years older.

We finished them in some port wine barrels. So, his opinion was, when the wood started taking over and the balance got more towards the wood, he wasn’t a big fan of that. He wasn’t a fan of Single Barrel.

He was pretty stuck in his ways, and that’s the way he learned and he’s gonna stick by what he was taught. I kind of bridged the gap between his learning and what’s going on now, and Freddie’s even taking it a little further, You gotta be open for new things, I think. Trying stuff.

When Does Knob Creek Start Tasting Like Knob Creek?

Cass: With so many Knob Creek age statements in front of us, how do you think about those? Do you think about them chronologically or because you’ve been around whiskey your whole life do you find yourself thinking about it autobiographical?

Fred Noe: No not really, we never really think about… I’ve started using Freddie’s quote, you probably heard him say it in September, “We let the bourbon do the talking or the whiskey do the talking.” If it’s not bourbon, if it’s say a single malt or whatever, we just taste along to make sure it’s progressing at the rate.

And the whole idea of this tasting is to let you see Knob Creek young, how it’s going
to change after two years in the barrel. After two more years, after three more years, then after three more years yet, and you can kinda see the progression and why dad picked nine for the age statement that he liked. ‘Cause on this one you can kinda see the graininess, the grains still coming through. Even some vanilla, but it hadn’t really gotten set in like it does when it gets older. And it just shows you what being patient and aging the bourbon does.

Fred Noe: And then you get to the next one, you’ll see like two more years you lose roughly eight more percent volume, so that concentrates the flavor, the vanilla starts picking up. The wood starts influencing the whiskey, I think it’s kinda cool.

We’ll sit out there in the garage (Fred and Freddie) and just taste. ‘You think it’s getting too woody? Do you like the balance? What about the nose? What about the finish?’

When Does That Vanilla Kick In?

Cass: So at the younger age statement. Are you looking for the Knob Creek flavor profile already?

Fred Noe: I’m just looking for the off notes. If there is anything that’s really not going along. Like on this one, (the youngest age statement) you can see the vanilla is starting but not full front like it is when you get to the nine & seven.

Dad always said if you want to get the big vanilla notes in your bourbon, it takes seven years. He always said that to get the vanilla out of that barrel it takes that long, with the change in seasons. You pick it up at younger but to really get it to where you can put your finger on it and say that’s vanilla. There’s hints in the youngest sample.

Our Jim Beam’s at four, so you’re getting a little older than the Jim Beam mash bill. It’s the same mash bill but it’s getting a little low on fruit so you notice the difference. And also where we store it.

We’re not using 100% of the house like we do on Jim Beam. That just gives you a sense of where it is. And early in its childhood… I guess this is… Like you said, the teenage Knob Creek. And you got the one here that’s high school graduate. And you got the nine-year when you get mature. So there’s… You can see the difference is what we’re driving home on this, the color.

Seven-year gets a little more goldenness to it. And that’s all from the barrel. You know the barrel is what does the work. Once we put it in the barrel it’s in the right spot.

Cass: And it’s all #4 char?

Fred Noe: Number four, yeah. So, it’s been always kinda cool to see what the barrel does to it after nine years, but to see what it does in five, seven, nine, 12 and then ultimately 15. And see the difference in the taste is kinda cool.

Knob Creek 15 Year Bourbon

Was The Knob Creek 15-Year An Intentional Release Or Serendipity?

Cass: Was there ever a plan to age it out to 15 years or was that a fortunate accident that you guys had some stock?

Fred Noe: It was kind of a fortunate. As you well know, we had to take the age statement off of Knob Creek a few years ago because of some production issues and we were blending to a taste profile. So we were taking younger barrels, older barrels mingle them together.

When we got back to that nine-year taste profile, we still had some of these older barrels. Instead of just dumping it into the 9-­year-old, which we didn’t have to because we had a 100% nine 9-­year-old to go in the 9­-year package, so why don’t we sample them out and let’s release some to our loyal fans as Knob Creek. You know some folks would like to… They like something different. You might like… Knob Creek might be your go-to, but let’s try this 12­-year-old, let’s try this 15, just to kinda show you what happens to it when it stays in that barrel an extra three years or six years.

And that’s been kinda it. It’s been limited… We have a limited number of these barrels. When we continue, we’d have to start aging stuff much longer, or reserving the barrels and, who knows?

Knob Creek Supply vs. Demand

Cass: With the demand curve being so steep these days, have you guys ever had older age statements or younger age statements that you wanted to release, but the demand is gonna be so high that you thought it was better to just sit on for special projects?

Fred Noe: No, I think we haven’t really had. Usually, if we got a product, when we get it in a barrel, when we reserve them, those barrels would stay for that. Knob Creek 15 ­year ­old got reserved for that, they would probably maybe 14, 13 and a half. These barrels were for Knob Creek 15. They weren’t gonna be used in anything else until we got to this special project.

Same way you know, you’d have to kind of allocate it, put it in that spot. But I mean, we’ve had issues with Knob Creek years ago. The demand was so great that to keep it, they were sucking it up so fast and we were getting very close to the birthday. And if you’re going to say it’s 9-­year-­old every drop has to be nine ­years ­old. So that kind of ties your hands when you do state that age on the bottle. So we had to slow back and cut SKUs. We weren’t doing any half gallons, we weren’t doing any 50mls, 375s. One litres and 750s.

Knob Creek 15 Barrels Lose About 60% Of The Liquid

Fred Noe: You can see the difference in the five and seven. You know you’re picking up more vanilla.

Cass: And you said you lose about 4% of the barrel a year?

Fred Noe: Yeah, to evaporation. Roughly that’s a good estimate. So we know within these two years, you’ve lost another 8%.

Cass: And has that amount changed at all over the course of your life with changing weather patterns?

Fred Noe: Not really. I think it kinda averages out. Sometimes the barrels might be a little suspect. For a small outage, a lot of it is due to maybe barrels that the wood maybe leaked more, but that’s kind of what we call ‘the angels sharing’, it varies depending on what point of the house you’re in. You know the rack house where it’s stored.

But that’s a good average, you know, say 4%.

Experimentation With The Barrel Makers

Cass: And your barrel maker is very close, right?

Fred Noe: Independent Stave. Yeah. And they got a plant in Lebanon, Kentucky and Lebanon, Missouri. They do the lion’s share of ours, over 90% of our barrels, probably 99% of our barrels now. It’s just hard for anybody to keep up with our demand.

It’s crazy how many facilities they touch with their wood, and they’ve been great partners on research and development of possible new things, you know?

If you want to experiment with finishing barrels or toasting, charring and toasting, bringing certain flavors to the wood that will come out during aging. Freddie’s been working quite a bit with the guys over in their R and D so it’s a very, very great partnership.

The Basil Hayden Toast is a prime example. That was one that he worked with on the Independent Stave guys where they finished in those toasted barrels and they’ve got some more stuff in the hopper unknown. Thing is, he’ll try stuff and they love to find people that will try.

Knob Creek 15-Year, A Proper Pre-Prohibition Style Bourbon

Cass: So, you gonna have to excuse my lack of knowledge on this a little bit. I read the Knob Creek 15-Year was ‘the fullest characteristics of pre­prohibition style bourbon’. What does that mean to you, and what does that mean to someone else?

Fred Noe: When you say pre-­prohibition you’re kinda looking at what Knob Creek, 100 proof, before proof started being dropped, bigger flavors. If you have a chance to ever taste old bottles of bourbon, a lot of them had a lot of flavor ’cause they did things a little differently than we do, and I think we’ve kind of coined that term ‘pre-­prohibition style’, as in big flavor.

That’s what Knob Creek is all about. 100 proof too, dad always enjoyed 100 proof whiskey and that’s where it was before people started reducing the proof and doing all the filtration, taking the flavor out.

The ‘Statesmen’ Of The Bourbon Industry

Cass: I think we might’ve touched on this in a previous discussion. In the 80s when demand was leading to earlier age statements, lower proof, and then there was the shift back to more age and more flavor that, in turn, kinda helped the industry explode.

Fred Noe: Right, yeah, dad, he kind of lived through that. I guess you’d say late 70s, early 80s when Vodka was king and Bourbon was taking a back seat. And him and the other ‘statesmen’, I call them, of the Bourbon industry, the Jimmy Russell’s, the Parker Beam’s, the Elmer T Lees. Those guys created these super-premium Bourbons, putting more age on them, a little more proof and went on the road and hand­sold them. Introduced them to people, reintroduced Bourbon to people and I think the work they did, we’re all living off the benefits of it today.

Cass: Has it ever, or did it ever dawn on you that you are part of that realm of people now? Of those ‘Statesmen’ of the Bourbon industry?

Fred Noe: Only when I get around Jimmy Russell. He teases me and Eddie and tells us we’re the elder statesmen of the Bourbon industry now. Dad always said don’t try to follow in my footsteps, create your own, and I’ve just done my thing and I’ve told Freddie the same thing, to be yourself and I think it’s cool to be able to do what we do.

Cass: I once asked Freddie about that too, if there was any pressure to go into your family business and he told me “Absolutely not, they told me, If you wanna do this, do this. And they gave me the opportunity, they gave me the chance to experiment and make it my own thing.” And that’s not the sort of answer I expected because there’s a lot of weight on everyone’s shoulders.

Fred Noe: There was never any on me either. My dad, he did everything in his way to try to push me away from it. Because you know in the 70s when I was getting out of high school, Bourbon looked like it was on road to the cellar, you know? He didn’t bank on us even being here.

‘Cause he knew I’d kind of grown up around it, I thought it was cool, and I enjoyed the guys who worked there that I knew and it was always… ‘Cause my safe zone is the distillery.

The James B. Beam Institute For Kentucky Spirits

Fred Noe: I’m very proud of that. Freddie kinda helped ramrod that and push it through. He met with the folks at UK, they kind of pitched it. He took the ball and ran and some of our leaders, the executive leadership team saw his enthusiasm and saw the fact that we could really do something and create the new distillers that are coming in the industry. Could be some people we’ll hire, who knows?

Cass: I kind of picked his brain about that perviously. And my first thought I was like “these people are gonna be trained to be experts. And at some point, they’re going maybe want to branch out on their own.” But he’s like, “That’s possibly the best-case scenario. Because we can partner with them on incredible projects.”

Fred Noe: Yeah. They’ve gotta have the backing too. Unless you just hit the lottery for, $500 million or something, and now you can go out and buy the property. And it’ll be a long-term thing. I mean you think about it, you just start a distillery tomorrow. How long would it be before you could have liquid? This right here would probably take you 11 years. You gotta buy the property, build the distillery. Get the recipe right.

Cass: You got to wait on the wood. You got to wait on the ingredients. You’re last in line on everything, right?

Fred Noe: Yep. Cause the guys that have been doing it, e goes in the front of the line. Whoever is buying massive amounts of corn, rye, all grains. We get some issues on, being in the bourbon industry, sometimes our barley is not the best. Who do you think is going to get the most and the supplier’s best? You think Budweiser or Beam? We’re gonna buy truckloads and they’re buying train loads.

Fred Noe, 7th Generation Beam Distiller And Fantasy Football Champion

Cass: Do you have a NFL team?

Fred Noe: Not really. I just kind of, Freddie’s got me involved in his fantasy league, so I’m more the player guy, I’m kinda trying to find the… I won it two years, first two years I was in it with him.

Cass: Hell yes, you did. Did you rub that in his face?

Fred Noe: No, I ain’t had a chance. I gave him a little… I gave all them young boys a little sh*t. And then this year I finished second. So yeah. Second’s the first last, you know? If you don’t win it then it ain’t no fun to finish second.

Cass: Do you guys have a physical trophy?

Fred Noe: Yeah. They got a trophy, yeah. They got a big old trophy. They got a new one this year. It’s funny. This other guy, He won it two years in a row. He won it last year and this year I think. I won it two years, he’s won it two years. They got a… Looks like a Lombardi trophy and they’re gonna engrave on a miniature Lombardi trophy. They’re gonna engrave the names of all the winners on it. They had another one. Great big old trophy. But I ended up with it. Nobody’s ever taken it since, it lives in my house.

Some People Might Say Knob Creek 12-Year Tastes Closer To The Original…

Cass: I have the Knob Cree 12 here now. And that oh man, that is pure caramel color. That’s honey color. The color almost reminds me a little bit of this mead I had out at Stonehenge, a warm mead. It’s that perfect delicious cold-weather drinking color.

Fred Noe: At 12, it’s just a little bit older than the 9, but you’ll see. We did release some 12-Year Knob Creek and it was very successful on the market. People loved it.

‘Cause I mean really when we first released Knob Creek, saying it was nine years old, but there was probably barrels in there that were older. The average age was a little more than nine. Now the average age is pretty close to nine. Because we don’t have that excess of older barrels to put in it. So some people, they might say this tastes closer to the way Knob Creek was back in the original days.

What Helped Knob Creek Spread Its Wings…

Cass: What do you think drives the demand around something like a 12 years popularity? Do you think it’s scarcity, do you think it’s the flavor profiling, do you think it’s all the above or word of mouth?

Fred Noe: It depends on the person. Some people if it’s scarce they want it, some people want it because they love it and they’re gonna drink it. Others are just inquisitive and wonder what it’s all about. You’ve kind of got three segments of people. Some see it on a back bar, a bartender will suggest it. I think word of mouth is kind of what helped Knob Creek spread its wings. From day one dad put me out there on the road to introduce people to it.

That’s what we did all day, we’d go to off-premise, in the mornings till maybe late in the afternoon and then we started hitting on-premise. We were going in with four bottles, Bookers, Knob Creek, Basil Hayden, Bakers, and trying to get people in the early 90s to put four bottles of Bourbon in the back bar, hell it was hard enough to get them to put one bottle.

But after we would sit and do a tasting and they’d talk, and a lot of these bar owners, they’d say, “Well if Jim’s Beams great­grandson came here to talk to me about this stuff, I’ll take a bottle each, we’ll see how it goes.” That’s how we really got it on back bars. We’d do tastings for bartenders just introducing it, just talking about it, let people taste it, and that’s kind of what got us started, this kind of word of mouth really.

We didn’t have a lot of marketing money back in the infancy days. So we didn’t even know it was even gonna sell and Bourbon was a hard sell to begin with. And you start talking about premium bourbons. I mean Jimmy and Parker Beam and dad, they’d talk about going to do these tastings, they’d travel all this distance and there’d be seven people, 10 people, 12 people.

Now if Freddie and me were to go on the road, we could sell as many tickets as we
want there.

Bourbon Bottles Making The Jump From $15 To $50 To $50

Cass: You’re absolutely right about that. If you timed it around a college football game, the sky is the limit. Last Fall when you released Donohoe’s Batch (Booker’s) and Mike Donohoe told us that story of just sort of creating the earliest Booker’s Bourbon and how it was tied to your company giving out holiday gifts instead of premium bourbon, and he’s like, ‘What the hell are we doing? We have this incredible liquid that no one knows about that stuff.’

When you’re talking about premium liquid and being able to not get it on shelves, that story blew my damn mind, the fact that people didn’t know what was sitting right there in front of them.

Fred Noe: He couldn’t sell it! Bourbon was a slow sale and at $15… I can remember Parker Beam telling dad, ‘$50 for a bottle of Bourbon, who’s gonna pay it?’ And Booker looked at him, and they were cousins, he said, “Parker, look what they give for that damn scotch”. He said, “Our whiskey is just as good as theirs”.

All we gotta do is get it out there and let people taste it. And everybody followed suit. Now $50, as you well know, people don’t bat an eye at $50 a bottle. $500 maybe.

Cass: The secondary market is absurd these days. I’ll ask friends in the industry who live around Louisville what bars are charging for rare pours when I see their Instagram pictures and the prices are so high they’re hard to comprehend.

Fred Noe: I got a message this week from somebody in Chicago, it said “We found this number for the first batch of Bookers, it’s signed by your dad, the bottle is for sale, $5,600. Do you have any interest?” I said not really.

I mean I’ve got some bottles, if I really wanna taste the original batch. We’ve got a couple of bottles that we’ve got stashed back. But to give $5000, $5600 for a bottle of Bourbon. I mean sure it was signed by dad and it was faded so bad you could barely even know he signed it, If I look in there.

I knew his handwriting and I know how he signed bottles. But you wouldn’t really know there was a Bookers note or who in the hell wrote on that label, it was just kinda scribbled the way he wrote, it wasn’t like a nice pen on the glass. He just signed across the label with a ballpoint pen.

Keeping Track Of All The Beam Family History

Cass: Do you guys an official in­house archivist?

Fred Noe: Yeah, it’s something that we were never very good at. Dad never did it. Jim Beam never did. Uncle Jerry Beam never did. Never really archived anything. Now, Freddie and me have tried to lay things back for the future.

The Beam Company, we were terrible at archiving photos and videos. Over the years, they did so many videos with dad and pictures of him all over the world. But nobody seems to know where they are. Like when somebody leaves a company, a lot of that stuff leaves. So it leaves with ’em. They take it with ’em, ’cause that was their job. Nobody gave a sh*t, nobody stored it anywhere, but now we are archiving things.

Having some of those old things would have been really cool. Even within dad’s realm, the stuff that they were doing like in the ’70s and the ’60s, would have been cool to show, Beam’s old bottles from those eras, but you’ll find them on the secondary market.

Cass: I see those online for sale with outrageous prices or pictures of them on Reddit. It’s funny to me, ’cause that’s your family history, that’s your history, but to some bourbon drinkers it’s like treasure hunting.

Fred Noe: Right. People are doing their retirement fund by putting it in bottles of bourbon. I see some old bottles and think “what happens if a friend of your grandchild comes into your house while you’re away and they open up your bottle and then refill it with water?”

I can remember my dad, I think I was 15, dad would sign bottles. He was like, “I’ll never open this.” He said, “Well I’m not gonna sign it.” He said, “This stuff’s for drinking, it’s not for saving.” So he would sh*t if he could see how people are saving bottles right now.

Imagine Being The Bartender In The Story Below…

Cass: How would your dad even process that information? It’s crazy. He’d just laugh at it?

Fred Noe: He’d go nuts. Jimmy Russell is the same way still to this day. We always laugh about, how when we go places, how people make such a big deal out of us. And you know, Jimmy, we did it for years, we were at Whiskey Fest in Chicago one year. It was during the NCAA Kentucky was playing on TV. So, after the Whiskey Fest was over we, all the distillers went up to the bar to watch the Kentucky game.

And there was Jimmy and Greg Davis from Maker’s Mark, Harlen Wheatley from Buffalo Trace. And so others all sprinkled in and the bartender at the Hive there didn’t have a clue who we were. “I have a dozen dudes drinking whiskey watching the UK basketball game.” [laughter] And then some fan came walking in. “You know who you’re serving?”. “No. Just six guys”. He said, “No, this is Bourbon royalty.” And he started naming us off; boom, boom, boom, boom. And the girl said, “That’s why when everybody ordered a drink they were buying different brands.” And I said, “No. I couldn’t put Wild Turkey on my company credit card.”

And everyone said, “Yeah we couldn’t buy this or that… When it was my turn to buy; it was Knob Creek. When it was Jimmy’s turn, Russell’s Reserve. Harlen, you know? And then all of a sudden this bartender goes, “Wow! Really?”. And so then throws over and we all signed a napkin. She had one napkin, we put all our signatures. I don’t know if she’s still got it but it was kind of funny.

At Last, We Make It To The Knob Creek 15 Year…

Cass: I actually think the Knob Creek 15 Year has a little more heat on the nose than the 12.

Fred Noe: It does. But it’s not overpowering with the wood. That’s what amazes me about the 15. Good balance; that’s the key. If you’re going to age something extra long, I think the balance has to be there. Like Freddie says, “You gotta let the Bourbon do the talking”.

If it’s telling you it’s getting too much wood, slow it down. If it’s not getting enough to suit you, move it up. You can play with it. It’s a great sipper, I think, you know, with the cold weather.

Cass: This has got perfect viscosity and the flavor is phenomenal.. have you guys ever considered going beyond 15? I know 15 is the magical year, but…

Fred Noe: I think Freddie’s considering it. For maybe an anniversary coming up, maybe on Knob Creek. Innovation team, they’re always putting out ideas.

Cass: You got these barrels that are 15 now, what if we went wait until 18 or 19?

Fred Noe: 18 would be twice the age of the regular. Are they doing it? I haven’t heard him say but I can see where maybe he’d consider that on an anniversary, maybe do a double-aged Knob Creek for an anniversary whether it’s 40 years, 45, he’s gonna be… Hopefully, I’m still around, but you never know when you start talking 50­ years…

Cass: So what are the flavors you were looking for when you are sampling a barrel of the 15?

Fred Noe: The big thing is to not be overpowered by the wood. I don’t want it to be as soon as I taste it, it’s stringent and the woodiness takes over your mouth. I like to still see the vanilla notes. The stuff that makes Knob Creek what it is. But yet there’s more wood influence. You obviously see more wood influence. But it’s not overpowering. You know the nose… You get more wood but when you taste it. A lot of the wood good old bourbons in my opinion.

Everybody likes different things. When you taste them the wood takes over, it’s like throwing a piece of wood in your mouth. And you’re just drinking liquid with a lot of wood, and that’s not the way we like for it to be.

I hope you all enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed putting this article together. Getting the chance to swap stories with Fred Noe while tasting the vertical flight of Knob Creek age statements really was a special experience. And I hope you all will seek out the 15-Year and order a pour next time. yousee it.