Beam, Straight Up: A Book About Bourbon and Family Business

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Kentucky has its share of bourbon distilleries and stories.  Any story of bourbon must include Jim Beam.  The brand and lessons from the producer’s humble beginnings are highlighted in Beam, Straight Up: The Bold Story of the First Family of Bourbon.  It’s the story of a successful family business that has thrived through multiple generations.

The author, Fred Noe (co-authored by Jim Kokoris), is a 7th generation Beam Master Distiller, and the great-grandson of Jim Beam.  I picked up the ebook browsing NetGallery, looking for a book that shares family history with business history.

Straight Up fits the bill as a great business teacher, similar in scope to Guitar Lessons. But it’s also fun because of its subject matter.  Food, in general, brings out the best in people.  We socialize around it, be it casual or the stereotypical business lunch and alcohol was always meant to keep people relaxed. Noe also notes that impression.

“When I first started traveling, I thought the world was a big place…. The food may be different, the customs, the clothes, but in the end, people are people.  Bourbon helps. It’s a common language, everyone understands it, no matter where they’re from.”

In noting that, Noe immerses the reader comfortably into his world. He explains the family history and his place, including a chapter on his father Booker, and the story of how Noe came into the business.  Nice twists occur with touches upon the imagined cultural milestones along the way, like prohibition.  During that time, Noe says Jim Beam:

“. . .did a lot of things to stay afloat, but one thing he didn’t do was go to jail.”

Beam ran a coal mine and rock quarry to replace the shut down distillery, though he was not as successful:

“Heart was not in it, and it showed in the bottom line.”

Entrepreneurs may identify with various aspects of Beam family character towards the business:

  • Single-minded purpose
  • Simplicity in manners
  • Strong sensibility of what works
  • Direct

And with some interesting quirks.  Such as carrying a family heirloom, a jar of yeast used in bourbon distilling, in the front seat of Jim Beam’s Cadillac:

“You see, you have to use the same yeast to keep your whiskey consistent and tasting, and he wasn’t about to let it out of his sight. My great-grandmother Mary… said the yeast stunk up the house, said it smelled like old socks, but Jim didn’t care…. That yeast was gold; it made his whiskey special and it smelled just fine to him.”

Readers also get the factoids that make nice life-of-the-party topics. Guess what color whiskey starts out as?  Clear as water, adopting a brown color from caramelized sugars in the aging process.

Interesting facts like that get woven into more compelling retelling, such as the robberies of stored liquor during the prohibition period.   Distilleries had warehoused stock, and plenty of it – they were still caught flatfooted by the outlawing of liquor.  Thieves would break into the temporary storage for whiskey, replacing whiskey they’d steal with water.  Another prohibition outcome was the use of bourbon for medicinal purposes:

“That’s right, during prohibition bourbon suddenly became government approved medicine. A handful of distilleries stayed alive by getting permits to sell their whiskey to drugstores that could then turn around and sell it to people who had a doctor’s prescription…. I may be wrong, but I don’t think anyone made much money doing that, but every dime helped back then.”

And Noe explains the timeline with Kentucky flair, such as his imagery for Jim Beams’ retirement:

“In Kentucky, people don’t ride off into the sunset, don’t head out to pasture. They sit on the front porch. He had one of the best front porches in Kentucky. Wide and sturdy, overlooking North Third Street, Bardstown’s main drag.”

The most direct chapter that speaks to small business is Chapter 10: How to Build a Company That Lasts.  This approach contrasts Guitar Lessons, another historical look at a specific industry.  But this also speaks with authority – after all you don’t get to be 7th generation anything without a lesson or two passed along.  A family tree dating to 1770 lets you know how far along the lessons have come.

The nuggets are common sense ideas, such as knowing your customer, ensuring quality, and consistency.  Others are refreshed ideas that Noe personalizes, enough to compliment any business process book, such as having pride and passion – Noe gets a lump in his throat from seeing a Beam truck deliver bourbon, but he also does so as a muse for the quality and consistency he advocates.

If you pick up this book, delve into Chapter 9, which details the distillery’s response to decreasing bourbon sales in the 1970s.  You will learn what innovation means, with an eye for balancing family tradition and marketplace shifts.

A few images of the family history appendage at the book’s end, as well as a small segment of Beam-based drinks and recipes.  These are well done and festive in tone (I really liked the hangover cure!).

The book makes for a good gift for the business owner who appreciates business history or who just needs a step back from a process or technical book.

Noe writes in the prologue he had some reservations in writing a book. I am glad he chose otherwise.

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Pierre DeBois Pierre Debois is Associate Book Editor for Small Business Trends. He is the Founder of Zimana, a consultancy providing strategic analysis to small and medium sized businesses that rely on web analytics data. A Gary, Indiana native, Pierre is currently based in Brooklyn. He blogs about marketing, finance, social media, and analytics at Zimana blog.