Kentucky’s most prominent whiskey-making family celebrated another milestone Wednesday when Jim Beam’s great-grandson had his likeness added to labels of the world’s best-selling bourbon.
In a ceremony fittingly capped by bourbon toasts, Fred Noe took his place alongside six previous generations of Beam family distillers whose portraits are displayed on the Jim Beam label.
Noe, 50, who is assuming the role as Jim Beam’s distiller, became choked with emotion when he saw his portrait next to that of his father’s, longtime master distiller Booker Noe, who died in 2004.
“This is a huge honor,” said Noe, whose family traces its Kentucky whiskey heritage to 1795, when family patriarch Jacob Beam set up a frontier still.
Jacob Beam is atop the family tree portrayed on the label, with Booker and Fred Noe at the bottom. The new label, which will reach store shelves this month, will appear on Jim Beam, Jim Beam Black, Jim Beam Rye and Jim Beam Choice.
Symbols of the family’s legacy were evident at the ceremony at the Beam distillery south of Louisville.
The label unveiling took place in front of what was the home of Jim Beam’s son, T. Jeremiah Beam, who groomed his sister’s son, Booker Noe, to take over as master distiller. Nearby was a statute of Booker Noe.
Dave Pickerell, master distiller at Maker’s Mark, said it was a fitting tribute to Fred Noe.
“I’m sure that all of his forebears are looking down smiling right now,” he said.
Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark are owned by consumer brands giant Fortune Brands Inc., based in Deerfield, Ill.
The ceremony was a heady experience for someone with a humble start to his Beam career.
Fred Noe started out 23 years ago on the night bottling shift. He said his father wanted him to start “as far down the rope” as possible so he could learn different facets of bourbon production.
“I think that was a test to see if I was really looking for a job or just a paycheck,” he said.
In recent years, Noe has been a bourbon ambassador, traveling the world to promote Jim Beam bourbons. Noe said he’ll continue his promotional role even as he takes over distilling duties.
The global bourbon market grew by 3 percent in 2006, and high-end bourbon sales accounted for 8 percent of total spirits growth. Jim Beam sold nearly 6 million cases of its signature white-and-black label bourbons last year as its sales rose 5 percent globally.
Noe was bullish on the future, saying “the sky is the limit” for bourbon’s potential, especially for small-batch bourbons leading the category’s growth.
“People are drinking less, but they want to drink better,” he said in an interview. “And bourbon is definitely figuring into the cocktail scene now.”
At the ceremony, Noe thanked Jim Beam master distiller Jerry Dalton for mentoring him. Dalton, the only non-Beam family member to serve as the brand’s master distiller, is retiring.
Noe also thanked the many employees who have worked at Beam through the years, saying they helped keep the “212-year legacy and tradition alive. It’s not just been the seven pictures on those bottles. It’s the people that have worked with them.”
Noe said his family put its mark on the industry and it was his turn to continue the legacy.
“I’ve still got a hell of a lot of work to do,” Noe said.