Whiskey talk with Jim Beam
Jim Beam belongs to the portfolio of Deerfield, Illinois-based Beam Global Spirits & Wine, Inc. Annual revenues of €1.7bn make it the fourth-largest spirits company in the world. Beam Global Spirits & Wine belongs, in turn, to Fortune Brands, Inc.
But these are mere figures. The human touch is provided by this seventh-generation descendant of the founder whose face is pictured on every bottle of Jim Beam whiskey sold throughout the world.
Fifty-two-year-old Fred Noe (pronounced no) has such a strong Kentucky drawl that an Englishman needs to strain his ears to understand what he is saying. But this captivating personality repays the effort by being immensely entertaining. Cheers!
"Bourbon is in my heart"
Mr. Noe, what is the difference between whiskey with an 'e' and whisky without an 'e'?
The Scots write 'whisky' without an 'e' because they like to save on ink.
You are the Seventh Generation of Jim Beam — did it come naturally to you and the marketing of Jim Beam to present you worldwide as the face behind the brand?
Yes, because I grew up in the business. In fact, I was born between two vats of bourbon! It’s part of my being and what’s in me. Bourbon is in my heart. It’s what our family does, and it was natural that I was going to follow in my father’s footsteps.
Your face has been on Jim Beam bottles since the end of 2007. Why did the company decide to make this step?
It was our marketing guys who thought it up, but it sure makes me proud, and it’s a big responsibility to carry on our family tradition of over 200 years. I suppose it was because I’ve been on the road now for around ten years as the ambassador for the brand and because they wanted to stress the family tradition.
I certainly enjoy getting out meeting people, shaking their hands and hearing their stories. I think it’s important for people to meet the seventh face on our bottle.
What is it like to be recognized worldwide as the Seventh Generation of Jim Beam?
I get invited to a lot of parties! But perhaps that’s because they know I’m not going to come empty-handed and will bring a couple of bottles which I don’t always take with me when I leave. However, I don’t go around trumpeting the fact that I am Jim Beam’s great-grandson. I’m not royalty. I put my pants on just like everyone else does.
What is your and your family’s main secret for success?
Keeping our product real and our tradition alive. Did you know, for instance, that we use the same strain of yeast that Jim Beam used after the prohibition by inoculating each new jug every two weeks? That’s part of the tradition of our brand.
Some of your competitors would say that yeast doesn’t matter that much...
I’d be telling you the same thing, if I didn’t have yeast which was started by a family member right after prohibition.
The consumer trend is towards light variations in all segments. Jim Beam Light?
If you taste a bourbon and make a face, it’s too strong for your palate. A lot of people’s first experience is not a pleasant one, if they drink it neat right out of the bottle, so they need to know that they can lighten it up a bit with water, ice, mixers, cocktails etc.
To what extent is the US market still regionalised?
A lot stems from smuggling and the prohibition. After prohibition, a lot of Canadian whiskey was smuggled into the North of the USA, where it is still very popular to this day. A lot of Scotch was smuggled into the north-east, hence its preference there. In the same way rum is still popular in Florida and tequila in the south-west.
Can you protect your brand from the negative publicity associated with the misuse of alcohol? Where do you see your social responsibility?
Jim Beam has developed a program called 'Drink smart'. We’ve lead the industry back home regarding the responsible use of our products. The Drink smart campaign says, if you are not 21, don’t drink; if you are of legal purchasing age, then use our products responsibly; never drive drunk; and, if you can’t use our products responsibly, don’t use them at all.
In Europe pressure is growing to ban alcohol advertising. What is the situation in the US?
Right now we cannot advertise on TV as per a gentleman’s agreement after prohibition. You can do billboards, but the government is pretty restrictive on where you can put them, especially if they are anywhere close to children. Therefore, we don’t use them much.
How about radio, newspaper and sponsorship?
We do very little in terms of radio or newspaper advertising. But we do some advertising in up-scale magazines, though never ones which are likely to be picked up by kids or young people under 21. Mainly, however, we sponsor US stock car racing.
Do you still advertise Jim Beam at German music venues?
No, we stopped about two years ago as per our corporate social responsibility guidelines not to advertise to young people.
Successful liquor brands speak to the emotions and have a compelling story-line. What emotions does Jim Beam appeal to and what is your story?
A 212-year tradition of making bourbon is our main story line. We stick to our way of making bourbon, keep the product consistent and don't change it with each new trend. This has retained a loyal customer base and also won new customers. Our emotion is down-to-earth and honest.
How do you market your product specifically to Germany?
We don’t have a specific German campaign, but a global one based on our producing authentic and real bourbon. Our copy text is very short as well: One family. Beam recipe since 1795.
Why do you keep it in English when selling to Germans?
Our market research showed that 55 per cent of German consumers prefer the story line to be in English and that a further 20 to 25 per cent say they don’t care. So we go by the majority.
How do you see the future of Jim Beam on the German market?
We are very satisfied with this market and see great potential, especially in the ultra-premium segment.
Germany is a very important market for us because we are the number one whiskey brand in this market on the largest US whiskey market outside the US. This is due to the American military being stationed there after the Second World War.
Do you advertise and promote more strongly in eastern Germany than in western Germany?
Currently the consumption level in the eastern part of Germany is higher than in the southern parts of Germany, but we don’t distinguish between regions in our national campaign.
How would you comment on the relative strengths of Jim Beam and Jack Daniels?
It is our company policy not to comment on the strategies of our competitors. Our strategy is based on a five-year plan, and currently we are very satisfied because we are ahead of this. Jack Daniels has also grown, which is a good sign, because it shows just how much the German consumer enjoys US whiskey.
Where do you see the main global growth regions?
In three words: China, India and Russia. Who would, for instance, have thought that the Indians are big spirits drinkers who particularly enjoy Scotch? So we intend to introduce them to bourbon.
Jim Beam is a quintessentially American product. Since the Iraq war have you experienced any international backlash against you?
Admittedly, Jim Beam is an icon in the bourbon industry otherwise we wouldn’t sell six million cases of it world-wide every year. But I’ve never experienced anything negative because it’s American. If people want bourbon, it has got to come from the US, and most consumers judge by what’s inside the bottle.
Would you ever consider supplying retailers with an own-label product in order to maximize capacity at your distilleries?
No, in fact it is the other way around, our current main problem, which, after all, is not a bad one to have, is how to supply enough bourbon of the right barrel age.
It is always hard to estimate demand six, eight or nine years in advance. Eight years ago, we knew, for instance, that “Jim Beam Black” was going to grow, but we didn’t foresee demand growing in double-digits. After all, no-one has a crystal ball.
To what extent have you been able to offset the recent surge in input costs?
Improved efficiencies within our distillation process not only increase product consistency but also reduce energy costs and the amount of raw materials we use. Increased bottling speeds have also improved output.
Do you think that improved efficiency will enable you to keep your prices stable?
With oil prices going through the roof and the expansion of ethanol in the States, we’ve seen the price of corn rise dramatically. Will that affect the price of bourbon down the road? I don’t know, it might, but that will also affect the whole liquor industry. Well, we’ll start hoarding some Jim Beam just in case.
If you or your readers ever need a free drink, come and knock glasses with me in Kentucky.