The man they couldn't invent

The man they couldn't invent

Michael Jackson is under the gun with Booker Noe
Michael Jackson

16 January 2003

Publication: Issue 28

The shotgun on the dinner table made it a memorable evening. The dinner ended with a bang, too. That cannot be denied.It was so memorable that I keep recalling it, turning it over in my mind. I think I have it figured now. It helps that I have known Booker Noe for nearly 20 years. How well acquainted are we? Hey, I’ve met him at least twice, so I guess Booker and I are virtually best buddies.The first time I was received by Booker was in his pick-up truck. This is a sacred place for a Southerner. Booker is especially fond of trucks. Some people say all the Beam clan are, as though it were a genetic predisposition.Back then, Jim Beam whiskey had a flack who only wanted to talk about the company’s huge range of decorative ceramic decanters. As to my actually seeing the distillery, this was for some reason impossible. I needed someone on the inside. I talked to Bill Samuels, of Maker’s Mark. The Samuels family know everyone, always did, from Jesse James to Abraham Lincoln. Naturally, Bill knew Booker, and introduced me.Booker drove me around in his truck. The engine note and his tutorial on bourbon distilling seemed in harmony, like the music and lyrics of a song celebrating the form and function of engineering design, physics and chemistry.From time to time, he would pull over to emphasise a point, and draw in my notebook the configuration of a still. It was as though he was designing stillhouses in his mind’s eye, just as I might compose the cadences of a story.Booker has retired from Beam, nominally. This time, the managers of the company’s two distilleries give me tours. “That pipe? Oh it’s something that Booker was trying.” Every other question seemed to yield an engineering idea from Booker. I had not mentioned him, but everyone else did. His influence, and respect for him, were as palpable as new spirit.Since the company introduced a top-of-the-line whiskey called Booker’s, people in places such as Pensacola, Pottsville and Peoria have sometimes asked me if he exists. Or was he invented in Madison Avenue?Who could invent him? In his Federal-style house in Bardstown, his wife Annis and friends in attendance, he sits in a huge rocking chair. With his large, dome-like head, his broad shoulders, his spreading proportions clad in cotton and leather, the muted browns and greens, he could have been carved from a redwood.He is drawing still designs again. “See what I mean?” he demands. “You understand? Don’t just agree with me. Tell me if you don’t get it.” I do understand.“Here’s a guy that understands whiskey!” he growls.“Ain’t many of those!! Ain’t enough who give a damn!!! We’re talking whiskey!!! You guys go eat. We’ll follow.”His wife and guests look as though they are considering the use of tractors and chains, but he is eventually marshalled to the table.Conversation turns to a series of random shootings in the suburbs of the nation’s capital. A young woman starts to explore the pros and cons of gun ownership. Booker asks: “Have you ever fired a gun?” She hasn’t.Booker has a 12-bore shotgun, which has despatched the odd squirrel. He demands, growling and booming, that that the gun be fetched. The womenfolk are not keen. We have all had a few drinks, and who wants a gun at the dinner table? Booker does. He opens it, and demonstrates its workings to the young woman.He calls for a butcher’s knife and uses it to cut open a shell. He wants the young woman to understand what a gun is, how it works. Now he is showing her how to hold the gun. They both go into the garden, followed by two other guests. “Those guys are both lawyers,” someone observes, as though a shooting is about to take place. It is, but the gun is being aimed into a tree.The young woman has been warned about the recoil, but the kickback knocks the gun out of her hands. Booker takes it, and examines it. Some people might see a hammer, a barrel, a shell. To Booker, it is a triumph of physics, chemistry and engineering design

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