The Genius Behind Kentucky Bourbon

Booker Noe is a legend in Kentucky.

He died in 2004, and was the fifth in a line of father-to-son master distillers at the Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont, Kentucky. He was a larger-than-life character who stood six-four, a master storyteller, confidant of governors and heads of state, and a legendary host. In addition to manufacturing the most popular bourbon in the world, he kept the industry alive during the “white liquor days” of the Sixties and the Seventies, when vodka reigned supreme, by coming up with the idea of small-batch, limited-edition bourbons.

It seems lately that here, in the heart of bourbon country, a new small-batch distillery opens every month. 95 percent of the world’s bourbon is manufactured within sixty miles of my house. Bourbon is enormous business nowadays, and it owes a lot to Booker Noe.

Once on The Moth Radio Hour his son Freddie told the story of his relationship with his demanding dad; he never felt he could measure up to his standards. Booker smoked his own country hams, which traveled with him wherever he went and would give them away to chefs in restaurants all over the world as examples of how country ham was supposed to taste. He was a big University of Kentucky alumnus, and threw legendary Kentucky Derby and Christmas parties. He wasn’t Col. Harlan Sanders, but Booker Noe was every bit as influential as an ambassador representing the state of Kentucky as the “fried” chicken guy. You can probably get a shot of Jim Beam bourbon in any bar in the world, thanks to Booker Noe.

So what does this have to do with Buddhism?

Freddy tells that late in life, his dad developed diabetes, with which he lived and coped for a number of years. Then his doctors told him that he’d developed a spot of gangrene on one of his toes, which would require that they amputate his leg. Booker asked about the consequences of not going through with the procedure, and they told him that he would die.

Booker refused to have the surgery, telling his son, with whom he was reconciled, that “Quality of life is more important than quantity of life.” He spent the rest of his short time entertaining visitors and saying goodbye to his hundreds of friends.

The story of Booker Noe’s death impressed me. He, like I in different ways, led a rich, full, adventurous life, and though he probably could have added to his time on earth by not drinking so much of his whiskey and eating his famous hams, his world would have been empty indeed without them. That was not Booker Noe’s style.

The paradoxes of life deny us a fixed identity. If we can learn to accept that, we can learn to “roll with it,” to deal with the bad and to enjoy whatever pleasant things life throws our way.

It’s called equanimity.

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About buddhismfordudes

I am a writer with a book coming out this August called "Buddhism for Dudes: A Jarhead's Field Guide to Mindfulness" published by Wisdom Publications, Inc.
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