The 2014 Bourbon Classic was full of awesome events, but one of my absolute favorites was “Bourbon Recollections: A Trip Through Time.” The small panel consisted of Charles Cowdery, Fred Noe of Jim Beam, Fred Johnson of Buffalo Trace, and Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey. The stories they told of growing up in these distilleries were delightful and entertaining.
Fred Johnson started off talking about how he would see his father come home with paper ledgers every day. They used to keep track of 250,000 barrels of bourbon on paper ledgers before they had the benefit of computers. He talked about his fondness for running and climbing through the rick houses before his grandfather finally explained to him the dangers, adding that “Grandfather had taken the shape of a barrel” and couldn’t chase after him.
Another fun anecdote was the story of his brother getting a huge bottle of tea for his 21st birthday. Apparently his brother had been stealing bourbon from his father and refilling the bottle with tea, so when the bottle was handed to him, he exclaimed, “Not that one!”
Fred Noe had a similar story. His father called him once when he was in military school and accused him of watering down the bourbon. Fred said it wasn’t him, and his father found out it had been the housekeeper and apologized to him. Years later he told his father that while he hadn’t been the one watering down the open bottles, he had been taking entire full bottles from the back of the liquor cabinet back to school with him.
All the men on the stage also talked about the decline of the bourbon industry. At the low point, Buffalo Trace only had 18,000 barrels in their warehouses. Fred Noe brought along a China bottle, explaining that the popularity of these decorative whiskey bottles is what sustained Jim Beam during the hard years.
Noe attributes the current popularity of bourbon to Elmer T. Lee, Booker Noe, and Jimmy Russell, whom he calls the elder statesmen in the industry. It was because of those three men getting out there doing promotions and tastings that the industry was revived and is now enjoying great popularity. They also developed single barrel, small batch, and other craft bourbons that paved the way for bourbon to become a connoisseur sport.
There were too many fascinating anecdotes from this session to fit into just one piece. If you have an anecdote about any of these great bourbon industry legends, tweet me @LouGirl502. I’d love to hear it!
Photos Courtesy of Jordan McFarland
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