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Four Roses Bloom Again
Of Kentucky’s nine active bourbon distilleries, Four Roses, just outside Lawrenceburg, is easily the least known in its native country. Production at this utterly unique distillery has continued without interruption since 1911—yet their fine straight bourbons have been unavailable in America for over fifty years. Under new ownership since 2002 by the beneficent Kirin brewing (and distilling) concern, this special whiskey is now slowly spreading across America. Armed with two high-rye-content grain bills and five yeasts, Four Roses has plenty of whiskey firepower for its mission. Mark it down: in years to come, Four Roses will be accounted as one of the very best bourbon distilleries.
The early history of what is today called the Four Roses Distillery, and the brand of the same name, make a fine example of the convoluted course of the bourbon industry. The Four Roses brand exists from the 19th century, deriving from various legends involving a southern belle, a marriage proposal, and a bouquet of roses, though the definitive story is uncertain. The present distillery buildings were built in 1910 as the Old Prentice Distillery, on the banks of the Salt River, in an unusual Spanish mission style suited to a turn-of-the-century California winery.
The roots of today’s Four Roses whiskey go back to 1943, when Seagram’s bought Frankfort Distillers Co. to obtain the Four Roses brand, the top-selling bourbon in America. At that time they also bought Old Prentice. Seagram’s separately purchased four more distilleries— Cynthiana, Fairfield, Athertonville, and Calvert. The distillates from these five stills were blended (or as Four Roses puts it today, “mingled”) in varying amounts to create the brands held by Seagram’s. Furthermore, each distillery used two grain bills—so Seagram’s blenders had at their behest ten different whiskeys.
Seagram’s may have held some of the strictest quality standards in the entire liquor industry—“the most quality-oriented company I ever saw,” says Four Roses Master Distiller Jim Rutledge. But from a modern perspective, they were lousy marketers. Starting in the early 1950s, Seagram’s in their wisdom chose to restrict sales of Four Roses straight bourbon to overseas markets, where it became a top seller. Americans were offered only a blended whiskey called Four Roses American, whose components were made in such far flung places as Baltimore, Maryland and Lawrenceburg, Indiana. To make matters worse, by the mid-1960s the quality of this blend was degraded from a Seagram’s “A” blend made from 100% whiskey, to a “B” blend with 65% grain neutral spirits. This “rotgut” blended product proceeded to tarnish the name of Four Roses in its native country.
Kirin Steps In
The business side of the story remained unchanged until December 2000, when Seagram’s merged with a French media company. Seagram’s many liquor holdings were put up for sale and eventually dismantled by several competing liquor conglomerates. Suddenly, the Four Roses brand and distillery was on the market. The purchase was ultimately completed by Kirin in February 2002, in part to retain distribution rights in Japan. In fact, the sale consummated an ideal marriage.
According to Four Roses CEO Teruyuki “Terry” Daino, “In principle, Kirin is a manufacturer. Kirin’s main business has always been marketing our business.” “The Kirin way,” unlike some other large liquor companies, is to act not merely as a brand builder, but as a producer. They take great pride in making quality products, first as a brewer but later as a distiller. In 1972 Kirin partnered with Seagram’s to produce Japanese whisky, and built a large distillery at the foot of Japan’s iconic Mount Fuji. With years of experience as Four Roses’ Japanese distributor, and long exposure to Seagram’s quality-oriented culture, Kirin was perhaps uniquely qualified to take a hands-on approach to owning the distillery.
Soon after their purchase, Kirin went about repairing the image of Four Roses in America. The blended whiskey was eliminated, and Four Roses Yellow Label returned to its rightful status as a fine Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey. A Single Barrel bourbon was released in 2004, followed by the Small Batch in 2006. Says Jim Rutledge, “Everything is very thought out. We spent a year on package design for the Single Barrel. Now it’s the top selling Single Barrel in Kentucky, after just two years on the market. We’re building for the future, where we’ll be in 15 to 20 years, not two to three.”
Today, Mr. Rutledge, Distillery Manager Al Young, and other veterans of the Seagram’s days are having the time of their lives, creating mouthwatering new whiskeys and putting right the name of Four Roses in America. Jim has been in the bourbon industry 41 years, starting with Seagram’s in 1966. The renaissance of Four Roses is literally a dream come true for Jim. “I hated to see Seagram’s go out of business; I spent 35 years with that company,” he confides. “But the silver lining is we’re doing things now that I could only dream of. I wouldn’t trade my 40 years for anything…but I wish I’d started when I was five years old!”
Al Young, who has a background in English literature and theater, formed part of Seagram’s distilling brain trust. “Seagram’s had a top R&D department since the 1930s,” says Al. “They had done massive studies on alcohol production and distillery practices, covering all kinds of beverage production.” Seagram’s exhaustive research would wind up providing for the future of Four Roses, and unwittingly create Kentucky’s most unique distillery. In meeting Jim and Al, it is apparent they are consumed with a passion for their jobs and for fine bourbon whiskey. Their feet must scarcely touch the ground as they lead tours and tastings and teach and distill superlative bourbon, living out their dream.
Why The Five Yeasts?
In the early 1970s, the bourbon industry went through a period of contraction. Although Seagram’s saw they could no longer profitably operate five distilleries, the company of course wished to continue with their many whiskey brands. Seagram’s chose to close all their distilleries except Old Prentice, which in addition to its well-kept condition offered the finest flavor of the five (most Four Roses straight bourbon since the 1940s had come from Prentice), and was most suited to execute Seagram’s next plan—five yeasts in one distillery.
To replicate the variety of flavor of the five distilleries, Seagram’s took a novel approach. Leaning on their extensive research, they selected four yeasts from their catalog of more than 300 strains, chosen to simulate the flavors of the four now-closed distilleries. These yeasts were introduced to Old Prentice, together with the original yeast and the two grain bills. The resulting ten whiskeys once again provided Seagram’s with a wide range of flavor with which to craft their whiskeys. Thus the supply of straight bourbon overseas continued, while Americans still received only the B-grade blend.
Today, the blended whiskey is gone, and the American market (Kentucky, actually) has been the first to benefit from new Four Roses products. Yet Seagram’s experiments live on in the ten different flavors distilled at Four Roses. Consider the irony: these five yeasts and two grain bills, born of a giant company’s obsessive desire for consistency and quality, today confer a blessing of flavor on a small, yellow distillery whose production methods are truly one of a kind.
The Shortest Warehouses in Kentucky
A number of tall, classic bourbon warehouses stand across the Salt River from the distillery. They are filled with Wild Turkey’s whiskey, who bought them in 1976. Four Roses’ warehouses are 45 miles away in Cox’s Creek, Kentucky. They decidedly do not look like normal bourbon warehouses. Having gone to all that trouble to pull ten flavors of whiskey off the Four Roses still, a typical seven-story warehouse would only muddle the picture with its wide temperature swings between upper and lower floors. Seagram’s built the warehouses at Cox’s Creek as single story, about 25 feet tall and holding only six tiers of whiskey barrels.
These low-to-the-ground buildings largely eliminate aging as a variable in flavor. While tall warehouses certainly make good bourbon, the Four Roses approach is perhaps more consistent, as it doesn’t rely on weather and the chance of barrel location to develop a range of flavors. If Jim Rutledge and Jota Tanaka, Four Roses’ Director of Quality, want to add a floral flavor to a bottle of bourbon, they don’t have to rely on Mother Nature’s effect in the warehouse. They simply reach for a barrel made with their most flowery-flavored yeast. The result is a tremendous amount of control over the flavor in each barrel, and finally the sip in the bottle.
Jim Rutledge cracks open a single story warehouse.
The New Whiskeys
Like other American distilleries, Four Roses is enjoying a golden age in the whiskey market, with an opportunity to create entirely new bottlings from their rich heritage. The Small Batch truly deserves the name, as it’s made up of four different Four Roses whiskeys, the percentages of which change slightly to ensure a consistent flavor. The venerable Yellow Label, with new packaging for the American market, uses all ten whiskeys.
The 100 proof Single Barrel uses the high rye “OB” grain bill fermented by the “V” yeast. This hard-working yeast strain mellows the high rye content, making Rutledge “proud that we could make something so round and smooth and long and soft with that high rye content.” The V yeast was the original yeast used at Seagram’s five distilleries—but don’t think today’s Single Barrel tastes like 1950 vintage Four Roses straight bourbon. When it comes to tradition versus progress, Jim Rutledge is firmly in the latter camp. “If we haven’t improved over 40 or 50 years, then something is wrong with us. We’ve come light years in quality.” Rutledge disdains those producers “who say ‘we’re the same as 100 years ago.’ I wouldn’t be proud to say something like that. We should be better.”
The most recent product to leave the hands-on bottling line at Cox’s Creek has emphatically proved Jim’s point. Four Roses released the Jim Rutledge Commemorative Edition in September 2007. Honoring Jim’s many years in the bourbon business, this limited bottling featured his personal selection from the low-slung warehouses, a whiskey using the 20% rye “OE” grain bill and the “O” yeast, which ferments to a particularly bold fruit-driven character. This 13 ½ -year-old whiskey was bottled in purist fashion, in the full glory of uncut barrel proof, with no chill-filtration. The result was one of the most exciting Bourbons in recent years.
A Rosy Future
When a distillery has the chops to make ten different whiskeys, covering pretty much the full range of possible bourbon flavor, with a degree of control usually reserved for Ferrari race cars…well, the sky is the limit. The whiskey lover’s mind inevitably runs to daydreams: Will Four Roses make a rye? More barrel proof bottlings, please. Let’s taste ALL those yeasts! For the immediate present, Four Roses and Kirin have their hands full expanding their whiskey in America. New York City, in April 2007 was the first market opened beyond Kentucky, with Chicago or Miami probably next on the list. With 50 states in the Union, they have a long way to go—to say nothing of introducing their new American bottlings to Europe.
The future is very bright at Four Roses. Kirin’s ownership is beatific, committed to quality, innovation, and fine flavor; they bring additional talent to the table as well. Jim Rutledge and Al Young offer impassioned leadership and peerless knowledge of the stills. The process bequeathed by Seagram’s chemists is unrepeatable and highly versatile. In the new gilded age of whiskey, Four Roses is a distillery to watch…and taste.
Four Roses: what do the five yeasts taste like?
Five yeasts fill different roles in the Four Roses portfolio of whiskeys: some fruity, some spicy, some rich, some extreme. The V and K yeasts function somewhat as Four Roses’ take on traditional Bourbon flavor, while F, O, and Q deliver boldly unique character.
Yeast Flavor in aged Bourbon
V—savory, complex, slightly fruity, exceptionally well-balanced classic Bourbon.
K—full-bodied, slow-aging, with a particular spicy quality distinct from that of rye grain
F—hints of mint, pink peppercorn, and floral notes, soft in the mouth, mellow yet potent
O—plump, juicy and rounded with rich red fruit tones, complex and long in flavor
Q—exceptionally floral with acacia-like tones, delicate and highly aromatic
This article originally appeared in Malt Advocate magazine, winter 2008. It is reprinted here by permission. Click here to download the original Malt Advocate article.