Whisky Advocate

Guest Blogger: Jim Rutledge, Four Roses Distillery

March 6th, 2009

Good Lord! Am I blogging too much? Let’s let someone else speak this time.

Jim Rutledge is the second guest blogger to grace the pages here of “What Does John Know?”.  He’s the Master Distiller at Four Roses. Four Roses is doing some amazing things right now, and they have many formulas they can tap into when making their whiskey. Below Jim talks about the formulas and actually gives us the explanation of the various codes you find on the labels of Four Roses whiskey. Is that cool or what? Not many distilleries are willing to do something like this. And le also tells is what he has planned for new releases this year. Thanks Jim!

So, if you have any questions for Jim about what he posted below, ask them, and maybe he can answer some of them. (He’s a busy guy, so give him time to respond.)

The Uniqueness of Four Roses

Four Roses Distillery will introduce another Limited Edition Single Barrel Bourbon in mid-June 2009, and as we have done in the past with this series the bottles will be filled with Bourbon using one of our unique ten recipes that has not previously been on the market, as a “stand-alone” brand. The recipe we’ll use for this special offering will include a yeast culture that generates a floral essence plus light fruit characters. The selected barrels are few and will have been aged 11 years by the time we bottle in May. I think we will fill nearly 2,000 bottles, but we won’t know for sure until the barrels are dumped and processed. The bottles will be filled with barrel strength Bourbon that will not be chill filtered, so it’s as close as a consumer can get to sampling a Bourbon straight from the barrel and that’s the best of the best.

Four Roses is a unique Bourbon operation. Most distilleries use one mashbill (grain recipe) on a regular basis and one proprietary yeast culture. Numerous flavor characteristics, for various brand labels, may be filled in this manner by offering combinations of different age Bourbons and different strengths, plus unique flavors are created, and later close to duplicated, based on the warehouse or location within a specific warehouse in which barrels are aged – for example, using specific floors of a warehouse for a specified brand. Four Roses consistently mashes (synonymous with cooking) grains from two mashbills – 65% of one recipe and 35% of the other. Both recipes use more small flavoring grain (rye) than other Bourbons, which results in robust flavors with a touch of spiciness. One recipe uses 20% rye and the other a whopping 35%. Four Roses also uses five proprietary yeast cultures in conjunction with the two mashbills; hence, ten unique Bourbon recipes, and distinctively different flavors, are distilled and aged separately in barrels. Basic flavor characteristics generated by the yeasts include: 1) a light and delicate fruitiness, 2) spicy characters, 3) robust fruitiness, 4) herbal essence, and 5) floral essence with a hint of fruitiness.

The 2009 Limited Edition Single Barrel Bourbon has combined the mashbill using 20% rye grain with yeast number 5 above.

With ten Bourbon recipes, Four Roses has an infinite number of flavor options available for its Limited Edition renditions, and also its regular Bourbons on the market – Yellow Label, Four Roses Single Barrel and Four Roses Small Batch. Each Four Roses Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey brand will always have its own unique blend formula and all are different in character, aroma and flavor. To illustrate the significance of this, our single barrel and small batch Bourbon brands are so different it would be highly unlikely that an evaluator, participating in a blind tasting, would recognize they are from the same distillery. The recipe used for its regular Single Barrel is not used in the recipe for its Small Batch.

We are very close to selecting the formula proportions of two recipes, which will be used for the 2009 Mariage Collection, which will be introduced this September during the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. One of the recipes (OBSK for those who closely follow the Four Roses brands) is our highest rye content mashbill combined with the yeast that generates a touch of spiciness. We will use some 19 year old barrels and 12 year old barrels of this code. The other recipe (OESO) uses the mashbill containing 20% rye and the yeast that creates the robust fruity characters. These barrels have been aged 12 years, and as with all single barrel and small batch Bourbons in the Kentucky Bourbon industry, the barrels are super selects. I promise this will be exceptional Bourbon, and as always it will be one of a kind and never duplicated.

(“Mariage” is the French spelling of marriage. The idea behind this special Small Batch Bourbon is 1 + 1 does not equal two, but instead 1 + 1 = 4 or 5 – something very special, like a marriage should be.)

Because of the versatility of the Four Roses Distillery and the various regular Bourbon brands, plus our Limited Edition series we offer consumers, Four Roses was presented with Malt Advocate’s award for “Distillery of the Year” at WhiskyFest in New York City in November 2008. At WhiskyFest in November 2007 John Hansell presented me with Malt Advocate’s “Life Time Achievement Award.” I can’t express the surprise, astonishment and excitement I felt when John called my name. I was nearly humbled to the point of tears as I walked on stage to accept the award, but even that moment did not compare to the emotions I felt as I accepted the 2008 award on behalf of all our employees and staff, who are as passionate and dedicated to our brand as I. “Thank You” is not adequate nor any where near totally expressive of my gratitude, but Thank You, John and Amy, for the recognition you’ve given Four Roses.

Now, my taste buds have settled and I must head back to the lab for more organoleptic analyses of the Mariage options. A tough job!

     10 Total Recipes

Two Mashbills:
                                   OE             OB
Corn                        75%         60% 
Rye                          20%         35%  
Malted Barley       5%           5% 

Five Yeast Cultures:

Yeast Codes:          V, K, O, Q, F     

 Basic Flavor Descriptors:
V – Delicate fruity flavor
K – Slight spicy character
O – Robust fruitiness
Q – Floral essence
F – Light herbal essence

Jim Rutledge
Master Distiller
Four Roses Distillery

18 Responses to “Guest Blogger: Jim Rutledge, Four Roses Distillery”

  1. Joe says:

    Great to hear from you, Mr. Rutledge. Thank you for all of your great work on behalf of Four Roses fans everywhere.

    Thanks also for taking the time to share your thoughts and opinions with us enthusiasts.

    One favor to ask: could you please tell the front office to hurry up and expand into the Washington, D.C. market? The anticipation is killing us!

  2. Sam S. says:

    Hi, and thanks for the post!
    1) I’m not a big fan of Rye, so how can we tell which products are using the mash with the lower Rye content?
    2) Any availability dates for Arizona???
    Thanks again!

  3. Mike Dereszynski says:

    Once again thank you for not only knowing what you know but doing what you do.
    Inviting guest bloggers, on top of all the info you supply is of great value to me and I know many others.
    I enjoyed reading what Willie Tate had to say and look forward to his new releases from Jura.
    I also ALWAYS look forward to what Jim Rutledge has to offer,wether it be whiskey or words of wisdom.
    Joe was right ,thanking Jim for taking time to share.
    I dont know how Jim manages it. He actually is a big part of the “front office” also the head alchemist juggling the science and the art,then there is the K.B.F. that he has Chaired the past 6 years while also serving up the monster “Lets Talk Bourbon” breakfasts.
    Its also more than likely that Jim will be the one on the other side of the table serving up Bourbon and info at the Fests we all attend like John’s in New York,Chicago,San Francisco.
    And here is where I have to sincerely thank him.
    Jim recently came to Madison,Wisconsin
    to help The Madison Malt Society in their “Celebration of American Distilling”.I never would have thought that I could be sitting in The Malthouse with a Legend of American Distilling talking about ice fishing while enjoying a glass of Four Roses Single.
    Thank you Jim for taking the time and sharing.
    Mike Dereszynski
    I really do hope you and the gang at Four Roses can someday sit down and put some of your stories and history in a book before they are lost.

  4. sam k says:


    Many thanks for your insight and willingness to share! since its introduction to the U.S. market, Four Roses Single Barrel has become my absolute favorite bourbon, and I hope that PA is on your expansion list! I can’t believe that it took foreign ownership to make domestic retail possible again, and I’m thrilled that it has done just that.

    Keep up the amazing work. You are a bellwether or the American distilling industry.

    All the best!

  5. John Hansell says:

    Guys, yes, isn’t it cool that we have Jim Rutledge as a guest blogger? For those of you with questions for Jim, please post them up here. I think he’ll respond to most of them (if we’re lucky).

  6. Jim Rutledge says:

    Thank everyone for their very nice comments. It’s getting Four Roses Bourbon back to the USA and to people like all of you that keep me energized and going strong – even after more than 42 years in the business. Thank all of you for taking the time to write.
    Joe – we are now in the process of selecting a distributor for Washington DC. I can’t tell you exactly when Four Roses Bourbon will be in your area, but it shouldn’t be too long. Once a distributor has been selected it takes a while for all the registration work to be completed, but we’re on our way!
    Sam S. – We’ve just recently listed with RNDC in Arizona and I understand the first order for Four Roses will soon be placed. I think it should be available by sometime in April. Our brand with the lowest rye grain content is our Yellow Label, but even that brand is higher in rye content than nearly all other Bourbons. Since you’re not a fan of rye I suspect you might drink Makers – a Bourbon made with wheat as its small flavoring grain, which imparts more of a sweat taste than other Bourbons. I hope you give Four Roses a try when we arrive. I’m confident you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the flavor and the exceptionally smooth and mellow finish.
    Mike – I had a Great time in Wisconsin. I loved the cold crip air, the view of the frozen lake from my hotel room, and most of all catching up with so many good friends and talking Bourbon, ice fishing or anything else that crossed our minds. I’m already looking forward to a return visit -hopefully sometime this summer – and I’m definitely planning to be back next February for another “Celebration of American Distilling” (and maybe a little ice fishing.) Thanks again and please tell everyone I had a great time and look forward to seeing you again in Wisconsin – and maybe at this year’s Kentucky Bourbon Festival.
    Sam K – For years and years, prior to Seagram bowing out of the beverage alcohol business, I had tried to get Four Roses Bourbon back in the U.S. at the same time stop production and sale of Seagram’s Four Roses blended whiskey. Seagram had a partnership with Kirin Brewery Company, Ltd. dating back to 1972, and Four Roses was the number one selling Bourbon in Japan when Seagram brands were being sold. Four Roses Bourbon was distributed by Kirin in Japan, so when Kirin had the opportunity to purchase Four Roses no one was going to stand in their way. I remember one of the first questions I asked the Kirin entourage when they first visited our Lawrenceburg, Ky. distillery: “are you willing to bring Four Roses Bourbon home to the USA?” You know the answer to the question, and I’ll always be grateful to Kirin for the opportunity we now have, and I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling since.
    Again, thanks to all for your support.

  7. Sam S. says:

    Thanks for the response!
    Yes, I’m sure I’ll give it a try when it becomes available here in AZ.

  8. Lear says:

    Hello Jim,

    I’m glad to see you here, receiving the praise from us fans, and talking with us. I look forward to anything Four Roses puts out and eagerly await the next release.

    I have a question (if it’s not too late to put here) about your barrel entry proof. I am a firm proponent of low entry proof as it helps the exit proof to remain as close to the original distilate as possible. This is my feeling of why older vintage bottles, even bottom shelf bourbons were so tasty compared to many current bottles equal in proof.

    At first I was led to believe you had one of the lowest of all the KY distilleries. I read just recently that this may not be so. Could you please clarify for myself and others?

    Many thanks!

  9. Jim Rutledge says:

    Sam K – I forgot to mention in my first response that yes, Pa. is on our target list of new markets in 2009. I don’t have any details beyond that. We post new listings on our website, so please keep in touch.

    Lear – Thank you for your response. You may already be aware that inflation and the financial groups of the distilleries were the driving force behind increasing the barrel entry proof back in the mid to late `80’s. The projected savings on the reduced number of barrels really didn’t materialize as projected. The added strength often turned into additional aging requirements to achieve the same level of maturity. Many distilleries changed their entry proofs to the maximum of 125 proof – despite the objections of distillers, plus warehouse and quality department personnel. Four Roses entry proof is 120. The impact of increased entry proof wasn’t as dramatic with FR because we age our barrels in single story rack warehouses – the only Kentucky Bourbon distiller to use this type warehouse. To illustrate the difference in the aging impact, the majority of our barrel inventories do not increase in strength over the maturation period, as barrels do that are matured in in multi-story warehouse. In fact, most of our barrels in the bottom couple tiers of our warehouses will actually decrease in strength over the years. We have been conducting studies for several years on varying entry proofs, and based on the results we will not change.
    I am almost positive Wild Turkey is the distillery using the lowest barrel entry proof. You might reach out to Jimmy Russel to see if he can expand further. I hope this helps a little, and thanks again for your message.

  10. Clay Risen says:

    Dear Mr. Rutledge,

    Any chance that FR will ever sell its export-only offerings here in the States? And why are Black and Super Premium only available in Japan?

    Not that I’m complaining. You guys are doing an amazing job. Last year’s Mariage may be the single best bourbon I’ve ever tasted.

    Best of luck,

    Clay Risen

  11. Jim Rutledge says:

    Hi Clay,

    Thank you for your very kind comments regarding Mariage, and your questions. First, in Europe we use the same one of our ten Bourbon recipes for our Europen Single Barrel Bourbon as we do for our American Single Barrel. We have recently changed the European bottle design to the American version which should eliminate the confusion that the two are different Bourbons. Relative to the Japanese offerings of Fine Old Bourbon (Black) and Super Premium will take a bit of an explanation. In the late `80’s the demand for Kentucky Bourbon in Japan sky-rocketed, and caught most of the industry with our pants down. We did not see this coming in the late `70’s and early `80’s when we were distilling for the end of the decade. Four Roses Yellow Label, then part of Seagram, was the top selling Bourbon in Japan. Seagram sold all its other Bourbon brands to allow more barrel inventory for our growth brand in Japan. We also introduced Fine Old Bourbon, and a short time later Super Premium, to capture more of the growing market. That’s why you see these brands only in Japan. We’re still a “baby” in the U.S. market, but we’re starting to grow and at this time our focus needs to remain on our three brands in the U.S. – Yellow Label, Single Barrel and Small Batch, with one or two Limited Edition Bourbons annually. We’re small and we can’t spread our limited personnel resources too thin. Once we become a little more established in the U.S. it’s possible that we may bring one, or both, of the brands to the U.S. I’m only a distiller and not a marketing person, but I honestly think it will be several years before we reach the point that we can introduce new Four Roses brands. Thanks again for your good questions. I’m often asked about the two brands sold only in Japan.

  12. MrTH says:

    What a great thread. John, you might consider publishing this as a Q&A in MA.

    I was very interested to note the listed characteristics of the various yeast strains. This is a topic that has been on my radar screen for the past year, and no one seems to want to talk about it. I suspect yeast has a far greater impact on the respective characters of, say, Glenmorangie and Glenlivet than most people even begin to imagine.

    Incidentally, I’m primarily a Scotch drinker, but have been very impressed with a single barrel bottle of Four Roses that I have going, and a sample of the Mariage that a friend sent me absolutely knocked my socks off. Consider my horizons broadened.

  13. Jim Rutledge says:

    Mr TH,

    As a devoted Scotch person, I appreciate you giving Four Roses Bourbon a try, and making your very positive comments.
    I agree with your observation relative to the importance of yeast and its impact on flavor profile. When it comes to Scotch I can only make some guesses, but I think yeast has to have at least an equal impact on the flavor of Scotch and perhaps even more than it does for Bourbon. The reason I say this is Bourbon must be aged in a new barrel. Once a barrel has been used it can never be used for Bourbon. Studies have been conducted over the years that indicate that over the Bourbon industry as much as 66% of Bourbon flavor comes from the natural sugars present in the oak barrels. (Of course there will be wide variations based on many variables, including age, bottle strength, barrel entry strength, etc.) Once the sugars are expended on the first use of the barrel they cannot have the impact with the second, third…filling. Scotch is always aged in used cooperage.
    Obviously, I don’t know for fact that yeast has more potential impact on Scotch than Bourbon. My comments are only based on deductive analysis.

  14. sam k says:

    Thanks for the follow-up on my question, Jim. I’m really looking forward to getting your bourbons here in PA, especially since the variety and overall selection has actually diminished here in recent years. Far fewer brands and packages available than even a few years ago, damn state-run monopoly!

    Now this one: Four Roses uaed to make a straight rye. Any chance of that being added to your product list in the future?

    Thanks again for your excellent effort with the blog crowd!

  15. Jim Rutledge says:

    Hi again Sam K. –
    I apologize for taking so long to respond. I’m traveling in northern California right now and I’m pretty much scheduled from early morning to late at night. I haven’t had much time to turn my pc on.
    We may again someday make a straight rye, but it will probably be after my time at Four Roses has come to an end. (That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love to see a straight rye.) As you know, it’s a strange situation with Four Roses Bourbon. We’ve been around for more than 140 years, but because Seagram pulled us out of the domestic market in the late 1950’s we’re only taking “baby steps” (in the U.S.) in the first decade of the 21st century. We’ve got a long road ahead of us as we continue our introduction of Four Roses Bourbon to new U.S. states/markets. We’re small in numbers (personel/staff) and at this time we must focus our energies and efforts on returning our three major Bourbon brands: Yellow Label, Single Barrel and Small Batch to the U.S. It’s been difficult at times meeting production schedules and introductions with our “Limited Edition” series of Single Barrel Bourbon and Small Batch – Mariage series.
    So until we get Four Roses Bourbon established in all the U.S. and blooming we must focus the efforts of our resources on the trememdous task we have at hand.
    After more than 42 years in the business most people are retired, or counting the days until retirement, but living this dream come true (bringing Four Roses Bourbon home) keeps me going. So now you understand why I said introduction of a straight rye would probably be after my time. It’s not that we can’t do it and wouldn’t love to do it, but we must first build a solid marketing foundation to stand for years and years to come – one that won’t crack or crumble when we hit bumps in the road along our journey.
    Thanks for your question

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