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Booker in person

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This was composed as a reply to a thread titled Jim Beam Private Tasting by Kim Stahler. But since that thread is a year old almost, I thought I'd start a new thread. I feel it important to record one of Booker Noe's last public appearances.

I attended the KBC tasting in Austin, TX in October of 99. It must have been only a couple of weeks before the one Kim went to in Philly. Five recruits and I drove 75 miles from San Antonio. (This was a couple of months before I moved to Chicago.) It wasn't quite as swanky as Kim's as it was held in a hotel conference room but it did proceed as described: the four KBC small batch bourbons, the stiffs in suits. Fred was there and so was Booker and Booker's wife and grandson and I think a couple of sister's in law. My buddies and I were feeling sorry for the poor guy who had to hang out at the Bourbon tasting with his aunts and grandmothers until Booker introduced them as his family.

There were several bottles lined up on the tables at the front. Some antique bottlings, the four KBC selections, and a jar of clear liquid with a paper label taped to it. Booker arrived, sat down in front of this jar, poured half a water glass from the jar, added a splash of water, and then drank it off in one pull. One of the suits explained that Booker was feeling a little under the weather.

As Kim said, the suit ran us through the first three samples and then introduced Fred who introduced Booker. He was in rare form. "This here's white dog,." he said, indicating the jar, "for medicinal purposes," drawing chuckles from the 75 or so tasters in the room. Booker then asked Mr. Suit to hold up a 2' x 3' mounted picture of the old Beam homestead and proceeded to discourse for 45 minutes in a sometimes more, sometimes less coherent fashion, about his grandfather and his early life. Every time Mr. Suit's arms got tired and he lowered the picture a bit, Booker would say, "hold that up so everybody can see."

Booker told us about the epiphany he had after a night of imbibing in post prohibition "bust- head" with a friend and colleague that perhaps they should age the whiskey for more than a year.

"When prohibition came down, we had four years worth of inventory. What do you think happened to it?" Booker asked us. Slight pause . . . "It got stolen." He dead-panned. "For months, long black cars from Chicago and Cleveland drove down here and cleaned out our warehouses."

He discussed the tax advantages of being a bourbon distiller: "Whiskey is not all that expensive to make. Mostly it's government [he may have said 'gu'mint'] taxes. After the whiskey gets dumped, every drink you take you pay Uncle same about 25 cents. That's why I like to drink right out of the keg. . . . I cheat the government out of six or seven dollars everyday."

During the question and answer session, I asked if they would ever make a wheated bourbon. Booker looked at me as though I had spoken in Chinese. One of the suits explained that other distillers have wheat in their mash bill. Booker looked at me and said, "We've been making bourbon this way for more than 200 years. I don't think we need to tinker with it." I hung my head in shame.

A couple of us managed to talk Fred in to letting us taste a little of the white dog. The date of distillation, proof and other information was on the paper label but I didn't take notes. It was probably around 130 proof but very nicely distilled and absolutely colorless as one would expect. The nose was just like a corn silo if you've ever been in one. I've never tried the Georgia Moon products, but I imagine this is the taste they are going for. There was lots of heat but a very clean finish and you could taste the grain very clearly. There were not a whole lot a big or complex flavors; that's what the wood is for.

On the way home, we all agreed we would have made the drive even if they hadn't served bourbon. Booker is an extremely compelling figure. I only hope there are other personalities in the bourbon whiskey world who are willing to share their experience with us. I'll drive a hundred miles.

Anybody else got a bit of Bookeriana? Anybody else I should drive hundreds of miles to have a drink with?

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When I was working on my bourbon documentary, I spent the better part of a day with Booker. Some of it was for the interview but some of it was just hanging out. I had lived in Kentucky long enough to know that most Kentuckians consider it very rude to get right down to business. You have to sit ("set") and visit for a spell.

Booker lives in the same house as his grandfather. I remember sitting at his kitchen table drinking from his private stash. He identified it as the same whiskey that is bottled as Booker's, but he had it in a 1.75 liter unlabeled Jim Beam bottle. In other words, this was some that he himself had liberated from the barrel house. Like Booker's, it was about 124 proof. We added a splash of water. It was about 10 AM.

Although Booker's house is in town (Bardstown), the lot is probably close to an acre. The Samuels family (of Maker's Mark) used to live right next door. Out back, Booker has a small smokehouse. He gave me a yard or so of his homemade, apple smoked venison sausage. It was good.

Booker has diabetes so he said even then (about eight years ago) that he was surprised he had lived so long. He didn't mention, along those lines, that his weight and his drinking probably don't help matters. He was born in 1929.

Jim Beam tends to be a pretty uptight company and I know Booker gives them fits, because he pretty much says what he thinks and does as he pleases. When I interviewed him, a Beam suit sat nearby, recording everything for their records. It doesn't do much good. Beam corporately won't reveal the Jim Beam mash bill, but at a tasting one time here in Chicago I asked Booker and he told me.

I haven't met Freddy, but Booker is one-of-a-kind, a real character.

--Chuck Cowdery

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Joe, thanks for the posting. This story is just too good not to share, and the stuff legends are made of.

Unfortunately, the Georgia Moon product is from a straight corn whiskey mashbill, not a bourbon mashbill. It has less rye and is therefore sweeter. If you find a source of white dog from a bourbon mashbill, please let me know. I have had the pleasure of tasting it once and found it intoxicating.

Mark A. Mason, El Dorado, Arkansas

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