Distillery Focus

Bringing bourbon back home

Four Roses is in its ascendancy, Marcin Miller finds out why and Dave Broom looks at the technical side that sets this brand apart
By Marcin Miller
A boxed, one pint Prohibition era bottle of Four Roses is on display at the distillery; on the faded back label the directions for use read 'take two teaspoons' without any reference to when, how often or for what ailments. Available from drugstores for 'medicinal purposes' during the Noble Experiment, from 1920 to 1933, Four Roses accounted for one in six bottles of whiskey sold in the USA.

Visitors aren't allowed to taste it so Jim Rutledge, master distiller, was asked for his opinion. His answer was, as always, typically candid; "I tried a sample a couple years ago and I did not like it at all.It wouldn't come close to making it into a bottle today. Most people don't like saying something like that, but I tell people that with today's technologies, instruments and equipment, if we're not better than we were 10 years ago I'm not doing my job and should be replaced." In that response you have an idea of the measure of Rutledge, a restless perfectionist in pursuit of quality.

Jim's high standards notwithstanding, Four Roses continued to be the market leading bourbon in the US into the 1950s. One of the first neon signs in Times Square in the late 1930s was a Four Roses advertisement; it provided the backdrop for Alfred Eisenstaedt's celebrated photograph of a de-mobbed US sailor kissing his girlfriend on V-J day in 1945.

The story of Four Roses is one of love and frustration which culminates, ultimately, in the rebirth of a great bourbon. Our tale begins with infatuation; the founder of Four Roses, Paul Jones Jr, proposed to a beautiful girl in true Gone with the Wind tradition.Her teasing reply came by return; if her answer was in the affirmative she would wear a corsage of four red roses at the imminent grand ball - which she duly did. It is said that Paul Jones Jr. named his bourbon as a symbol of his passion; he trademarked it in 1888, presumably as a symbol of his business acumen and ambition.Nice story but Jones never married and eventually the business passed on to his nephew, Lawrence Lavelle Jones, who ran everything to do with the brand until his death in 1941.

The story of Four Roses is one of love and frustration which culminates, ultimately, in the rebirth of a great bourbon

Two years later Seagram, the Canadian drinks giant run by the colourful Bronfman family, acquired the Frankfort Distilling Company and, with it, Four Roses.

It was Seagram who in 1960 took the momentous, some would say baffling, decision to stop selling Four Roses bourbon in the USA in order to focus on export.

It is the equivalent of Tesco closing their UK stores to concentrate on opportunities in Eastern Europe.

Certainly, overseas markets flourished for Four Roses (especially France, Spain and Japan) and concentrating on export is not necessarily a flawed strategy, as demonstrated by the success of many Scotch brands no longer available in the UK.However, there was more to the decision than mere economics.Throughout the period of Four Roses' domestic dominance, bourbon was looked down upon; blended US and Canadian whiskeys were 'top shelf' brands and their premium the status appealed to Sam Bronfman.

In addition, ego may have played a part. After the repeal of Prohibition in the USA, Seagram was very well placed with stocks of distilled spirits that had been ageing in Canadian warehouses.Four Roses was the most well known and respected name in the business so, Rutledge speculates, "Mr Sam [Bronfman] made the bourbon disappear from the US" presumably to allow his own Seagram brands to dominate the market.

What followed was unforgivable: Having in 1960 removed the bourbon from the States, Seagram then created a new Four Roses. The existing brand's reputation for quality was ruined by the introduction of a new down-market volume whiskey of the same name. Its presentation was near identical to the original, retaining the iconic yellow label featuring the red roses but, crucially, without the word 'bourbon'. Naturally, this was neither the first nor last cynical attempt by a whisky distiller to take advantage of the popularity of its products by misleading the consumer.

Rutledge has the flexibility to create a complex, consistent product with multiple variations

Fast forward 40 years to 2001; Seagram is broken up and its assets shared between Diageo and Pernod Ricard. Uncertainty accompanies change on such a massive scale. Rutledge recalls "It was tough - knowing Seagram was going out of business and not knowing what the future might hold in store for Four Roses - and especially our employees. I was, and am, very close to all our employees. I held almost weekly meetings with everyone during that period trying to keep their heads up and letting them know my efforts to try to ensure their futures - the best I could do..."

Outside, the sunlight plays on the cream stucco distillery giving an impression of serenity that certainly doesn't reflect the turmoil of those difficult years. Built in 1910, it has the look of a Spanish bodega and the arcane signage recalls a lost age ('Old Joe Distillery 1934') interspersed with existentialism ('Not an Exit'). This otherworldly feeling carries on during the drive to the warehousing yard; cows graze unconcerned as we make our way into the bottling hall to taste a stunning sample straight from the cask. The high strength whiskey was genuinely breath-taking and had a treacle-like richness as well as astonishing complexity, a sure sign of a distillery at the very height of its considerable powers.

That Four Roses has been able to enjoy a renaissance, following the disappearance of Seagram, can be attributed to the 40-year campaign Rutledge has undertaken to get the bourbon back on track. It began in earnest when he was finally transferred back home to Kentucky from New York; “When I worked in NYC I did what I could to bring Four Roses Bourbon back home but not with the passion, enthusiasm and urgency that was generated once I got back to Kentucky in 1992.”

Interesting times for the bourbon, with complexity borne of two mashbills and five yeasts

In 2002 Four Roses bourbon returned to the US market, limited initially to Kentucky, after an absence of over four decades. Ironically, bearing in mind the reasons for Seagram’s withdrawal of the brand, recently the focus has been on the premium expressions – Single Barrel, Small Batch and the annual Limited Editions. This strategy has paid dividends as emphasis on the quality of the top end of the range has resulted in impressive sales growth for Four Roses Yellow Label. The passage of time has helped, says Rutledge; “Most young drinkers aren’t even aware of the old Seagram’s Four Roses blended whiskey and think Four Roses is a new name to the world of distilled spirits.”

The biggest changes in the industry during Rutledge’s career have been in equipment and the computer technologies; “When I first worked as a distillery shift supervisor in the late 60s and we needed to change the flow rate from the beer well to the still we’d start adjusting manual valves. It may take 30 minutes to get it exactly right, but today we punch the new flow rate into the computer keyboard, hit enter and we’re there.” Quality and consistency, both lacking in Prohibition era whiskeys, are central concerns at Four Roses, evident in the raw materials used; corn has been sourced from the same farming families in Indiana since 1960 with a premium paid for the best of the crop. Rye is sourced from around the world to ensure only the best is used; it is more expensive that way but the extra investment is warranted by the finished product.

A glass of Yellow Label, not the first one that evening, is thrust into my hand as I watch another enthusiastic local band playing to an appreciative Friday night crowd in Lexington.

The following day, a party of Kentucky businessmen at the races – momentarily distracted by the Four Roses ties being worn by our group – inform me with pride that they had enjoyed a glass or two of the bourbon on their way to Keeneland.

In New York, over an excellent Whiskey Sour on a tour of Manhattan’s most achingly fashionable bars, my thoughts turn to how far Four Roses has come in such a short space of time.

Back in London, a series of Speakeasy gigs, the latest undiscovered talent in underground locations, is packed with a younger, even trendier crowd quenching their thirst with Four Roses and ginger beer.

One can only wonder at the satisfaction – “a dream come true” – Rutledge feels at the success of Four Roses today. These are interesting times for the bourbon; with complexity borne of its two mashbills and five yeasts, consistency from gentle maturation in single storey warehouses, a range offering an escalation in quality (and price) –and against all the odds – Four Roses is well-placed to enjoy a leading role.

The process

Every whisky distiller is ultimately faced with the same issue - how do I create a spirit with real individuality while having to use the same basic principles as all my colleagues? The chapter covering this in the bourbon distilling manual could be subtitled: “Skinning cats, an infinite number of suggestions”.

Some concentrate on different mashbills, others on distillation or barreling strength, while there are those who have mapped in great detail the different effects on flavour in each level and style of warehouse. Often the conversation revolves around yeast, but no-one takes this aspect to such extremes as Four Roses.

Here there are two mashbills: OE (75 per cent corn, 20 per cent rye, five per cent barley malt) and OB where the rye element is upped to 35 per cent, a level which master distiller Jim Rutledge claims is the highest for any straight bourbon. Each of these is then fermented with five different yeasts: K for spiciness, O for bold fruitiness; Q to get a floral, fruity effect; F for a herbal note and V for light, delicate fruits. All 10 distillates are then aged separately, giving Rutledge a huge range of flavour possibilities to work with when he is creating his blends.

Four Roses is a bourbon, but its approach is more internationalised than many of its neighbours - the different yeasts, for example, give a nod to Canada, while the maximising of flavours for blending has a similarity in approach with both Canada and Scotland.

That Canadian influence is inevitable. Four Roses was, after all, part of the Seagram empire which at one point had five distilleries in Kentucky, Athertonville, Fairfield, Louisville, Cynthiana and the Four Roses plant at Salt River, Lawrenceburg.

Each of those distilleries had its own yeast strain - drawn from the 300 at Seagram’s Canadian HQ. Though the plants all closed the different yeast strains were retained. In some ways Rutledge has ten distilleries to play with not one.

With each barrel having its own personality - even with single storey warehousing (another Four Roses exclusive) there are variations between bottom and the 6th tier - Rutledge has the flexibility to create a complex, consistent product, as well as multiple variations with which to plot Four Roses’ push for the developing premium market.

It also allows him to be able to have a different blend for each of the range. Yellow Label (which uses all 10 variants) is completely different to single barrel (OBSV), small batch (a blend of different ages of OBSK, OESK, OESO and OBSO) and Mariage (in 2009, a blend of 19 and 12 year old OBSK with 12 year old OESO).

What’s intriguing about each one is how the rye component manifests itself. Normally when you taste bourbon there’s a step-change between the alluring softness of corn/oak start and the spicy attack on the rye on the finish as if a seemingly mild-mannered secretary has slugged you with a blackjack hidden in her handbag. That doesn’t happen here. There’s rye a-plenty, but the transition from sweetness to spiciness is a seamless one, the punch masked by a caress, less of a blackjack and more a stiletto blade. Tasting the variations only leads you to wonder quite what will come next. Rutledge finally has the world at his feet.

The different distillates

The K yeast gives elements of violet and spice with the OE mashbill. At five years that dryness is retained but with added fragrance to the spice akin to coriander and cumin. The same yeast intensifies the rye element in the OB mashbill as well as adding an apple element in the white dog. By five years it’s drifting into sourdough bread and the dustiness hugs the tongue. These take the longest to mature.

The O strain on the other hand adds weight and fruit to the equation. With the OE mashbill you get aromas in the white dog reminiscent of cranberry and rhubarb which by five years in new oak has deepened into a Cognac like spectrum of apricot, plum, fat corn and clean spiciness. The higher rye element in OB is masked as black fruits emerge in white dog. This solidity carries onwards in mature examples with added maple syrup and bramble jam. This gives power to a blend.

Q yeast on the other hand is about floral fragrance with underlying fruit. With OE there’s green apple and cucumber at white dog stage with building jasmine and cardamom at five years. OB on the other hand is fatter with heavy rose like accents that with maturation builds in complexity adding in tree blossom and hints of marzipan, chocolate and carnation. These are the quickest maturing of the range.

The F yeast, for me, produces a white dog that has similarity to the vegetal notes of rhum agricole which by five years with the OE mashbill has developed into fragrant hay and cedar. OB picks up some fruitiness but also a Oolong tea like greenness and a powdery effect.

Finally, the V strain accentuates estery notes –banana, melon and sweetcorn on the OE white dog. Even the five year old has a steeliness and acidity. OB is lifted and almost sake like in its focus and fleshy fruits which shifts into citrus with age along with surprisingly early development of leather and varnish notes lying on a honeyed base. It’s this energy and complexity which Rutledge likes to highlight in single barrel.