A week ago, I took a little Tiki-timeout to attend an event for Four Roses bourbons downtown here in Columbus. I wrote about Four Roses’ product, it’s story, and its brand ambassador Al Young extensively last Summer. This time I had the opportunity to hear and meet Four Roses’ master distiller Jim Rutledge, a man who evangelizes for his product with the zeal of someone who was foiled in his ambitions for a long time before disaster brought opportunity.
I’ll explain in a moment, but first I want to thank two of Columbus’s best bartenders for this event. Cris Dehlavi of M at Miranova, one of my best friends in the business, organized this stop on Jim’s promotional tour. And Josh Rice hosted things at SideBar 122.
In a delightful coincidence for me personally, the welcome cocktail they served at the event was Josh’s Bourbon Fog Cutter. Four Roses certainly isn’t your mainline Tiki spirit… and this drink is certainly not the lemony blast of its namesake, but between the name and the richness of some demerara syrup, it was more than enough to keep me from feeling like I was cheating on the Tiki Gods. I also had a chance to catch up with a number of bartenders from the area that I know, and even get some interesting ideas from them that I’m now hoarding for next year’s Tiki Month.
Jim got up and talked to us all for a good long while. I learned a few new details I had not head before about the story behind Four Roses’ name, and quite a bit more about their Limited Edition products. These bottles are well worth the time for whiskey lovers to explore, and next time I’m in a state where I can get a few of said bottles, I’ll have a good time doing that here.
But what I want to discuss in this post is some new insights I got into the brand’s journey from elite leader to Bowery Bum hooch, and its recent return to top shelf status. A triumphant return, for Jim.
To briefly summarize Four Roses’ brand history, coming out of Prohibition, they were essentially the number one brand of premium bourbon in the United States. They were then purchased by the Bronfman family of Seagrams Liquor. Bronfman was a near religious believer in blended whiskey as the only way to commercial success in North America. He therefore began making a blended whiskey under newly purchased famous name, Four Roses. It soon became clear that having two products with the same name was causing consumer confusion, and only one or the other could effectively be marketed here in America. The premium bourbon outsold the blend at that time by more than ten to one….
But remember I said that Sam Bronfman was a True Believer™ in blended whiskeys? Seagrams dropped the number one Bourbon in America to pour money into the blended product. Full disclosure here. I went to high school with one of Sam’s grandsons. I have to say that despite occasional appearances, they are not a stupid family.
Fortunately, the straight bourbon continued to be made, as it was also the number one seller in Japan, as well as being big in many European nations. This was the situation when Jim became master distiller of Four Roses: The bourbon was in exile, while the increasingly rotgut blend sat on ever lower shelves here in the US, poisoning the brand name further with each passing year.
Rutledge found himself making a product of which he was tremendously proud, but that he could not sell in his own home town. He says he became a bit of a gadfly. A life-long Seagrams employee, he earned a reputation for annoying every corporate officer he spoke to with his constant demands that the withering blend be withdrawn so he could bring back his premium product to America.
“Hey Jim! How’s the kids?”
“They’re doing fine, thanks. But they’d be better is we could go back to selling my whiskey here in the US!”
To hear Jim tell it, I can only imagine hapless Seagram’s Vice Presidents at corporate HQ, ducking into bathroom stalls to avoid another ear full. But his efforts did not, and were not going to, bear fruit. But like any good company man and true believer in one, Jim plugged along, making the good stuff and the bad.
And then, an unthinkable disaster happened. Seagrams and the Bronfman family imploded. The company was spinning apart like a broken centrifuge. Jim and his crew in Kentucky went from dreaming of showing their fellow Kentucky whiskey wizards how tough a competitor they could be, to fearing that they’d have to stop making their whiskey altogether.
But for Four Roses and, as far as I’m concerned, for American bourbon drinkers in general, what looked like a disaster turned out to be the best possible turn of events. Instead of being held by ownership that neither appreciated nor understood them, their new Japanese owners bought them specifically for that premium product.
It still took some work to get permission to return to the American market, as getting rid of the blended stuff, physically and reputationally, was expensive, but Jim at last prevailed, and has spent the last ten years establishing the right product for America and proving its worth.
For his sins, he now travels constantly, looking for any group of bourbon-sellers who sit still in a group long enough for him to find them and tell them about his product. I wish him every success in continuing to make his hooch, as the bottles of his Four Roses (Single Barrel, Small Batch, and Yellow Label) that I keep in my bar refuse to remain full.