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Category Archives: Distillery Profiles

Stitzel-Weller Distillery

Stitzel-Weller (S-W) Distillery Information (Condensed)

Earlier this week I posted my review of Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old bourbon. Later this week I am taking a deeper look at the 2011 Pappy Van Winkle 15 year bourbon and comparing it with a 2009 Pappy Van Winkle 15. Why does this matter? Well, it’s complicated, but recently Preston Van Winkle confirmed that the 2011 release was 100% Buffalo Trace produced bourbon and no longer S-W whiskey. I thought it might be important to share why that matters to many enthusiasts. So here’s a bit of light reading on the S-W distillery.

  • The S-W distillery that exists (but is not operational) today was opened post prohibition in 1935 by Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle. S-W quickly became known for its wheated recipe.  It’s also the same recipe given to Bill Samuels Sr. that started Maker’s Mark.
  • Pappy acquired the original distillery through the purchase of a wholesale whiskey operation and the Stitzel distillery, eventually naming it S-W. The Weller portion of that name came from William Larue Weller, and one of the distillery’s most important labels, W. L. Weller. Weller, the man, was an early bourbon pioneer, who produced the wheated recipe.
  • In addition to W. L. Weller, the distillery also produced a number of other wheated bourbon whiskeys; Cabin Still, Old Fitzgerald, and Rebel Yell.
  • Pappy operated the S-W distillery until his death in the Mid 1960’s
  • After his death, Pappy’s son Julian Van Winkle Jr. was forced to sell the distillery in 1972. Afterwards he decided to resurrect one of the brands that existed in the operation prior to prohibition, Old Rip Van Winkle.
  • While Julian Van Winkle Jr. no longer operated S-W, his Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon made use of S-W bourbon stocks. Van Winkle Jr. passed away in 1981.
  • His son Julian Van Winkle III, who runs the operation today, was responsible for taking his father and grandfather’s vision a step further. He decided to offer older whiskeys from S-W stocks after tasting them and noting just how fantastically the whiskey had aged.  Many don’t realize that Van Winkle III was the first of the trio of Van Winkles to produce the much longer aged Bourbons.
  • In 1991/1992, S-W distillery ceased operations, effectively shutting down. As a result there was a free-for-all of sorts over ownership of the reputable brands/labels that S-W had produced for so many years. Heaven Hill was able to purchase Old Fitzgerald, for which they continue to make today. Buffalo Trace purchased W.L. Weller, which they continue to produce today as well.
  • Even after the sell of S-W, Van Winkle III was still granted access to purchasing the whiskeys that still existed in the distillery‘s aging warehouses. However, with S-W no longer producing whiskey, and the popularity of the Van Winkle whiskeys increasing yearly, Van Winkle III found himself at a crossroads.
  • In 2002, Julian Van Winkle III made a decision to partner up with another distillery that could keep his growing brand of Van Winkle Whiskeys alive and well. As a result the Old Rip Van Winkle whiskey operation entered into an agreement with Buffalo Trace to produce their acclaimed whiskeys.
  • Now things get very cloudy. It is not known for sure at what time the younger labels, Old Rip Van Winkle 10 and Van Winkle 12 became 100% buffalo trace produced whiskey. We can only guess at this point, but it has been a number of years.
  • Reportedly the 20 and 23 year old are still reserves of S-W stocks. However this is not officially confirmed. What is known is that as of Fall 2011′s release, the 15 year old joins its younger brothers (12 year and 10 year) as 100% Buffalo Trace whiskey. Preston Van Winkle confirmed this on a podcast in recent weeks.
  • Today, Diageo owns the S-W distillery. One of Diageo’s brands, Bulleit, has its offices at the once bustling distillery. Apparently much of the original distillation equipment is still intact, but an asbestos clean-up and the tight margins that distillery’s operate under are the kryptonite that keep S-W from resurrecting. Maybe one day…………

Many consider the bourbon produced at S-W to be some of the finest whiskey ever produced. And therein lies the reason for all of the talk and consternation over Pappy Van Winkle’s 15 year old. Check back later this week to see how the 2011 release stands up against previous S-W releases.

Cheers!

-Jason

Interview with Jim Rutledge, Four Roses Master Distiller (Part 3)

This is the final segment of a 3 part interview with Jim Rutledge, the Master Distiller at Four Roses. Frankly, this was my favorite part of the conversation because it shed so much light on Jim’s thoughts on the industry. What fantastic insight from arguably the most noted Master Distiller in the American Whiskey Industry today.

This piece of video starts after I had asked a question to Jim about the somewhat touchy subject of “blending”. I was concerned he might give me the boot for even bringing it up. I’m serious – I wasn’t sure how he was going 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 away from associating with the term “blend”. On their website they even go so far as to describe the “blending” of their 10 recipes of straight bourbon into their batched products as “mingling”. Remember, “blended whiskey” has historically referred to whiskey blended with grain neutral spirits (GNS). Some folks consider it whiskey-flavored Vodka.

I feel the connotation associated with this term is old and stodgy. It doesn’t have to be negative. If you’re interested to learn more about great blending, I encourage you to do a search on Compass Box Whiskey Company and owner John Glaser. Compass Box is doing amazing stuff, and it’s all blended whiskey (or vatted). In the course of this segment, Jim Rutledge talks about David Perkins, proprietor of High West Distillery and Saloon in Park City, Utah. David worked a bit with Jim before starting High West. High West distills their own spirits (Vodkas, “white” whiskey, and a number of other cool things in the works), but like Compass Box, they source (purchase from other distilleries), blend, and bottle some fantastic stuff. I’ve reviewed some of them here and here. In short, blending is an art and can be a big part of creating a great whiskey.

Now let’s look back at Four Roses. I’ve always felt that Four Roses, more than any other American Whiskey Company, was the most like the Scotch Industry in their philosophy and approach. They distill 10 different straight bourbon whiskeys, and blend them to create harmonious end products (for all but their Single Barrel products of course). In my opinion I consider this ultra premium blending or vatting of various straight bourbon recipes. It just all happens inside their own walls. But did Jim agree?…….

In addition to touching on that subject, Jim also talks about the prospects of a Four Roses Straight Rye Whiskey (cross your fingers and give your opinions to Four Roses if you want it!), his thoughts on the craft movement, and finally the level of camaraderie between the Master Distillers and other distilleries.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this 3 part conversation, because I really enjoyed doing it. What a pleasure to speak with Jim Rutledge, and I look forward to the opportunity to do so again……….hopefully soon.

Interview with Jim Rutledge, Four Roses Master Distiller (Part 2)

This post is Part 2 of my video conversation with Jim Rutledge, Four Roses Master Distiller. I hate to even call it an “interview” because frankly it’s a conversation I caught on camera. In this segment Jim continues to tell us more on the background of Four Roses. He also talks about which Four Roses product he consumes most, gives a rundown on “Whiskey Flavor Factors” (including some detail on barrel aging), and some comparisons to Scotch whiskey. Enjoy!

Interview with Jim Rutledge, Four Roses Master Distiller (Part 1)

Thanks for checking out 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 Rutledge.

The morning of this conversation was spent taking part in a Barrel Selection at Four Roses aging and bottling facility in Cox’s Creek, KY. And what a treat it was. We tasted Four Roses’ OBSV recipe from five single barrels. The differences were amazing, and tasting bourbon right from the barrel is special for sure. Later that day I headed up to Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY. There I was able to sit in Jim’s office and chat about Four Roses, the Bourbon industry, and all sorts of other great stuff.

Jim had planned on giving some background before we jumped into the “interview”. After about 30-40 minutes I realized, “man, this is too great not to cut this camera on.” So I did, and this is part 1 of an hour long conversation with Jim Rutledge. He was more than generous with his time. Enjoy.

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……..****

A Day at Four Roses

A Mighty Fine Monday
****Picture Links Below****

February 7th wasn’t a normal Monday for me. When bourbon awaits, not even a steady, bone chilling rain (that soon turned into two inch flakes of snow) can mess up your mood. By 9:30 a.m. I was sitting out front of Four Roses’ aging and warehousing facility in Cox’s Creek, KY. What a great place to take in the views of twenty aging warehouses holding barrel after barrel of Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. It may have been a mental thing, but you could almost smell bourbon in the air.

Shortly after arriving, I was joined by Master Distiller, Jim Rutledge. A month or so earlier, Jim had extended an invite to come check out the facilities. Obviously, I jumped at the chance. Jim is responsible for the end quality of amber nectar that bears the Four Roses emblem. As you will see in posts that will follow, he’s responsible for a lot more than just that.

Jim had just returned from a week-long trip to California. As Four Roses’ most prominent brand ambassador, Jim doesn’t pass up a chance to talk about Four Roses Bourbon to anyone that will listen. He quickly tells a story about an event the previous week. “Last week I was asked by event organizers how long I had prepared to speak”, he starts out. “I told them as long as anyone will listen…….. I was serious.”

That point wasn’t lost on me as the day continued. Nearly seven hours later I was still talking whiskey, bourbon, and Four Roses with Jim Rutledge. Two inches of snow and falling temperatures might have been the only reason the conversation ended when it did. It was a hell of a day.

The Week Ahead

Over the next week, Sour Mash Manifesto will be posting content from the visit with Four Roses and Jim Rutledge. With nearly 2 hours of video footage and hundreds of pictures, it’s a tough task to consolidate. Rather than smash things together in 1-2 posts, I’ve broken them down into 4-5 segments for easier viewing.
This was a lot of fun. I truly hope you enjoy it as well.

Four Roses Distillery and Aging/Bottling Facility

Today’s post is focused on a tour of the distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY and the Aging/Bottling facility in Cox’s Creek, KY. I’ve divided them into two Flickr photo sets. Each picture has a caption with a good bit of detail. If you have the time, please take a moment to read the captions. They will help give more context and background on Four Roses operations, the history of the distillery, and the uniqueness and philosophies behind the product.

Click on the “red” link below to check ‘em out!

Four Roses Distillery Tour

Four Roses Aging/Bottling Facility