Booker Noe Hits the Road to Rollout the Jim Beam Small Batch Collection

by Colonel Steve Akley


Booker Noe Hits the Road to Rollout the Jim Beam Small Batch Collection

A question often asked is, "How did we get to where we are today when it comes to bourbon?" After all, this isn't a product that is hitting a crescendo in terms of popularity. It continues to ascend to new heights. Of course, it's not the first time bourbon has been at the top. In fact, despite all of the talk of a bourbon bubble and when does it end, we are, in fact, only now seeing production levels nearing where they were in the late 60s and early 70s for bourbon. When you combine that fact with the population growth in the U.S., and the world since then, it appears we will continue to see bourbon thriving for many years to come.

So, how does bourbon come all the way back from the lows we saw in the late 70s and into the 80s? After all, it's never easy for an industry to bounce back. A single company? Sure. If you get the right people, the right commitment and dedication supported by resources to help them succeed, you can often turn around a bad situation.

With an industry, though, it's a little more complicated. Often, there isn't necessarily the one person you can look to to provide the guidance and leadership you need to right the ship when things have gone so wrong.

It may be hard to fathom in 2018, but 35 years ago, it was a totally different story in terms of how bad it was for the bourbon industry. Consumers tastes had changed... seemingly for anything but bourbon. Many point to clear distilled spirits as the culprit (primarily vodka and gin), but Scotch and even Canadian Whisky were hovering between holding their own and actually doing quite well during the same era.

What bourbon would ultimately need would be a single person to awaken that latent appreciation for bourbon. It was always there... we, the public, just needed to rediscover our love for America's contribution to the world of distilled spirits.

While the job of leading this turnaround wasn't assigned to Booker Noe, it ended up falling on his shoulders... and, what shoulders they were! Booker Noe had a physical presence that commanded attention. At six foot-four and well over 300 pounds with a booming voice and magnetic personality, Booker Noe was the right person at the right time to help save bourbon.

Much of what Booker was doing wasn't ground-breaking. After all, Blanton's had debuted in 1984 and Elijah Craig came out in 1986 from Heaven Hill. Still, there was something special about the group of four bourbons (Booker's, Knob Creek, Basil Hayden's & Baker's) that Booker Noe himself had created and termed "The Small Batch Collection."

In order to make sure the public understood the difference between these premium "Small Batch" offerings and the normal Jim Beam Bourbon, the company elected to do something entirely unique and have Booker Noe hit the road to introduce it across the country. 

Again, in 2018, this sounds completely normal. It's exactly what you would do to introduce a new product line like Beam was doing with the Small Batch Collection. In 1992, though, the role of the master distiller was a working job, behind the scenes. Just like the evolution of today's chefs, from working solely in the kitchen in the past, to now where they are the face of the brand and celebrities in their own right. It was very similar with master distillers. They were measuring ingredients, cooking batches, operating machinery and managing personnel. Marketing departments then orchestrated advertising campaigns to support their efforts, but, largely speaking, the role of the master distiller was unknown to the general public.

With the decision to support the Small Batch Collection by having Booker Noe hit the road, the industry would quickly evolve to where we see it today. Master Distiller's having as much brand equity as the brands themselves. This all started with Booker.

The concept of these meetings were simple. Booker would host events moderated by public relations specialist Jim Kokoris. Think in today's terms of the masterful presence Steve Jobs had in his role at Apple press conference introducing new products. Slick, smooth, carefully orchestrated and attention-grabbing.

That would be the best way to describe what the plan was for Booker in 1992 with the Small Batch rollout. The thing is, Booker Noe was really one for rules or to be told how he needed to present his products. He made these himself. He named them. These weren't the product of the parent company behind the brand (the Beam family had sold out decades before), they were Booker's, and his alone. Rather than sticking to the script provided to him by the company's PR team, Booker was, well for lack of a better term, was simply just Booker. 

He told stories. He laughed. He shared production secrets he had been instructed not to tell. Rather than a corporate pitch about the value and difference of the Small Batch Collection, Booker might tell a fishing story or share a recipe for biscuits or tips on smoking a ham. 

The reaction from the audience?

The loved it. Here was a person who was real. He wasn't some corporate stiff who usually wore a suit, dressed down to look like a master distiller. This was a regular person. A guy you could connect with. A person who could capture the imagination of the audience by sharing everyday experience told in his gruff booming voice, large frame and twinkle in his eye.

It was official... Booker Noe was a superstar.

Of course, Jim Kokoris was left in a tough spot. The numbers in regard to brand awareness, sales were amazing. Back in Chicago, where Beam was, and still is, headquartered, the team was thrilled with the results. Jim was often working double-duty, though, meeting with the press in attendance after the events to make sure they weren't printing anything Booker was supposed to say. Sometimes it was done out of courtesy, other times Jim was springing for meals, or giving a little Jim Beam Bourbon, just to make sure no one printed anything they weren't supposed to say which may have put a halt to Jim's time on the road with Booker.

As Booker and Jim continued to make their way across the United States, the industry changed, almost overnight. No longer were master distillers behind the scenes, they became the brands. Elmer T. Lee, Jimmy Russell, Parker Beam... you were buying what they made... not the brand behind them. Because audiences became so enamored with the product Booker had made himself in his Small Batch Collection, all distilleries were pushed to up their game to provide premium offerings for an audience that didn't even know they wanted premium offerings until Booker Noe told them they needed it.

When my buddy Renee Howe and I came up with the idea of doing a podcast called Bourbon History, the idea of bringing Jim Kokoris on the show encapsulated everything we loved about this concept. While neither Renee or I had ever met Booker, the stories we heard were always so amazing. Our dream with Bourbon History was to create a show that allowed us to preserve these sort of memories. With Jim, we have the ability to share these stories firsthand. 

It was an incredible honor and privilege to kickoff this series by having Jim talk to us and share his heartwarming, insightful and fun stories about life on the road with Booker Noe with us. I would highly encourage you to check out Bourbon History, this brand new offering from the ABV Network Channel. You can download The ABV Network Channel on iTunes, Stitcher, GooglePlay, or wherever you listen to podcasts. You can also find it on our website where you can listen to it on your laptop or smartphone without downloading any software. Just hit play and enjoy. You can check out the first episode of Bourbon History on our website by clicking here!