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Four Roses Bloom Again by Jay Erisman of the Party Source

Four Roses Bloom Again by Jay Erisman of the Party Source

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Published by Kevin McKenna
Of Kentucky’s nine active bourbon distilleries, Four Roses, just outside Lawrenceburg, is easily the least known in its native country. Production at this utterly unique distillery has continued without interruption since 1911—yet their fine straight bourbons have been unavailable in America for over fifty years. Under new ownership since 2002 by the beneficent Kirin brewing (and distilling) concern, this special whiskey is now slowly spreading across America. Armed with two high-rye-content grain bills and five yeasts, Four Roses has plenty of whiskey firepower for its mission. Mark it down: in years to come, Four Roses will be accounted as one of the very best bourbon distilleries.
Of Kentucky’s nine active bourbon distilleries, Four Roses, just outside Lawrenceburg, is easily the least known in its native country. Production at this utterly unique distillery has continued without interruption since 1911—yet their fine straight bourbons have been unavailable in America for over fifty years. Under new ownership since 2002 by the beneficent Kirin brewing (and distilling) concern, this special whiskey is now slowly spreading across America. Armed with two high-rye-content grain bills and five yeasts, Four Roses has plenty of whiskey firepower for its mission. Mark it down: in years to come, Four Roses will be accounted as one of the very best bourbon distilleries.

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Published by: Kevin McKenna on May 13, 2010
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Four Roses Bloom Again by Jay Erismanof The Party Source Of Kentucky’s nine active bourbon distilleries, Four Roses, just outside Lawrenceburg, is easilythe least known in its native country. Production at this utterly unique distillery has continuedwithout interruption since 1911—yet their fine straight bourbons have been unavailable inAmerica for over fifty years. Under new ownership since 2002 by the beneficent Kirin brewing(and distilling) concern, this special whiskey is now slowly spreading across America. Armedwith two high-rye-content grain bills and five yeasts, Four Roses has plenty of whiskeyfirepower for its mission. Mark it down: in years to come, Four Roses will be accounted as oneof the very best bourbon distilleries.The early history of what is today called the Four Roses Distillery, and the brand of the samename, make a fine example of the convoluted course of the bourbon industry. The Four Roses brand exists from the 19th century, deriving from various legends involving a southern belle, amarriage proposal, and a bouquet of roses, though the definitive story is uncertain. The presentdistillery buildings were built in 1910 as the Old Prentice Distillery, on the banks of the SaltRiver, in an unusual Spanish mission style suited to a turn-of-the-century California winery.
Seagram’s
The roots of today’s Four Roses whiskey go back to 1943, when Seagram’s bought FrankfortDistillers Co. to obtain the Four Roses brand, the top-selling bourbon in America. At that timethey also bought Old Prentice. Seagram’s separately purchased four more distilleries— Cynthiana, Fairfield, Athertonville, and Calvert. The distillates from these five stills were blended (or as Four Roses puts it today, “mingled”) in varying amounts to create the brands held by Seagram’s. Furthermore, each distillery used two grain bills—so Seagram’s blenders had attheir behest ten different whiskeys.Seagram’s may have held some of the strictest quality standards in the entire liquor industry —“the most quality-oriented company I ever saw,” says Four Roses Master Distiller JimRutledge. But from a modern perspective, they were lousy marketers. Starting in the early 1950s,Seagram’s in their wisdom chose to restrict sales of Four Roses straight bourbon to overseas
 
markets, where it became a top seller. Americans were offered only a blended whiskey calledFour Roses American, whose components were made in such far flung places as Baltimore,Maryland and Lawrenceburg, Indiana. To make matters worse, by the mid-1960s the quality of this blend was degraded from a Seagram’s “A” blend made from 100% whiskey, to a “B” blendwith 65% grain neutral spirits. This “rotgut” blended product proceeded to tarnish the name of Four Roses in its native country.
Kirin Steps In
The business side of the story remained unchanged until December 2000, when Seagram’smerged with a French media company. Seagram’s many liquor holdings were put up for sale andeventually dismantled by several competing liquor conglomerates. Suddenly, the Four Roses brand and distillery was on the market. The purchase was ultimately completed by Kirin inFebruary 2002, in part to retain distribution rights in Japan. In fact, the sale consummated anideal marriage.According to Four Roses CEO Teruyuki “Terry” Daino, “In principle, Kirin is a manufacturer.Kirin’s main business has always been marketing our business.” “The Kirin way,” unlike someother large liquor companies, is to act not merely as a brand builder, but as a producer. They takegreat pride in making quality products, first as a brewer but later as a distiller. In 1972 Kirin partnered with Seagram’s to produce Japanese whisky, and built a large distillery at the foot of Japan’s iconic Mount Fuji. With years of experience as Four Roses’ Japanese distributor, andlong exposure to Seagram’s quality-oriented culture, Kirin was perhaps uniquely qualified totake a hands-on approach to owning the distillery.Soon after their purchase, Kirin went about repairing the image of Four Roses in America. The blended whiskey was eliminated, and Four Roses Yellow Label returned to its rightful status as afine Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey. A Single Barrel bourbon was released in 2004,followed by the Small Batch in 2006. Says Jim Rutledge, “Everything is very thought out. Wespent a year on package design for the Single Barrel. Now it’s the top selling Single Barrel inKentucky, after just two years on the market. We’re building for the future, where we’ll be in 15to 20 years, not two to three.”Today, Mr. Rutledge, Distillery Manager Al Young, and other veterans of the Seagram’s daysare having the time of their lives, creating mouthwatering new whiskeys and putting right thename of Four Roses in America. Jim has been in the bourbon industry 41 years, starting withSeagram’s in 1966. The renaissance of Four Roses is literally a dream come true for Jim. “Ihated to see Seagram’s go out of business; I spent 35 years with that company,” he confides.“But the silver lining is we’re doing things now that I could only dream of. I wouldn’t trade my40 years for anything…but I wish I’d started when I was five years old!”Al Young, who has a background in English literature and theater, formed part of Seagram’sdistilling brain trust. “Seagram’s had a top R&D department since the 1930s,” says Al. “Theyhad done massive studies on alcohol production and distillery practices, covering all kinds of  beverage production.” Seagram’s exhaustive research would wind up providing for the future of Four Roses, and unwittingly create Kentucky’s most unique distillery. In meeting Jim and Al, itis apparent they are consumed with a passion for their jobs and for fine bourbon whiskey. Their feet must scarcely touch the ground as they lead tours and tastings and teach and distill
 
superlative bourbon, living out their dream.
Why The Five Yeasts?
In the early 1970s, the bourbon industry went through a period of contraction. AlthoughSeagram’s saw they could no longer profitably operate five distilleries, the company of coursewished to continue with their many whiskey brands. Seagram’s chose to close all their distilleriesexcept Old Prentice, which in addition to its well-kept condition offered the finest flavor of thefive (most Four Roses straight bourbon since the 1940s had come from Prentice), and was mostsuited to execute Seagram’s next plan—five yeasts in one distillery.To replicate the variety of flavor of the five distilleries, Seagram’s took a novel approach.Leaning on their extensive research, they selected four yeasts from their catalog of more than300 strains, chosen to simulate the flavors of the four now-closed distilleries. These yeasts wereintroduced to Old Prentice, together with the original yeast and the two grain bills. The resultingten whiskeys once again provided Seagram’s with a wide range of flavor with which to crafttheir whiskeys. Thus the supply of straight bourbon overseas continued, while Americans stillreceived only the B-grade blend.Today, the blended whiskey is gone, and the American market (Kentucky, actually) has been thefirst to benefit from new Four Roses products. Yet Seagram’s experiments live on in the tendifferent flavors distilled at Four Roses. Consider the irony: these five yeasts and two grain bills, born of a giant company’s obsessive desire for consistency and quality, today confer a blessingof flavor on a small, yellow distillery whose production methods are truly one of a kind.
The Shortest Warehouses in Kentucky
A number of tall, classic bourbon warehouses stand across the Salt River from the distillery.They are filled with Wild Turkey’s whiskey, who bought them in 1976. Four Roses’ warehousesare 45 miles away in Cox’s Creek, Kentucky. They decidedly do not look like normal bourbonwarehouses. Having gone to all that trouble to pull ten flavors of whiskey off the Four Rosesstill, a typical seven-story warehouse would only muddle the picture with its wide temperatureswings between upper and lower floors. Seagram’s built the warehouses at Cox’s Creek as singlestory, about 25 feet tall and holding only six tiers of whiskey barrels.These low-to-the-ground buildings largely eliminate aging as a variable in flavor. While tallwarehouses certainly make good bourbon, the Four Roses approach is perhaps more consistent,as it doesn’t rely on weather and the chance of barrel location to develop a range of flavors. If Jim Rutledge and Jota Tanaka, Four Roses’ Director of Quality, want to add a floral flavor to a bottle of bourbon, they don’t have to rely on Mother Nature’s effect in the warehouse. Theysimply reach for a barrel made with their most flowery-flavored yeast. The result is a tremendousamount of control over the flavor in each barrel, and finally the sip in the bottle.

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