A Tale of Four Roses

In marketing, some brands seem to have a life their own. If so, then the life of the Four Roses brand is a sprawling epic of betrayal and fall followed by redemption after time in the wilderness.

The name Four Roses was born of a love story. Lawrence Jones, the successful scion of a Kentucky whiskey family, fell in love with a young belle who lived in Columbus, Georgia. He wooed her ardently for years, repeatedly asking her to marry him, always to be rebuffed… but never dissuaded. At last, he wrote her a letter that he was returning to her with the intent to ask her to marry him yet again. But this would be his last time, and he could hardly bear the thought of a final rejection.
Therefore, he implored her that if she would finally consent, she should arrive at the ball wearing a corsage of four red roses. If she did, he would be happy, and if she did not, he could retire from the event with his dignity intact and never trouble her again.
Of course, as with all good family stories of hazy authenticity, she swept into the ball adorned with four beautiful roses.

Needless to say, such a story became important to the family, so important that they named their flagship brand Four Roses. The Jones family were gifted rectifiers (blenders) of whiskey, and the brand enjoyed success in the days before Prohibition. While Prohibition brought the stories of most brands to a tragic end, the makers of Four Roses were quick to act, and purchased one of the few allowed licenses to sell whiskey as “medicine”. Thus the brand endured through the Noble Experiment.
When legal sales at last resumed, Four Roses found itself with tremendous advantages. It had a current, known brand. It had some financial resources. Most importantly, it had aged product available to bottle and sell.
The company used those advantages to the fullest, and by the end of World War II, was one of the nation’s most popular brands. If you look carefully in the background of the famous Alfred Eisenstaedt picture of the sailor kissing a nurse in Time Square on V-E day, the topmost sign in the world’s most famous outdoor ad space was for Four Roses.

My mother remembers that her father, a wealthy New England manufacturer, drank Four Roses as his favorite whiskey. My grandfather, J. Howard, was a man of moderate appetites, but exquisite taste.

Our tale takes its dark turn when the brand was sold to Seagrams in the late 40s, and this new guardian of Four Roses began slowly to betray its legacy. Tinkering began on the product, changing it to a blended whiskey of progressively lighter and blander character. Our noble, romantic hero began to fade as the brand slipped first into mediocrity and then decrepitude. Like a fallen bum on the Bowery, it found itself relegated to the cheap end of the bottom shelf, while its name faded from the living memory of the market.

And there it languished and would likely have died, forgotten and unmourned, except for a secret love it kept hidden away like a golden locket, secreted in a safe place under its tattered clothes. That secret was Japan.

You see, the real Four Roses, the high-quality straight bourbon whiskey, never stopped being made, and in large amounts. But it was all being sold in Japan. (OK, Europe got some, but Four Roses was a huge, perennial top-seller in Japan)

As the new millennium dawned, Seagrams completed it’s own rags to riches to rags arc and began to spin away it’s spirits brands and operations. Japan’s Kirin Brewing stepped in and purchased the Four Roses brand, the distillery where it was made, and about half its inventory of aged whiskey. I suspect Kirin’s management looked into the abyss of no more Four Roses, and moved accordingly.
The blended, artificial, whiskey-drink product was discontinued, and a comeback in America of the good stuff was planned. Any remaining stock of the old crap was bought up and destroyed. If you find any out there on a dusty shelf somewhere that they didn’t track down, put it down and back away. Such sad ghosts need not be disturbed.

In 2004, Four Roses returned to American shelves as a high-end whiskey again, with the introduction of a single-barrel bourbon. In 2006, they added the excellent Small Batch premium blend. Now they have reintroduced the Yellow Label as a mainstream straight bourbon. Finally, there are a number of single-barrel special bottlings, as well as private cask sales.
But Four Roses has not forgotten the country which kept the brand alive. There are at lease two major bottlings which still are available only in Japan. It’s not that they would not do well in the US market, but they simply sell there for so much more.
It remains to be seem how this tale will end. The name really was poisoned in the US, and few who remember the name are old enough to have fond memories. Will Four Roses be able to return as a major player with its Yellow Label? Will it settle in as a comfortable premium small brand?
But any good tale should leave you wanting to know just what “happily ever after” means…

I haven’t touched on an awful lot yet, there’ll be another post coming up shortly with some discussion of the excellent whiskeys that make all this bodice-ripping interesting in the first place, and how they are made.


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