Usually, when I walk into the Four Roses offices, I sit down with Jim Rutledge, the now retired Master Distiller. This time, I am meeting with the new CEO, the first woman to lead a Bourbon company since Prohibition, and Rutledge's replacement, a brilliant choice, according to inside Four Roses sources.
The offices are quiet and the air lacks the usual mash aroma. It's mid August, when Four Roses and other distilleries are on shutdown, a much needed break for production workers and a time for the engineers to fine tune all of the equipment within the distillery.
Thus, this Four Roses encounter lacks the man I've grown to know and love, his whiskey, and the smells and sounds of a running distillery. But when I shake Satoko Yoshida's hand, her shen eclipsed what wasn't there. I looked into the face of Bourbon's most dynamic CEO, an incredible career path that's put her in Kentucky's darling and most revered distillery.
A veteran in the Kirin Brewing company, which owns Four Roses, Yoshida was named Four Roses' leader at the end of March.
Yoshida has worked in public relations, marketing and strategic reorganisation. An MBA graduate of the world-renowned MIT, Yoshido helped Kirin thin three companies into one in Australia, a reorganisation effort that could not have been easy. "Change, it is sometimes very tough," she says.
Change became apparent in her first couple of months in Kentucky.
The Bourbon Hall of Famer, Rutledge, internally announced his retirement, making Yoshida's first major job as Four Roses' CEO selecting Rutledge's replacement. But she knew that his eventual retirement was inevitable, after nearly five decades on the job. Yoshida offered appreciation to Rutledge's toil, noting Four Roses was more than Rutledge. "Of course, we really appreciate Jim, and what he has done here," she says. "But on the other hand, others also built Four Roses. Everybody worked very hard to come to this stage."
To replace Rutledge, Yoshida says Kirin's business model is to have a succession plan for the major positions, such as distiller and CEO. She says there was great 'discussion' about Rutledge's successor, but nobody expected who was named, especially since the new master distiller said he didn't want the job.
Within Four Roses, the staff had all believed Rutledge's eventual replacement was already picked, no matter who was CEO, and it was most certainly not Brent Elliott, Director of Quality Control. "I'd been pretty vocal about the fact that I wouldn't be able to do that job, the way Jim does it," Brent Elliott says.
Rutledge was the kind of passionate master distiller that comes along once in two or three lifetimes. He once tried to purchase Four Roses on his own, back when Seagram owned it and refused to sell the brand's Bourbon in the United States. That effort failed, and Kirin bought the brand in the early 2000s, giving Rutledge the platform to return Four Roses to its former glory.
He managed distillery operations, while traveling and talking about Four Roses in arenas as big as Tales of the Cocktail, attracting 20,000 bartenders, and as small as the local Veterans of Foreign Wars, talking to Vietnam veterans amidst a cloud of cigarette and cigar smoke.
Elliott has a young family and knew he could not travel as much as Rutledge, who actually recommended Elliott as his replacement.
When Elliott was called to a meeting with Yoshida, he was not "suspicious, too anxious or on guard about anything," Elliott says. The door closed. And Yoshida informed Elliott he was selected as the new Master Distiller.
Elliott says he was "blindsided and extremely excited. The first 48 hours I had the whole gambit of emotions from excitement to, 'Oh, shit... What have I got myself into?... This is going to be great... Oh, no, I can't do this.' One side of me always thought it would be a dream job, but the practical side of me knew that I couldn't do it justice the way Jim did."
Almost immediately, Elliott's concerns were addressed. Four Roses told him that the job is catered to his life; occasional travel was expected, but nothing that was out of the ordinary. He'd continue his role as Director of Quality Control, approving batches and selecting limited editions with his tasting team, and he'd add a few overall management duties.
Throw everyday work duties and marketing efforts on top of more than $54 million in expansion to add new buildings, stills, warehouses and bottling lines, Elliott will keep busy in his first months as Master Distiller, but he's looking at replacing Rutledge as a four year plan and makes no grand illusions that he can improve upon the legend's career.
"Compared to Jim's 49 years, my ten years, I've got my work cut out for me. There's no doubt about it," he says.
When Rutledge retired, we all wondered why and what was next. The why has been addressed simply as it was time. Rutledge told me he plans to go into consulting, and Four Roses announced in a press release that he may become the Master Distiller Emeritus, but that hasn't been confirmed as of press time.
As for what's next, Yoshida and Elliott both said there will not be a Four Roses flavoured whiskey, a category that Rutledge said he would not support while he was distiller.
There's also the outside interest in Bourbon and in Four Roses, a brand that has won multiple awards for its visitor attractions, whiskies and enjoyed double digit sales increases year after year. In a time that smaller brands like Redemption and Angel's Envy sell for undisclosed mints and Jim Beam sells to Suntory in a $16 billion transaction, Four Roses would be an easy-to-sell offering to a conglomerate like Pernod Ricard, the world's second largest spirits company that happens to not own a Bourbon brand.
I asked Yoshida if Four Roses was on the block. Since Kirin is a listed company, Yoshida says, she's not allowed to talk about mergers or acquisitions, but added that, "Four Roses is very important asset for the Kirin brand portfolio."
As for the future of the whiskey, Elliott plans to keep his eye on the quality, something he's done all his career at Four Roses. But he knows challenges await him, including the scrutiny and fame that comes with the title of Master Distiller. Elliott says he's ready and plans to "totally immerse in every aspect of being Master Distiller."