Bourbon sales are booming in the UK, with millennials choosing the American liquor over Scotch for its less tweedy image. Jim Beam is reaping the rewards with sales, in this market, growing 20% in the last year alone.
Imbibe caught up over breakfast with Fred Noe, seventh-generation master distiller for Jim Beam, to discuss Highballs, experimental whiskeys and the explosion of small-batch whiskey producers snapping at its heels…
Why do you think there’s been this explosion in bourbon’s popularity?
It’s very mixable and you can drink it any damn way you want to, whether it’s in cocktails, or neat, or on the rocks. Younger people don’t want to do what their parents or grandparents did, and the new generation want to explore new things.
Do you think the increased consumer interest in provenance and heritage from the craft movement has benefited bourbon?
Absolutely. Everything we make is really just craft. I mean, just because we have a big flow of bourbon coming out of our stills, there’s a craft in making whiskey, whether it’s our buddies in Scotland or us back home in Kentucky.
Regardless of size, there’s a learning curve with making whiskey. My family’s got 220 years of knowledge going back seven generation, and now eight with my son coming into the business, and I think that’s something people are looking for – tradition, legacy, quality.
We’ve been very lucky with the Suntory acquisition [of Jim Beam], they’ve been very generous with capital to expand our distilleries. We’ve added more fermentation vessels, built more ageing-rack houses to put the barrels away, and looked at different ways we can get energy to cook the grains.
It doesn’t happen overnight with whiskey production – you make it today and sell it four to eight, nine, 10 years from now – but we do see volumes continuing to grow. We don’t see it slowing down anytime in the future.
In the US, the number of distilleries has gone from a couple of dozen to 1,500 this decade alone, many of them producing whiskey. Is this a good thing for the industry?
Laughs. You can’t just rest back on what you’ve been doing. The craft distillers have pushed us to do new things and keep track of what’s going on.
We’re going to build a small experimental distillery, where we can play in some different areas we haven’t played in before, but make it scaleable, so we can then take it to our big distillery and mass produce it.
What will you be experimenting with?
Say, American malt whiskey to kind of mimic what our friends here in Scotland are doing with their single malt. And different mash bills – if it’s going to be a bourbon, it’s got to be at least 51% corn, but there’s a lot of other flavour grains that we can mingle in there to look for something unique with a new taste.
We’re also looking at playing with some different wood finishes, secondary ageing – take the bourbon out of one barrel, put it into another to get some new flavours. The distillate is pretty much the same, but you can play with the wood influence after ageing to get the flavours you want. That’s something we’re playing with and there’s something exciting on the horizon – we’ll see.
Is the legislation for bourbon as rigorous as it is for Scotch whisky?
Oh yeah, they regulate us very, very tight. The laws on bourbon do tie your hands quite a bit – having to make the bourbon in the United States; corns being the majority grain; new barrels during ageing; no colours or flavours. Then there’s regulations on distillation proof, barrelling proof, bottling proof…
At least it means everyone’s playing by the same rules, and that’s what keeps bourbon pure and the way it is.
Are your flavoured whiskeys not considered bourbon then?
So we’re still using bourbon, but we can’t call it that. For example, cherry bourbon – can’t say that – but we can take Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey and infuse it with natural cherry flavours.
It’s kind of like winning the Super Bowl for distillers, and it was amazing to get that recognition for something my daddy created before he passed away. He created it from stories he heard as a little boy about how people brought their containers to our distillery and took the whiskey straight from the cask to the bottle, or bucket, or whatever they brought.
Only thing was, we don’t tend to stash a lot of bottles – we share them with our friends and family – and when it came out, no one knew it was going to win that award, then boom and everyone wants some and prices go through the roof.
You’ve got a lot of different whiskeys, but they’re all based on a similar mash bill, how do you end up with such different styles?
We can play with the strength of the still to get different flavours to come over from the distillation, and we can vary the length of time spent ageing the barrels and the strength we bottle it at.
We’ve got certain guard rails for every product and we don’t play outside those. Basil Hayden, for example, it’s always got to be approachable and easy to drink, so it’s got to be around 40%.
Booker’s has to be cask strength, it’s got to be as pure as the old days.
Will Jim Beam be releasing any Single Barrel in the UK?
There’s some talk to bring Jim Beam Single Barrel to the UK, but the demand curve is so great on bourbon right now that we want to make sure we have ample supply before we do so. The worst thing you can do would be tease the public and let a little bit get out.
With the current Masterclass Tour, why is education so important to the Jim Beam brand?
Our big thing is to educate folks behind the bar, so they’ve got a story to tell when a customer comes in and wants a bourbon.
If they just ask for bourbon, what bottle is the [barman]going to grab? Probably the one they can tell a little story about and if they can say they met the master distiller of Jim Beam and he told me this bourbon is like this because…, then they’ve got a little story to tell and customers enjoy that.
This is a business of relationships. If you look after your customers, then they come back to your bar, not someone else’s.
You’re promoting the Jim Beam Highball, based on the Japanese Highball, can you tell me a bit about it?
The Highball is a very old drink, and the reason it’s doing well is the lower alcohol volume – it’s 3:1 or 4:1 ratio with a good effervescent soda and a bit of citrus.
It’s a refreshing drink and it keeps people looking at brown goods through the warmer times of the year. A lot of times, people push them to the back of the shelf when the warm weather comes, because it’s got that heat in it. With a citrus highball, it’s light, easy and very refreshing to drink.
The Japanese at Suntory, they got this thing started and we’re trying to spread this citrus Highball around the world, and a lot of that is to do with education and working with barmen.
So far it’s been well received in Japan, and it’s seeding in the United States – we’re working on that – and now in the UK.