Lunch with Jim Rutledge, Master Distiller from Four Roses Distillery

Last week I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Jim Rutledge, the Master Distiller from Four Roses at a luncheon arranged for the local press by Laura Baddish of The Baddish Group. Also present were representatives from Kentfield Marketing Group including Meryl Cawn and Kurt Charles. Kentfield does marketing and on-premise sales for Four Roses in the greater SF Bay area. We gathered at Zero Zero in San Francisco for the occasion.

About Jim…

Jim Rutledge has been in the spirits business for over 43 years. He started work with Seagram’s in 1966 when they owned the Four Roses brand. He held a variety of positions within the company but ultimately transferred to the Four Roses distillery in 1992. In 1995 he was named Master Distiller, a title he’s held ever since. Jim’s predecessors at Four Roses include Ova Hanye and Charlie Beam (who retired in 1994). Jim’s won an array of awards for his work including membership in the Bourbon Hall of Fame and Malt Advocate’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.

A bit of (complex) history…

While Four Roses distillery has a history which dates back to well before prohibition, it’s not a brand which was well known among discerning drinkers in the United States until after 2002. Prior to that, Seagram’s, who owned the brand since 1913 (or 1941, or 1943, depending on who you ask), had chosen to sell only an inexpensive blended whiskey under that label here in the states. (For those those who may not know: a blended whiskey contains only a small proportion of barrel aged spirit. The bulk is grain alcohol which results in a much lighter simpler product.)

In 2001, a controlling interest in Seagram’s was purchased by Vivendi, who was after the company’s entertainment holdings. Vivendi then sold off its interest in the drink business, a part of which was acquired by Diageo. Diageo eventually divested itself of the Four Roses distillery which was then purchased by the Japanese beer brewing company Kirin. Kirin had been the distributor for Four Roses bourbon (not the blended whiskey) in Japan and wanted to continue selling it there. [*] Kirin also agreed it was time to re-launch the brand here in the United States. According to Jim Rutledge, shortly thereafter the distillery purchased all the remaining stocks of the blended product and had it destroyed. (Wow!) The single barrel bottling was then released in the US as a way of building the brand back up.

[*] — Following all of this? The history of Four Roses is nothing if not complicated. I have done my best to simplify it. A much more detailed, though perhaps no less confusing account, can be found here.

Mr. Rutledge holds forth…

I had already known that much of what makes the Four Roses product distinct involved two mash bills (including a high-rye of 35%) and the use of five distinct yeast strains. The results are 10 distinct bourbons out of which the various bottlings are then derived. These were details which Jim reiterated to the group. There is simply no other distillery working in this manner today making Four Roses a truly distinctive product.

News to me was the use of multiple single-story rack warehouses (AKA rick houses) in which the product is aged. These are unique in the Bourbon industry. There are 20 warehouse at the distillery; each is about 40,000 square feet in size (that’s close to one acre each) and holds over 24,000 barrels. The storage racks inside are six barrels high. According to Jim, there are two distinct advantages to all of this.

First, the single story design results in only a six degree difference in temperature between the racks at the top and bottom of the warehouse. This means all the barrels age more or less evenly regardless of where they are positioned. This more or less obviates the need to rotate barrels through the floors over time, a practice which Jim asserts no one follows any more anyway.[*] I also learned that in general warehouses are neither temperature nor humidity controlled. Thus the environment inside is dependent on outside conditions and under goes seasonal variations.

Second, it means that in the event of a fire (such things happen), not all of the stock will be threatened. In fact, each year’s ‘make’ is distributed between all of the warehouses so that a fire in one would not have the effect of ‘wiping out’ a given vintage.

[*] — In multi-story warehouses the temperature differential between the top and bottom floors can be quite extreme. Traditionally barrels were rotated between floors during aging to ‘average out’ the effects of temperature or to heighten the same in a set of barrels by choosing to not rotate them.

What about the whiskey?

While Jim was doing all this talking, we were encouraged to start tasting the five whiskeys which had been poured for us: three regular selections and two unaged (“white dog”) samples poured to show the effect of the different yeasts on the flavor.

The three regular selections were the Yellow (made from a blend of all 10 bourbon recipes), the small batch (a blend of two recipes), and the single barrel (a single recipe based on the high-rye mash bill, bottled at 100 proof). All were quite delicious. I was most impressed by the ‘yellow label’ which I hadn’t bothered to taste critically before. It had a nice roundness and a goodly dollop of sweetness. However, at 40% alcohol it seems likely to get lost in many cocktails. I only wish it were a higher proof product.

Two additional “white dog” samples were poured to show the effect of the yeast used. Both used the same mash bill (the high-rye) and were more or less the same proof, about 138, just as they came off the still. The difference in nose and flavor was frankly quite astonishing. Where one was restrained the other was effusive and floral, totally changing the sensation of ‘heat’ on the palate. Jim told us that it’s equally illuminating to taste new make whiskey using the same yeast but where the mash bill varies. I am sorry we didn’t get a chance to have that experience.

Finally…

Over the last year or so I’ve had the occasion to meet Master Distillers from Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace and now Four Roses. In the heads of these men (and yes, for the moment, this seems to be pretty much a white male dominated game) resides the bulk of wisdom on the making of American barrel aged spirits. And while small production (AKA artisanal) craft spirits are becoming something of a hot product category, it feels like distillers at these much newer ventures will be playing catch up with their more senior counterparts for a while.

Certainly large established distilleries have a fiscal advantage that most small start up distilleries don’t share in the form of a pipeline of product that’s ready for market every year. But they also have something else: a long history of making reliable and consistent product and the domain expertise on how to do that passed from distiller to distiller. [*] The value of lineage and wisdom passed on between generations cannot be underestimated.

[*] – And in all fairness, the small distiller has the advantage of being able to experiment, bringing possibly novel products to market more quickly, and without risking an established brand.

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