After The American Civil War Paul Jones entered the whiskey business as a rectifier in Atlanta, Georgia. He did not own a distillery and purchased his whiskey from a local distillery – The Rose Distillery in Atlanta. Prohibition forced him to move his business out of Georgia in 1886. He died before the beginning of the 20th century and the business passed on to his nephews who expand the company. They purchased the Frankfort Distillery and brands in 1902 giving the company its own distillery. Four Roses, then still the Frankfort Distillery, became one of the six companies to acquire licenses to sell “Medicinal Spirits” during Prohibition. They survived Prohibition only to be purchased by Seagram during WWII.
At the height of Seagram’s expansion into the Bourbon World they owned five distilleries in Kentucky – Atherton in Athertonville, Henry McKenna in Fairfield, Four Roses in Lawrenceburg, Seagram’s in Louisville and Four Roses also in Louisville. They made whiskey at each of these distilleries but most of the whiskey went into their blended whiskeys such as Seven Crown and Four Roses Blended, but they sold the Four Roses Bourbon in the overseas markets of Europe and Japan. At its height they were selling 800,000 cases of Four Roses overseas.
Each of these five distilleries had the same two mash bills but their own yeast. As the distilleries were closed down in the 1960s and 70s their yeast was sent to Lawrenceburg so the whiskey could still be made for the blends. In time all five yeasts ended up at Four Roses and they make whiskey using each of these strains today.
Seagram did try a brief period of Bourbon in 1976 when they wanted to compete with Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey. They introduced Benchmark and Eagle Rare 101 however these brands ended up being sold before the century was over. Four Roses brand and distillery was their only investment in Kentucky in the 1990s. When the Bourbon Festival was created in Bardstown in 1991 and was seen as a success, the Master Distiller at Four Roses asked Seagram to allow the sale of Four Roses Yellow Label in Kentucky so the employees could drink their own Bourbon during the Festival. By 1996 Ova Haney had talked the parent company into introducing a single barrel version of the brand for duty free and select overseas markets. Ova retired and Jim Rutledge took over as Master Distiller and his enthusiasm and energy played a major role in making the distillery what it is today.
In 2002 Seagram sold the spirits portfolio and the distillery and brand ended up as part of the Japanese firm Kirin Brewery Company. Rutledge managed to make sure the distillery survived these difficult times, but more importantly he managed to get the new company to discontinue the Four Roses blended whiskey and expand the domestic sales of the Bourbon. First he introduced a domestic version of the single barrel that soon phased out the existing version and then a small batch version of Four Roses. Special releases of both single barrel and small batch Four Roses brands helped build the brand’s reputation as a premium product. This was important because of the reputation of the blended whiskey as a cheap, bottom shelf product made it hard to get consumers to try the Yellow Label brand. Today the brand and the distillery are thriving and like all other Kentucky distilleries, facing shortages of aged product. They are working hard to catch up to demand and the future looks bright.
The thing that really makes this distillery outstanding is the fact that they were owned by a Canadian blended whiskey firm for decades. The fact that Seagram wanted so many different whiskeys for their blends placed Four Roses in a unique position amongst Kentucky’s distilleries. They make 10 different whiskeys with two mash bills and five yeast strains. This makes the Yellow Label one of the most consistent flavor profiles in the industry. It is easier to reach a consistent flavor when there are more part to mix. The Yellow label is a marriage of all ten recipes. The Small batch is usually a marriage of four different recipes and of course the single barrel is only one recipe. This makes the barrel selection program really popular with consumers. A liquor store or a bar can purchase a barrel with a flavor profile that is not normally available as a national brand.
The recipes are broken down with two mash bills: E and B. The E mash bill is 75% corn, 20% rye and 5% malted barley and the B mash bill is 60% corn, 35 % rye and 5% malted barley. Because of the small amount of Malt used, they do use enzyme supplements to get a full conversion of starch to sugar in their mash. The yeast strains are as follows: V- delicate fruitiness, K – slightly spicy, O – rich fruitiness, Q – floral essence and F- herbal essence. They keep each of these recipes on site at the distillery and work hard to propagate and protect each one. All of these combinations make for some unique flavor profiles to start within the new make, but when you then add maturation into the process, the uniqueness is multiplied.
To try to control these aging variables, Seagram built a complex of warehouses that was centrally located to each of the five original distilleries at Cox’s Creek. They then limited the variables by building single story warehouses with heavily insulated roofs. The temperature only varies by 7 degrees from the bottom to the top rack in the warehouses, not the forty or fifty degree shift that can happen in a multi-level warehouse at other distilleries, but still enough to give some variation in the barrels. The top two racks will have barrels that gain proof as they age, the bottom two will have barrels that lose proof as they age and the middle two stay within a few degrees of the original 120 entry proof.
Four Roses is unique in many ways but it is their five different yeast strains that most people remember about them. That and their great brand Ambassadors like Al Young. Four Roses is truly a great Kentucky Distillery.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl