Last May, Chris Sutton of Noble Denim sent an e-mail that was no longer expected. The collaborative jean that Noble created with Bulleit Bourbon were nearly ready. It’d been six months since the initial project invitation, four months since I had started to check the mail box for them and two months since I had given up. But that one day in May, I decided to check in with Noble as a last ditch effort. Sutton promptly responded, despite being on the road and having automated his e-mail response.
“Since you joined the project late, we decided to let your jeans age a bit longer,” Sutton wrote. “But then life got crazy and we left them aging. You are going to have a six-month aged pair of Barrel Aged Jeans and I think they are going to be awesome and worth the wait, I’m curious what they will be like.”
Two months later, I drove 100 miles down to Noble’s headquarters. Noble calls Cincinnati’s Over-The-Rhine district home, a historically working-class neighborhood that has, in parts, become gentrified. It still has a grit to it, however, and still stands separate from the rest of downtown. It was there I met Sam, a tall, skinny dude who bounded down the stairs to greet me.
He led me upstairs to where Noble’s original tailor, Chris Sutton, was finishing up a couple of tasks. Sutton shares a similar aesthetic to Wessner, and to Noble denim as a whole. He’s dressed in a straightforward and clean aesthetic, with a sixties-era cut grey t-shirt and a pair of Noble Earnest Slims. Sutton is a small guy, lithe enough that he had to take in his pair of Earnest Slims a little extra to create the fit he desired. He greeted me as well and made small talk, asking about the Orgueils I was currently wearing.
Sutton’s first pair of faded jeans were displayed on the wall, as was an oversized novelty check in a corner. The check’s a measure of pride, particularly for Sutton, as it was an award grant given for winning a small Cincinnati business competition. While Sutton is a full-time Cincinnati-an, Wessner lives in New York, where his other business is the El Rey Café.
The most telling part of their office is a rack of stiff, dry denim hanging neatly in a line behind the sewing machines. These jeans represent Noble’s history and aspirations. Sutton’s first jean ever made were on the right. Under scrutiny, the inside of these jeans are, at times, a mess of thread and without a doubt a learning experience. More interesting is the leather patch, which reveals that Sutton initially was going to call his denim company Billy Kidzilla (Noble was probably a wise name change).
In the middle, there are more prototypes – some worn, others raw – and the first jeans done by his collaborative factory in Tennessee.
The brief tour finished, the Noble duo returned to the lounge are and brought out an apt choice of drink for the day: a bottle of Bulleit’s whiskey. We settled in, and got right down to it; how did a young denim brand end up teaming with part of an international liquor conglomerate?
The Bulleit Bourbon Collaboration
Denim brands – at least the ones discussed around here – are unafraid to have fun and get creative. Brands such as Ooe Yofukuten take advantage of their followings to do world tours. Countless others have enjoyed doing collaborations with stores or fellow labels. Noble Denim, for most of its existence, has been making original, small batch collections to go along with their standard lines. Before demand became too much, custom tailoring was a big deal as well.
But using whiskey, that was an old idea of John Willis, a friend, and photographer that has worked with Sutton and Wessner over time. It was never put into production but ruminated for years.
Since Sutton left his previous desk job and committed to denim, Noble has been on a slow and steady trend upward, focusing on clean products and smart marketing. Wessner was introduced to Sutton early on and the pair quickly hit it off. The New York Wessner connections allowed a brand based in Cincinnati to get additional exposure in a larger locale.
Meanwhile, Tom Bulleit’s original bourbon recipe began in 1830 but was revitalized in the late 90s, after being purchased by several larger liquor distributors. Along the road, Bulleit kept growing in reputation and winning awards until it became known as a reputable bourbon. Today, Bulleit is primarily distilled at the Kirin Brewing Company’s Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. In such a competitive business world, its team of marketers is likely always on the prowl for new ideas to reach and appeal to their target audience.
Noble’s proximity to Kentucky put them just a short distance from Bulleit. Noble caught someone at Bulleit’s eye, and they began viewing lookbooks of Noble and out of the blue Wessner and Sutton received a pleasantly unexpected phone call. Bulleit wanted to do something with Noble and asked if they had any ideas. It didn’t take long for the whiskey jeans idea to be proposed, discussed, and embraced. Now the question became how to make it work.
Hearing Sutton and Wessner tell it, this process was more free and fun than it should have been. Noble was basically able to do whatever they wanted. They were invited down the Bulleit HQ to explore and meet up with the creative department. The company sent them way too much whiskey to drink. Sutton said that the only thing Bulleit insisted upon was the type of Bulleit that would be displayed in promotional material. And when it was all over, a winter holiday party was thrown in New York City.
Of course, such freedom meant a lot of groundwork required on Noble’s end. Making the jeans would be the easy part. Hours upon hours were put in on planning and research. Would whiskey work as an effective dyestuff? Sutton sought help from a natural dyeing expert named Kathy in the Pacific Northwest. She educated Sutton on the processes and led him to use black walnuts and soda ash. Black walnuts are a particularly strong natural dye, and would enhance the whiskey coloring on the denim. Meanwhile, the soda ash changes the pH of the cotton and the dyestuffs to create a reaction that holds fast. Using Bulleit barrels still wet with whiskey, this combination, plus water, would welcome the denim in a sludgy embrace.
In the fall of 2014, the jeans were finally ready to dip. The barrels were installed in the backwoods of Willis’ parent’s house in Kentucky, an appropriate measure to keep the project Kentucky-bred. The plan was to let the 83 pairs of denim brew for a few months and then pull, clean them up and then distribute. But distribute to who?
The jeans would be given away. A massive number of work hours required a price tag near $400 to turn a profit, and it didn’t seem appropriate for a project made in a fun spirit of seeing what would happen. So a list was created, and people checked in.
In the Kentucky woods, denim was brewing. All that was left to do was wait. What would happen to the jeans? Would they twist, shrink or fall apart? Would some adventurous woodsmen stumble upon the lonely whiskey barrels and help themselves? Would the overdye do anything? All I knew, listening to Sutton and Wessner finish their story, was that the results were sitting in a bag the next room over.
Noble Denim x Bulleit Bourbon Barrel Aged Jeans
Nearly two years ago, Noble Denim teamed up with Kentucky’s own Bulleit Bourbon to collaborate on a pair of barrel-aged jeans. Heddels was lucky enough to get a pair in July of 2015, after six months in oak and a single wash. They’ve been on steady rotation ever since with two other pairs of denim.
The first necessary action upon first handling these jeans was to smell them. How many times are you actually eager to smell a pair of raw denim? Unlike the standard aroma of rank sweat people cringe from, these were slightly sweet and had the distinct oaky-smoke flavor that everyone loves from their favorite bottle of whiskey. It was a pleasant surprise that I had hoped for but not expected.
Due to the unique nature of this small batch project, Noble didn’t hold back with the presentation. The jeans arrived in a white drawstring sack (related reading: “How to Make a Cinch Tote Bag“) prominently emblazoned with a logo designed by Dallas artist Kyle Steed. The bag also contained an engraved piece of the barrel the jeans were aged in with the batch number and the jean size. Mine matched the barrel design that was on the sack itself, but other designs include one with a silhouette of a horse head and another within a can. It’s a real cool novelty which will provide a keepsake beyond the life of the jeans themselves.
The jeans themselves were packaged inside out for good reason. The twisted state that they sat in the barrel left them with a beautiful marbled pattern. Colors ranged from a deep brown to a golden honey color. The selvedge line looked like it was from jeans made 100 years ago, not two years ago. The same with the pocket bags, which are also decked out with details about the jean and fun little easter eggs, such as “Curiosity killed the cat, buddy,” printed on the hidden side of the pocket.
The exterior of the jeans was a wrinkled, awesome mess. It was clear that these had been bundled up in liquid for a while, and I loved it. It’s a great, unforced distressed quality that made me want to beat the shit out of them with pride. The denim was as dark as any I’ve seen with a white weft. There was light evidence of sticky-looking stains and a golden brown look from the overdye. But when the sun hit them at the right angle, a beautiful golden brown emanated through. The one disappointing factor was that the denim itself was a sanforized lightweight batch of Cone Mills. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but an unsanforized, neppy, slubby denim would have reflected the gnarly-ness of these jeans much better.
Adding to the look was a patina on all the hardware and thread. Noble typically uses yellow and orange threads from American & Efird, and they were perfect for accenting the overdye. The only alternative that may have been interesting would be a white based thread, which would have more explicitly represented the whiskey color. This is noted only because the look of the selvedge line and peek-a-boo selvedge on the coin pocket has such a great antique quality. On the hardware, the raw copper rivets had a sludgy patina, while the black copper donut buttons had rusting on the interior.
It should be noted that aspects of critiquing Noble’s fit and construction can no longer be considered up to date because earlier this year Noble made some notable updates. The denim is now a 14 Oz. natural indigo organic selvedge from Nihon Menpu. Hidden rivets and more elegant stitching were added to the back pockets, a hanging loop added to the waistband and the pocket bags are now a herringbone twill.
What was carried over from their former details are lined pockets, a continuous single needle stitch waistband, and the “N” stitched in at the base of the outer pocket bag stitch. In conjunction with the update, the price has risen as well to $285. But when you consider the new denim and combine it with the extra time invested in each pair, it is easy to see where the money went.
With all of that out of the way, Noble made a fine pair of jeans. There’s a high stitch-per-inch, clean straight lines, and simple design. Belt loops are tucked into the waistband; the pockets are fully lined…everything feels very solid. The leather patch is a real highlight. Kyle Steed’s design is fun; well reflective of the Bulleit’s bottle while clearly integrating the text in creative angles.
There are a few gripes. One is a quality control error on a belt loop was a little off. Instead of being straight up and down, it’s angled to the right and exposes the underside of the loop. It’s especially jarring because it is one of a pair bookending the rear rise. The left one is nice and even, making the error more noticeable. The next thing is the rivets on the coin pocket are just too long. It’s barely noticeable when looking at them, but when you reach into the pocket to grab whatever is in there, the rivets dig into your hand uncomfortably. Lastly, speaking of the pockets, they’re just not deep enough for my liking. For anyone owning a phone with a screen over five inches, there’s a chance that it could dig into your waist when prominently bending. This issue is purely subjective, but adding another half inch of depth to the pocket would have been nice.
Noble offers two main fits, the Earnest Slim and the Truman. The Earnest Slim is – as described in its title – the slimmer of the two, with a fitted top block and a taper below the knee. The Truman is closer to the classic straight cut, with more breathing room up top and a lighter taper down below. For this project, I was provided with the Truman, which Noble states is their best seller. After wearing them, it’s for good reason. The jean is a great cut and fit. It allows for a good range of movement while looking timeless. It’s unlikely that Noble will ever need to change this pattern as long as they’re in business. The biggest thing that stood out was the rise. It’s a little higher than I’m used to, but it’s not a high waist jean by any means. It’s a comfortable seat, and I find the pants sliding down more infrequently than other denim in the collection, with or without a belt.
Noble has no semblance of vanity sizing. In fact, they can be a half inch smaller in the waist than the tag. Noble sent out a 37, but a 36 would have been better due to the stretch that the denim has. When it came time for the first wash, it shocked me how much they shrank back up. It will likely encourage me to wash them more frequently to keep the fit where I like it. I wouldn’t size down, though, for those who are curious. Go with the Earnest fit instead and you’ll be happy.
The first couple of months in these were interesting. The first day a good sweat got going, I swear it must have smelled like I had just gotten off of a bender. The denim was also a little sticky at first, clinging particularly around the knee. There was a slight bit of chafing as well. But soon they felt like any other jean. The wrinkles and creasing from the whiskey process gradually subsided and is now only subtly noticeable in parts below the knee. It remains to be seen whether they will show up more prominently once the jeans have faded. The cuffs had originally refused to roll flat, which worked well with their funkiness. Over time, they settled as well and now sit much flatter.
Unfortunately, the stubbornness of the denim combined with a relatively light wear intensity has meant that fades are slow to show. The signs are there for promising stuff: great roping is starting, and some electric blue is popping out. It’s a more agonizing wait than normal, and it is going to be interesting to see how the contrast comes out. Will the brown marbling display where the indigo fades? My guess is not exactly. After giving the jeans their first wash and inspecting them inside out once again, it seems like the whiskey is fading much akin to the indigo.
The contrast from before is a little subdued and has rubbed out completely on the inner name tag. Considering that this was as much of an experiment as anything, the overdye process could probably have been refined a little more, with perhaps a second dip or a stronger amount of fixative. Then again, if we look at overdye treatments, like those done by Iron Heart, maybe it would be wrong to expect more. There is still a strong whiskey undertone, though, and combined with how dark the indigo looks, these could have quite the contrast. These aren’t going to be pulled out of rotation anytime soon, so another, briefer update is likely for the future.
Noble Denim is a company still in its earlier stages. It is only entering its fourth official year. Despite coming at a time where everyone and their mother was starting a selvedge denim company, Chris Sutton, and Sam Wessner have managed to keep their company on an impressively upward trajectory. In addition to the successful collaboration with Bulleit, the duo started Victor Athletics and opened their first brick and mortar store in downtown Cincinnati. And now they’ve taken another step forward with the revision of their denim construction. The bourbon denim may never return, but it’s exciting to see what comes next.