Distillery Focus

Kentucky Roses (Four Roses)

Four Roses has thrived since it was bought by Japanese brewer Kirin. Stuart MacLean Ramsay found out why.
By Stuart MacLean Ramsay
You never know what’s round the corner on the back roads of Kentucky.Three years back I was meandering alongside the Salt River by Lawrenceburg, searching for Julian Van Winkle’s overworked bottling plant.I crossed the river, drove by a cluster of whiskey warehouses and stumbled onto Four Roses distillery instead, as ‘purty’ a production site as you’ll find on any whiskey journey.Built by a Louisville architect in 1910 in the California mission style, it is painted beige-cream with an ochre tiled roof and glass windows that celebrate the production of whiskey taking place inside.It was a sticky, bug-laden Kentucky twilight when I came across it, and a venerable oak tree shaded two distillery workers, Jeff and Bonnie, as they finished their supper on a bench outside.“Come on in, you must have come a long way,” they said, and proceeded to give me a friendly tour round their plant.I called Jim Rutledge, Four Roses master distiller, the next day and arranged to meet him to discover why this hidden gem was virtually unknown in the United States.“Actually, you can find Four Roses in a few places in Kentucky and Indiana,” he told me.“Only because I didn’t want the distillery employees leaving the country to buy a bottle. There was no marketing money from Seagram to do this, so I carried a case of whiskey around and sold it the old-fashioned way.”Things are looking up for the employees and the rest of us in the United States, however. On February 19, 2002, the Kirin Brewery Company of Tokyo, Japan, bought the distillery from Seagram Americas, and the soft and easy Four Roses Yellow Label has just been officially launched in
Kentucky, this time with a marketing plan.Jim, now the chief operating officer and master distiller at Four Roses, explains the circumstances of the buyout.“Kirin-Seagram had been a partnership in Japan since the 1950s, with Kirin holding the distribution rights for Four Roses in that country.“It was the leading Bourbon in Japan, so Kirin really had the most to lose if someone else bought it. Four companies were interested in buying Four Roses, and two of them planned to shut the distillery down – they just wanted the whiskey stock.“The first priority for Four Roses is to re-establish and regain our strength in our international markets. Seagram had not worked the brand in the last year or two. We’re also establishing new markets; it was launched in New Zealand this spring, with Australia next.“Four Roses has a long and interesting history as a brand. The logo of the four roses, according to one romantic version, goes back to the 1860s when the brand’s creator, Paul Jones, a distiller from Atlanta, Georgia, proposed to a Southern Belle.“If her answer was yes to his proposal, she was to wear a corsage of four red roses at the Summer Ball.”Jones never married, but the yarn perhaps gave birth to the distinctive logo. And then there’s Rufus Rose, who presented his four daughters with a red rose from his garden one Kentucky evening, inspiring him to name his new bourbon Four Roses.All good grist for the marketing mill, but we do know the brand was legally trademarked in 1888 by Mr Jones, after he had acquired the rights to a whiskey brand owned by a Tennessee family named Rose. Joseph Seagram & Sons bought it in the 1940s and for two decades it was the leading bourbon in the United States.“Samuel Bronfman of Joseph Seagram – Mr Sam we called him – was the buyer and he was a great taster,” explains Jim.“Seagram’s focus was always on blended whiskeys and white spirits. In the 1950s it introduced Four Roses American Whiskey, a blend, and the bourbon was made for the export market only.“Today, Four Roses bourbon is currently number two in the export market after Jim Beam. It’s the best selling bourbon in France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands.” I ask Jim to describe the brands produced today.“The Yellow Label is aged for a minimum of five years, usually six,” he tells me. “The logo and the flavour are different from other bourbons, which has its pluses and minuses.“Over the years, bourbon has generated a masculine, even macho image, a drink with a kick to it. Our red roses are definitely not macho and our bourbon does not have a kick, so we’ve been able to target men and women instead of the traditional male market.“ Yellow Label is soft and easy, feminine almost, because that was the Bronfman style. This lightness and smoothness makes it different from other bourbons and we’re going to capitalise on this. It’s perfect over ice or simply neat.“I believe our bourbon is more consistent than other bourbons, and the Seagram company was always quality conscious. We have ten people actually do a sensory evaluation of each distillate, then we analyse it.“The single barrel will be launched in the United States in about a year,” he continues. “It’s been available in the export market for about three years – when we launched it in France it sold 25,000 six-bottle cases in just five months.“I personally select every barrel when it has developed the spicy character, floral nose and slightly dry delicate finish that is bourbon at its natural best.That’s usually around seven years for Four Roses.There’s approximately 248 bottles per barrel and the series of numbers on the back label tells you when whiskey was put in the barrel and the date it was bottled.”Jim suggests we take a tour of the plant and I ask him if there’s been any changes in production with the new owners.“None at all,” he replies. “Quality is more important than anything else and meeting that target is our goal. We’re still the only company that uses five different yeasts and two mashbills. One mashbill recipe has 60 per cent corn and 35 per cent rye.“There’s a heaviness in rye and a robust flavour, and our yeast takes out any rye bitterness and gives the bourbon a fruity character. The yeasts were chosen specifically to give soft, smooth flavours, like a blended whiskey. The whiskey ends up mellow and creamy.“We could actually bottle ten individual bourbons with our different yeasts and mashbills, but we mingle the ten to create one constant flavour.“The Salt River is our water source,” he explains, “and we use #2 Dent corn from Kentucky. The corn goes into our mash cooker at 212 degrees, then the rye at 156, and finally the barley malt at 140 degrees. There’s seven stainless steel and sixteen red cypress wood fermenters. The cypress in the fermenters are from trees cut back in 1840 – cypress grows in swampy water and you can’t cut them any more. We don’t agitate the fermenters and we get a honeycomb effect about 45 hours into the 80 hour fermentation.“We have a 48” beer still, 100% copper,” he continues.“There’s 12 stripping trays – the fewer stripping trays the better – and it comes off the still at 128-130 proof. After the liquid (high wine) passes through the doubler, the spirit is 138 proof.” Four Roses bourbon is matured offsite, in low, single storey warehouses over by Cox’s Creek, north of Bardstown.There’s 310 acres of classic rolling Kentucky landscape at Cox’s Creek, a good-sized catfish pond and a roaming herd of Hereford and Angus cattle to keep the grass down.“I’d say about 65 per cent of bourbon’s flavour comes from the wood,” explains Jim.“And our unique, low warehouses create consistency. There’s 20 of them, all built in 1960, and the single storey buildings have a six-tier barrel system. Each warehouse has an air space beneath the ground floor and there’s crushed limestone over the earth floor so the barrels don’t break if they fall. Our barrels have a medium char and we lose about four per cent in evaporation each year.”Jim Rutledge is a straightforward whiskey maker, dedicated to a whiskey he’s spent a lifetime nurturing and producing. And like most Kentucky distillers, he’s passionate about Bourbon no matter who owns or produces it.Jim is currently chairman of the board for the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, held in September every year and a mandatory experience for serious followers of the corn spirit.Jim has to head down the road to Bardstown for a Festival meeting, and leaves me with these parting words:“When Seagram owned Four Roses, I had to carry a case around Kentucky and sell it to liquor stores, just so the employees could buy a bottle and tell their friends they made it and they’re proud of it.“With our new owners, we’re going to give Four Roses the recognition it deserves in Kentucky and the United States.“I’m involved with making this happen so it’s a dream come true for me. I’ve worked here 37 years and this year’s the most exciting one of my career.” Distillery Statistics
Four Roses Distillery
1224 Bonds Mill Road
Lawrenceburg
KY 40342-9734
Phone: + 1 502-839-3436
Fax: +1 502-839-8338
Established 1888
Owner: Kirin Brewery Company, Tokyo, Japan
Master distiller & chief operating officer: James W. Rutledge