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……..****