Book Review: The Big Man of Jim Beam
I never had the opportunity to meet Booker Noe. He passed away long before my interest in bourbon became an obsession. But whenever I hear Fred Noe talk about his father I recognize this was a special man to a lot of people. Whenever I have an opportunity to hear about Booker Noe, my ears always perk up. When this podcast came out a little over two years ago, I listened with tears streaming down my face, crying about the death of a man I had never met. Even to this day Booker Noe continues to be a legendary figure to a new generation of whiskey geeks, many of whom only know him as the statue that that sits in a rocking chair with his dog at Jim Beam’s American Stillhouse. The Big Man of Jim Beam by Jim Kokoris is the latest way to read all those stories about Booker Noe you thought were made up or rumors. Remember when the Oven Buster version of Booker’s came out last year? There were probably some people who thought the story of blowing up an oven when cooking with whiskey was another silly marketing yarn. According to the book and numerous encounters with Fred Noe over the years, it actually happened.
There were still more stories in The Big Man of Jim Beam I had never heard. Did you know Booker raised catfish in one of the mash tubs at the Boston plant when it was shuttered? The end result of his attempt made me laugh out loud. He also made his friend measure him for a homemade cypress wood casket during a night of drinking around the kitchen table.
One thing Booker Noe did that changed the direction of the bourbon industry was to hit the road later in life as the spokesperson for Jim Beam. He’d travel all over the country and the world telling people stories about his famous grandfather, Jim Beam, as well as stories about his own tenure running the family business. Many times over the years he, Jimmy Russell, and Elmer T. Lee have been credited as the “Elder Statesmen” of the bourbon industry, pounding the pavement to spread the good word of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey around the world. It is widely thought this was one of the most important factors that brought bourbon back from the brink.
From a purely literary standpoint, I would have to categorize The Big Man of Jim Beam as a work of creative nonfiction. It doesn’t quite fit the bill of a biography because, for starters, there’s dialogue that the writer would not have been privy to. That doesn’t mean the stories are necessarily made up- Booker Noe was a larger than life character whose legend has a tendency to jog people’s memories when they hear his name. There are likely many more stories about him floating around in the ether that have yet to make it to paper. Based on what I have heard about Booker Noe over the years, these stories are very likely true, told in a way that is both entertaining to the reader and informative about the bourbon industry at the same time. It’s a new and interesting approach to bourbon education.
The Big Man of Jim Beam is available on Amazon as well as at the Jim Beam American Stillhouse.