Jim Rutledge Talks of Four Roses Past, Distillery FutureApril 29th, 2016
When Four Roses master distiller Jim Rutledge retired last year, he wasn’t the first master distiller to retire before his career was truly over. Woodford Reserve’s Lincoln Henderson retired from Brown-Forman and then started Angel’s Envy. Now, Rutledge joins the extremely rare crop of Kentucky blue blood master distillers to leave the corporate ranks and start his own distillery, which he announced yesterday. Read the Whisky Advocate blog story.
Fred Minnick caught up with Rutledge to discuss his past and new venture.
First, let’s discuss Four Roses. After you retired, speculation surfaced that you were pushed out as Four Roses master distiller. Is this true?
I absolutely did not get pushed out the door. When I started talking with the previous CEO, I said it was time to move on in my career. The new CEO and I negotiated my retirement. Initially, I was asked to give a five-year notice. I didn’t agree to that, but did stay on an additional five months. I hear people thinking I got fired…no truth in that. And I don’t know where this speculation comes from or how it got started. Everything was cordial when I left. Four Roses is a part of my life and will always be a part of my life. Four Roses is an old flame and will always be the best part of my life. It was very mutual departure. No hard feelings on my part. They were disappointed they couldn’t talk me into staying on longer.
Did anybody from Four Roses reach out to you for congratulations?
My text messages and emails were inundated with Four Roses people congratulating me and wishing me the best of luck.
Now that you’re the new distillery on the block, if you need whiskey, would you contact Four Roses for contract distilling?
No, because they need every gallon for themselves. It’s been that way for years. If they had excess capacity, they’d be the first one I’d contact.
Why did you retire from Four Roses if you still have distilling on the mind?
Because I’m 72, and it was time to move on. [My own company] sounded exciting.
After you retired, how many employment and partnership calls did you receive?
Within the first two hours, I received phone calls for consulting work and had several offers to work for other distilleries. Consulting work is fine. I said I’m retired from corporate work and not interested. The two guys I’m working with I’ve known for years…if I was going to do anything, it would be with them.
Let’s talk money. You’re Jim Rutledge, and we whiskey geeks think you can just throw your name on a project and the investors will come. Crowd funding has a reputation for being last-resort funding. Why go this route?
I don’t look at crowd funding as a last resort. It’s a kickstarter to get us on the road and then we have something to offer. It’s a mid-size distillery. You just can’t call people up and say, ‘hey do you want to donate and all we have is our experience?’ I look at it as a starting point. We also want to remain as independent as possible.
How much do you need?
For 100 acres of property, a distillery that can produce 30,000-40,000 barrels per year…about $25 million to $30 million.
Are you only using crowd funding?
We’re also speaking with people for private funding or large investor groups. Not venture capitalists because they want a quick return. Most people willing to put up money want a quick return. A distillery operation is in for the long haul. Once we get to the point that the barrels are matured, earnings increase. Up until that point, we can do contract distillation, barrel warehousing, and offer rooms for events and weddings.
From a banking investor standpoint, they’ll want to see a plan in place for the long haul. You’re 72.
We will have somebody working with me from the start to train in my ways and philosophies to generate the mellowness and smoothness. It’s an exciting time. We’re planning an environmentally-friendly distillery with geothermal and solar power. I don’t know how long I’ll last, but I’m hoping I’m still working 15 years from now. It’s been my life and I want to continue.
Are you planning a flavored whiskey?
Yeah, a honey bourbon [he laughs, obviously joking.] We will not do anything to deviate from the integrity of Kentucky straight bourbon.