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Greatness Retires: Rutledge Leaves Four Roses, Bashes Flavored Whiskey

As I stood inside the truck, fresh bourbon barrels to my left and right, I pointed my Nikon and the 180-mm lens toward a man in a moment. I asked Four Roses master distiller Jim Rutledge to connect with the bourbon, directing him as I would a fashion model, in an effort to find art with a man and his bourbon. In the background, crews were rolling barrels, popping bungs and draining brown liquor. I’ll never forget the Four Roses dump sounds, and I’ll never forget Rutledge, 71, acting as if nothing else mattered but taking in the aroma of his single glass of bourbon. I captured his moment with a single shutter click, and he’d later tell me that was the best photo anybody had ever taken of him.

Rutledge may have told every photographer that, but photographing Jim Rutledge was always easy for a simple reason—passion. The man lived, breathed and bled bourbon.

Four Roses announced Rutledge’s retirement yesterday effective Sept. 1. Brent Elliott replaces him with a glowing endorsement from Rutledge. (Note: If you received this post yesterday through my redesigned site–not yet published–sorry for the tech. glitch, but the story is updated with new information.)

His next steps include a Four Roses master distiller emeritus role and consulting.

minnickblog (1)In a phone interview, Rutledge told me he hopes to offer his expertise to distillery startups and would not rule out consulting for the larger brands. But he could not promote another brand. “I’d feel bad promoting another brand after spending my life with Four Roses,” he told me. “I’ll keep the door open for consulting, but won’t sign exclusivity contracts.”

Over the years, in my various interviews with Rutledge, he’s ripped the flavored whiskey market, saying that Four Roses will not make one while he’s still master distiller. I asked him if there were plans of a Four Roses flavored whiskey. He responded: “I hope not and I won’t work for anybody who is making flavored whiskey. It’s destroying the integrity of the industry. I hope Four Roses sticks to what I believe so strongly in.”

Me, too. Rutledge worked at Four Roses / Seagram for 49 years.

It’s hard to imagine the distillery without him. It’s hard to imagine bourbon without him. Last year, Whisky Magazine published my story “One Man’s Yeast Quest.” It’s fitting I republish this story today.


One Man’s Yeast Quest

The story of Four Roses’ master distiller and his beloved yeast strains.

This story originally appeared in Whiskey Magazine

Standing over five unique Four Roses bourbon samples, a photographer wandering around him, master distiller Jim Rutledge caresses the edge of a single glass and silently reflects about the whiskey. This man’s passion for this bourbon, his bourbon, exceeds just about every other Kentucky distiller’s. And for good reason.

A long-time Seagram’s employee, Rutledge made Four Roses bourbon for other countries. Liquor giant Seagram’s took Four Roses off of American shelves in the late 1950s and focused on foreign markets, giving its sexier Crown Royal a King’s treatment in American liquor stores. Rutledge tried to bring his beloved Four Roses bourbon back, while the rotgut Four Roses blended whiskey demolished the legendary bourbon name. Rutledge even attempted to buy Four Roses himself, but as he says, “we didn’t get to first base.”

Then, in 2001, Seagram’s folded and Four Roses’ current parent company, Kirin, purchased Four Roses. Since then, Four Roses has been a beacon of old school bourbon hope, creating mind-blowing whiskeys that sweep magazine and competition awards. Rutledge has spent much of his time talking about Seagram’s snafu, but it’s time to move on from that story.

Four Roses/ 070Four Roses is no longer the brand that Seagram’s forgot; it’s the brand Rutledge and Four Roses ambassador Al Young have built.

Ironically, Four Roses’ unique flavour profiles all hinge upon Seagram’s incredible yeast library, an Ecuadorian named Jose Pueblo and Seagram’s theories on meeting target flavour profiles.

Old School Seagram’s

Starting in 1945, when making Four Roses, Seagram’s used 10 unique flavours of bourbon to reach its target formula—two grain recipes with the V yeast distilled at Seagram’s five Kentucky distilleries—Old Prentice (now Four Roses), Cynthiana, Fairfield, Athertonville and Calvert.

Since every barrel yields different whiskey, Seagram’s theory was having 10 variations would help achieve consistency. Some barrels might be older, but it would average out when all whiskey mingled for bottling what would now be considered the Yellow Label.

But Seagram’s began downsizing its Kentucky operations in the 1960s, closing distilleries one by one, and forcing Four Roses to find another flavour source to stay within the company’s flavour strategy.

“When Seagram’s closed a distillery, we’d go to R&D for a yeast strain to replace that missing flavour, the distillery’s water source,” Rutledge says.

And that’s where Pueblo comes in.

Pueblo milled, mashed and cooked a variety of grains, alternating more than 300 yeast strains in experimental fermentations. Pueblo was always playing with the yeast, mutating one strain or another, until he generated something desirable.

“Pueblo started in R&D six to eight months before I started {November 14, 1966}. He spent his entire career working with the fermentation and yeast,” Rutledge says. “Seagram’s R&D had a miniature small distillery operation that would be the envy of most of craft distillers. … He would allow a yeast to mutate, stop the mutation, and then he would run it through a miniature distillery. We’d go through all the cycles of distillation. And then, we would evaluate.”

When Seagram’s closed the Louisville-based Calvert facility in 1983, Four Roses consisted of two grain recipes with five yeasts distilled in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, allowing the brand to stay within Seagram’s 10 flavour target methodology.

All five yeasts were generated from the V yeast, the light grandpa or great, great grandma of F, K, O and Q yeasts. Today, Four Roses boasts 10 recipes—the two mashbills and five yeasts—that have become the hallmark for legions of bourbon consumers. But it never would have happened without Seagram’s business decisions and a savvy R&D department.

Rutledge says R&D created more than 3,500 yeast strains, but only retained 10 per cent. He doesn’t know what happened to them all when Seagram’s went out of business, but Rutledge and his colleagues rushed in a frozen state to keep his yeast alive.

Frozen State

In the final decade of Seagram’s existence, the company moved Four Roses’ five yeasts to Louisville, Baltimore and Montreal. When the company folded, Four Roses rushed to find the yeast a new home. The company found a temporary home at Alltech, the agricultural conglomerate in Lexington, Ky., that now makes whiskey.

Four Roses then discovered White Laboratories in San Diego, where its yeasts are now kept in a freeze-dried state.

Today, the San Diego lab overnights the yeast strains to Lawrenceburg, where it arrives with a white coating on top of it. The Four Roses lab inoculates a 500-milliliter flask and places it in a refrigerator, where the yeast grows for 24 hours. From here, a jug is inoculated.

“It takes us another 24 hours for that yeast to grow and then we’ll have a sufficient amount of yeast to inoculate a dona tub, which is about a 150-gallon tub situated above our three yeast tanks. That takes another 24 hours. So, we have three days of growing yeast in a lab, a jug and a dona tub. Then we have a sufficient amount to inoculate a yeast tub,” Rutledge says.

At the end of three days, the distillery inoculates a yeast tub and measures the sugar content. When it’s at 60 per cent of the original sugar content, Four Roses will stop the growth by getting the tub cold.

“When we ice the tub, the yeast remains stable at least for a week,” he says.

So, the yeast process isn’t drastically different than other distilleries. But Four Roses is doing this with five yeast strains. But in many respects that’s the beauty of Four Roses. The distillery changes yeast strains so often it decreases risk of mutation. Of course, there’s also the flavour impact.

The five yeasts yield their own flavour profiles: V is light fruit; Q is floral essences; K is spicy, nutmeg and cinnamon; O is fruity with hints of a milk stout; F generates herbal essences. Rutledge knows these yeasts like the back of his hand.

That brings us back to the glass Rutledge is eyeballing.

When tasting the five yeasts in the straight-from-the-barrel OE recipe—75% corn, 20% rye, 5% malted barley—Rutledge picked something up in the V yeast. It’s not the typical V yeast, he says. “It’s not as light bodied,” he says.

And it was in that moment that I realized this man’s entire professional life has been about safeguarding Four Roses and the yeast that makes this whiskey special. Yeah, it’s time the Four Roses’ storyline changes. The Seagram’s story is yesterday’s news; the present and future is this guy and his tasty band of yeast strains.


Collectors, Taxes and the Modern Day Bootleggers

The U.S. government wants its booze taxes.

Last week, the TTB updated its TTB Tip Line to encourage citizens to report the illegal transactions of “alcohol and tobacco products into domestic commerce without the payment of taxes.”

Does this mean the TTB will start cracking down on people selling liquor without a license or paying taxes?

I think it’s safe to assume yes, and the liquor distribution trade is likely the main reason why.

U.S. alcohol sales are set up through a three-tier system: the manufacturer, distributor and retailer / bar. In this system, every liquor drop must move through a distributor, who serves as a de facto government official for collecting excise taxes. There are some exceptions to this rule, but generally that’s how alcohol is sold in America.

Interestingly, a Wine and Spirits Distributors of Illinois study illustrates actual stores are selling wine, spirits and beer purchased outside of the distribution system. According to this WSDI study, Illinois loses $30 million a year in lost tax revenues to modern-day bootleggers.

Meanwhile, North Carolina passed a bill that will allow licensed beverage establishments to “obtain antique spirituous liquor” permits. This essentially means North Carolina has created a way for bars to sell collector-level whiskey, brandy, rums, wines, etc.

So where will this trend go for collectors?

I’ve talked to several distributors about collectors selling and buying historic products at legitimate auctions, such as Christie’s auctions and Bonhams. They tend to ignore these transactions and want something similar to what North Carolina has proposed.

Distributors and the government essentially care about stopping deathly alcohol from entering the market, underage drinking and of course, collecting taxes.

But in the coming months, you can expect the distributor lobbies to beef up their lost taxes arguments and the TTB to expand its investigative net. Uncle Sam wants his taxes.


Fred Minnick is the author of the upcoming Bourbon Curious.

Old Forester Releases 1897 Bottled In Bond

Brown-Forman announced its release of a Old Forester 1897 Bottled in Bond, the second extension of the Old Forester Whiskey Row Series introduced last fall.

Old Forester 1897 Bottle Shotminnickblog (1)The release honors the U.S. Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, the company said.

Bottled in Bond whiskey must have been the product of one distillation season, one distiller and from one distillery as well as aged in a federally bonded warehouse for at least four years and bottled at full 100 proof.

The suggested retail price is $49.99 for a 750 ml. Old Forester 1897 Bottled in Bond will be released immediately in 20 select U.S. markets with a national release planned for September.

Brown-Forman says this is a lightly filtered small batch expression, “mirroring production techniques of the 1897 time period.”

The company said the Whiskey Row series highlights its significant milestones and production innovations with each release.


Fred Minnick is the author of Whiskey Women and Bourbon Curious.

Bottled-in-Bond Dreams at Peerless Distillery

Louisville added a new distillery to its growing list, and this one is planning bottled-in-bond bourbons and ryes.

The Kentucky Peerless Distilling Company enjoyed its grand opening June 3 with friends, family and media in attendance.

The new Kentucky Peerless Distillery is a beauty.

The new Kentucky Peerless Distillery is a beauty.

Family owned by descendants of 1800s-era distiller Henry Kraver, Peerless will be a distillery to watch. The father-son duo of Corky and Carson Taylor announced the revival of their great (and great) grandfather’s Peerless Distillery in 2013 on 10th Street and Main, essentially extending the city’s Whiskey Row efforts.

Corky Taylor, a Kentucky native who owned a financial services company in Florida, would not comment on the distillery’s cost, but admitted: “I spent twice as much as I wanted to.”

It’s a good thing he did. The beautiful brick building sits near the Ohio River and offers a glimpse of how life used to be in Louisville.

As for the technical aspects—the stuff I live for—the 14-inch in diameter, 25.5-feet tall Vendome column still shimmers next to its 80-gallon doubler. Peerless acquires American white oak Char No. 3 barrels from the Kelvin Cooperage and its grains from Consolidated Grain and Barge Company in Louisville.

This still will churn out enough whiskey to fill 30 barrels a week, the company said.

This still will churn out enough whiskey to fill 30 barrels a week, the company said.

Peerless barrels will sit a minimum of four years before they bottle their bourbons and ryes.

Peerless barrels will sit a minimum of four years before they bottle their bourbons and ryes.

Peerless will not disclose its mashbills, but said the bourobn will be a corn, malted barley and rye. Probably the best part is Peerless’ barrel-entry proof is 107, making them the second lowest barrel-entry proof in Kentucky. (Michter’s goes into the barrel at 103 proof.)

The aged whiskeys will include Peerless bourbon and rye as well as a Henry Kraver for single barrels. All will be bottled-in-bond, says Taylor.

Of course, that means we’ll need to wait four years to see how Peerless bourbon and rye taste.

For now, Peerless boasts a Lucky Kentucky moonshine brand and a production capacity of 30 barrels a week.

The gift shop is also extremely impressive, offering a true Kentucky theme that will greatly appeal to tourists.


Fred Minnick is the author of Whiskey Women and Bourbon Curious.


Google Loves Mint Julep Tours

I’m a big fan of Mint Julep Tours. Their tour guides are among the most knowledgable in the business, and they seemingly know every road bump on Kentucky highways. So, it’s no surprise to me that the bourbon-centric, high-level tourism company was recently recognized by Google for its online presence.

According to a press release,  Google featured Mint Julep as the small business for the state of Kentucky in their 2014 Economic Impact Report.

The almighty Google selected Mint Julep for its outstanding Web presence and ability to build tourism through Internet channels.

Last year, the press release said, 84% of customers found Mint Julep Tours on the Web. And there’s likely a significant number of users who created their own bourbon trips based on the website, but without using Mint Julep. Owner Sean Higgins, who’s a tech guy to begin with, says Google is a partner. “You can directly equate at least 30% of our growth to the tools and advantages that the internet has established,” Higgins says.

I’d to take it one step further and add that Mint Julep Tours has greatly impacted the bourbon distilleries, writers and even the local restaurants. They recommend books, restaurants, hotels, etc., and are Kentucky’s de facto tourism ambassador. Mint Julep offers a type of marketing to bourbon that’s lost in today’s Internet culture; they bring word-of-mouth marketing to bourbon in a time that’s focused on touch screens and anonymous Yelp reviews.

I’m glad to see Google has taken notice.


Fred Minnick is the author of Whiskey Women and Bourbon Curious.