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The Four Roses Story

The Four Roses Story
The Bourbon Industry is filled with fantastic tales of larger-than life characters, distilleries, and good and bad times. In fact, the names on many of the bottles you see are historic figures in bourbon lore. Collectively, these people and distilleries helped make bourbon America’s Native Spirit (1964 Congressional Resolution).

Even considering all the history of bourbon in America, the Four Roses story is among the very best. Once you understand it, it becomes perfectly clear why the folks at Four Roses are so passionate about the brand.

For the record there are many recounts of this story all across the internet. Some get extremely detailed and some even conflict. The story I’m about to tell is from a high level to give some background on Four Roses and the essence of the brand. This is important in order to truly understand just how far the brand has come. It will also provide context for how much work has gone into bringing this brand back to prominence.

The Seagram’s Years
Four Roses was purchased by Seagram’s in the early 1940s. At the time, Four Roses was the top selling bourbon in America. Seagram’s was the largest distiller in the world – a monster in the industry.

Seagram’s was also big into blended whiskey. At that time a blended whiskey was most commonly an aged whiskey blended with Grain Neutral Spirits (GNS). Think of it as light whiskey or whiskey-flavored vodka as some describe it. These light blends had a much broader, mass appeal. Strangely they were also considered more “premium”, occupying eye level shelf space at liquor stores during those years.

That last point is very important, and the only way to rationalize what happened next (if it’s possible to rationalize at all). Seagram’s removed Four Roses Bourbon from U.S. shelves. What?!?! Yes, the best selling bourbon whiskey in the country was pulled from the market. And it remained unavailable for over 40 years.

Now if all that wasn’t bad enough, it gets worse. Seagram’s purchased Four Roses for the name. Again, remember it was THE name in whiskey in this country at that time. Seagram’s then took the Four Roses name and label, and placed it on bottles of blended whiskey (that whiskey-flavored vodka stuff) produced at Seagram’s Lawrenceburg, Indiana and Maryland distilleries.

Initially, Seagram’s sold the Four Roses Blended Whiskey as an “A” blend, or a premium blended whiskey. Soon it was downgraded to a “B” blend. In Jim Rutledge’s words, “The quality of the stuff they were selling was a rotgut whiskey. It was just awful.” Seagram’s was intent on letting Four Roses wallow until it either flourished or died.

Four Roses Bourbon Marches On
In retrospect, it seems the biggest bright spot to this whole story is the fact that the Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY never stopped producing bourbon. While Seagram’s was blending whiskey and placing a Four Roses label on it, the REAL Four Roses distillery was making marvelous bourbon. The only problem was Seagram was sending it all to Japan and Europe. The Japanese market began to really thirst for authentic Bourbon Whiskey. Many couldn’t meet demand, but that wasn’t a problem for Four Roses Bourbon. Soon, it would become the top selling American Whiskey in Asia.

But please stop and consider this for one moment. The U.S. market was getting a blended rotgut whiskey while Japan was getting the real Four Roses bourbon.

A “Thorn” in Seagram’s side
Calling Jim Rutledge a Master Distiller is only part of the story. And having met him, it’s really hard to imagine him being a “thorn” in someone’s side, but to a certain degree, that is exactly what he was for Seagram’s.

Jim started with the company in the late 60’s. He hailed from Louisville, KY with a degree in marketing and chemistry. He is quick to point out what a great company Seagram’s was – great to their people, a family atmosphere for a large conglomerate, and they had a lot of resources at their disposal. But Jim wanted to see the Four Roses Bourbon brought back to the U.S. market.

He spent many years working in various parts of the country for Seagram’s. Eventually he was ready to come “home” to Kentucky. At his request, he was reassigned to the Four Roses Bourbon distillery in 1992. For years and years prior, Jim always poked and prodded Seagram’s management about taking the Four Roses Blended Whiskey off the shelves. He wanted to replace it with the Four Roses Bourbon, the bourbon that dominated the market decades prior. Time and again Seagram’s management shot him down. That didn’t stop Jim continually pushing the thorn a little deeper.

As we ate lunch during my visit on February 7th, Jim commented that Four Roses Bourbon had participated in the Kentucky Bourbon festival, all the way back to the festival’s humble beginnings 20 or so years ago. Understanding that Four Roses Bourbon wasn’t even sold in the country at that time, I asked Jim if he took part on the hopes that Seagram’s would change their minds. “Yeah we wanted to keep the name out there and be a part of the festival.” Little insights like that illustrate Jim’s passion and dedication to bring Four Roses back.

A Foot in the Door
What might have started as a desire to see Four Roses Bourbon on the shelves again, quickly became something different for Jim. During one of our chats he confirmed that it soon became more about the great people that made Four Roses Bourbon.

The Four Roses Distillery employees were still making top shelf, premium bourbon. However, Jim realized they would have to hop on a plane and fly to Europe or Japan to actually taste the fruits of their labor. This was a mind boggling realization to him, and one he didn’t feel was very fair.

Jim recounted a story of going to the meet with Seagram’s “big brass” with a plea to at least allow the employees to purchase these products. Jim fought hard and Seagram’s relented, but not without making it clear to Jim that he’d never receive a “dime of support” from them beyond that point.

Perhaps a win and a loss result, but Jim saw it as a big opportunity. It was the first foot back in the door for Four Roses Bourbon.

Seagram Sells Four Roses
In an effort to diversify the company, Seagram’s made some bad moves in the 90s, purchasing a couple of large entertainment companies (Universal, MCA, etc). They diluted themselves immensely and these moves ultimately cost them their company.

Vivendi purchased Seagram’s to gain control of their Entertainment industry holdings. Vivendi had little interest in the Beverage Alcohol business and wanted to sell off all of Seagram’s alcohol brands. Diageo, the largest beverage alcohol company in the world, purchased most of the brands, but put Four Roses on the market.

Kirin to the rescue
Remember, Four Roses Bourbon was alive and well in Japan. It was the best selling American Whiskey in Asia. Kirin, one of the largest breweries in Japan, was the distributor for Four Roses Bourbon in the Asian market. They knew all too well what a great product Four Roses was, and they did not want to lose it.

In 2001, Kirin purchased Four Roses. Meetings that followed gave Jim Rutledge one last audience to plead his case, (paraphrase) “Let us get rid of this blended whiskey from the U.S. Shelves and bring Four Roses Bourbon back”. Jim was given the answer he had been waiting on for decades.

Kirin said yes to the man that had waited so long to restore the Four Roses brand to prominence in the U.S. In 2002, Jim and his team proceeded forward with that task in earnest. They recalled all of the Four Roses Blended Whiskey from the shelves and dumped it all. In 2004, Four Roses saw the return of their bourbon to the American Market with the introduction of Four Roses Single Barrel. It is the top selling single barrel bourbon in the state of Kentucky, a testament to the quality of the product and the power of the brand today.

The Story Continues
So that is essentially the history of one of America’s best bourbon brands. This made touring the distillery and learning from the man who led Four Roses through its darkest days a very fun experience. The folks at Four Roses wear their passion for the brand on their sleeves, and with people like that, the future is very bright indeed.

****This post concludes our in depth visit of the distillery, aging facility, and the history of the brand. Starting tomorrow we’ll have the first video chat with Jim Rutledge. Stay tuned……..****

21 Comments

  1. Hope Boyce says:

    What a great read … I had no idea – thanks for sharing the story and mini-history lesson.

  2. Joe Serapilio says:

    I seen Jim Rutledge tell some of this story briefly on a Youtube video.Very compelling.

  3. sam k says:

    Beautifully told, Jason, and countless thanks to Jim for his relentless dedication to the cause in making it possible for the rest of us to enjoy Four Roses’ great straight bourbons once again!

  4. charles says:

    Great stuff Jason. When the SB first started appearing on shelves my wife picked up a bottle for my birthday. Wow, it was an instant favorite, I’ve kept a bottle going ever since.
    Looking forward to the videos..Thanks man

  5. sam k says:

    Go Chas, that’s the , um, er, SPIRIT!!!

  6. Drew says:

    Jason,

    Loved reading this post, as well as, your initial YouTube video interviewing Jim. I could really see the passion for the product in how he talked about it and then to read this story only hammers home how much he wants to put a great whiskey out there for all to enjoy. I actually went right out to the store after work and picked me up a bottle of small batch to add to the cabinet just because I truly believed Jim and Four Roses deserved my dollars and I just had to give them a try (my first experience with any Four Roses product and first impressions are great!) Looking at the photos and listening to him talk about yeast strains and floral notes of roses and honey locus really made me connect with the product, and as I have mentioned before, really provides for a intimate and unique experience that only distilleries like Four Roses can provide.

    With that, I simply want to say I love what your doing with the website. I am always looking forward to the next post and you really have dropped some good practical bourbon knowledge on me that I know for a fact has enhanced my enjoyment of all things whiskey. Keep up the outstanding work and I look forward to more in the future! Here’s a toast to “Drinking your Bourbon” and the good times/great discussions that follow.

  7. Drew, thank you very very much for the comments and the toast. I can definitely drink to that, and appreciate you sharing your thoughts about the site. I am glad it prompted you to try something new. As you spend more time sipping the small batch, let me know your thoughts when you have some time.

    As for the yeast strains I cannot say enough just how different each one makes the end product. It’s unreal. And certainly it’s extremely interesting stuff. I will have more information on this as the week progresses, but for your reference, the Small batch consists of 50% of the K yeast strain (Spicy character) and 50% of the O yeast strain (Full bodied Fruitiness). As the video notes, it also has 50% of each mashbill. The E is 75/25/10 Corn to Rye to Barley. The B is 65/35/10% Corn to Rye to Barley. To me it the result is a clean, crisp, and vibrant bourbon.

    Again, thank you drew for the comments.

  8. Brandon says:

    Very interesting. I found the discussion about yeast strains fascinating. I had always (incorrectly) assumed that the vast majority of the flavor profile came from the grain recipe and aging process. It’s interesting to see how significant the impact of the yeast strain is in terms of the overall flavor profile, and very interesting to see all the different “levers” the distiller has at his disposal to craft the character of the end product. Looking forward to the follow up posts!

  9. Greg says:

    Jason – well done. I enjoyed reading the history even though it’s one known to many of us enthusiasts. Well written and informative. It’s nice that Jim was forthcoming about Four Roses and it’s history. Many distillery history’s are shrouded in mystery from some reason or another so it’s nice to get Four Roses on record.

  10. Texas says:

    Great piece, Jason. I agree with Greg, as I have stated before on here, it irks me that there is so much obfuscation in the Bourbon industry. The openness that Mr. Rutledge has is a great thing.

  11. Texas and Greg, They are very forthcoming and transparent folks indeed. It’s refreshing.

  12. Texas says:

    I watched pt.1 of the interview at lunch. Fantastic! This along with Ralfy’s tour of Springbank are definitely the best thing on Youtube!

  13. Texas, I kinda jumped the gun a little with that one. Meant to make that video private until I posted it, but just forgot. You got a sneak peak! Glad you liked it though.

  14. Texas says:

    ..another company that I think is relatively open as well is the Beam folks. There are some good videos on the web with Fred Noe. It seems that the older guard (Cowdery, Hansell) like Beam products and a lot of the younger ones don’t. I think many of the SB posters must have a Jim Beam White Label sign they use for target practice :) A lot of those folks do some serious hatin’ on Beam.

    Jason, do you have any Beam products lined up for review. Maybe the new Knob Creek Single Barrel, or the new Devil’s Cut?

  15. Texas, you hit the nail on the head with many “enthusiasts” opinion of Beam products. It’s unfortunate. But I’ve definitely got plans for Beam products. As soon as I get my hands on the Knob Creek Single Barrel, I’ll be doing a side by side of it and the Small Batch version. Then we’ve got Bakers and Basil Hayden in the queue as well. No plans on “Devil’s Cut” yet.

  16. Texas says:

    Good deal, thanks, Jason! BTW, While I can get Four Roses here in the Houston area, I have to go to the main downtown Spec’s warehouse to get it. Hopefully my local Spec’s or some of the smaller mom/pop stores will start carrying it. Hopefully as it gets more and more recognition, it will become more widely available.

  17. JMac says:

    Texas, a question for you. I didn’t realize you were in the Houston area. I am living in College Station, and the Specs here has very limited variety when it comes to bourbon or other whiskys. However when I visited the Cypress Specs they had most, but not all of the bourbons reviewed on here. After Jason’s fantastic review and the advice of a friend who moved here from Kentucky, I have been looking for Elmer T Lee Single barrel and had no success. Any Idea if there’s anywhere in Houston its available? And Jason, this Four Roses series is cementing my desire to participate in the Kentucky Bourbon Trail over the summer. Thanks to you both,
    Justin

  18. Brandon says:

    Texas and Jmac,
    I highly recommended the Branch Water Tavern. They have a great selection of bourbon including the full suite if 4R products and Pappy Van Winkle 15.

  19. JMac says:

    Sounds great, Ill have to check it out. Thanks

  20. Texas says:

    Thanks for the tip Brandon! JMac, the Downtown Houston Spec’s (the main warehouse on Smith Street) has everything Spec’s carries including the Elmer T. Lee. This is also where you will find the BTAC , Pappy..etc when it is available. You may have to ask for it.

  21. Texas says:

    ..BTW JMac I am an Aggie so I am familiar with College Station..although that was the College Station of 25 years ago!

5 Trackbacks

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jason Pyle, Boozebulbz. Boozebulbz said: RT @jmpyle: Four Roses #Bourbon week continues. The latest post is the story behind the brand. Please check it out. http://ow.ly/3X8GX [...]

  2. [...] the most recent posts from my visit with Four Roses. If you haven’t read them yet (here and here), I feel it helps to add context to Part 1 of my chat with Master Distiller, Jim [...]

  3. [...] to respond. The term “blended whiskey” was talked about a good bit in my piece on the history of Four Roses. And when you consider their history, it makes perfect sense why Four Roses would want to move far [...]

  4. [...] And why is that important? Well, the subject of this review has been the subject of much media drama around it’s story and the production of its product. Templeton Rye is a Templeton, Iowa based distillery. We can comfortably call it a distillery because the operation that exists in Templeton is now distilling, just not the the whiskey in their flagship Templeton Rye bottle. The distillery that is producing it is Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI) in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. LDI produces whiskey for a number of very popular brands like High West, Redemption, Bulleit, and many others. Earlier this year I wrote about LDI as a part of a post I did on Four Roses. [...]

  5. […] Jason Pyle does a much better job of explaining the Four Roses history on his blog. […]