Jim Rutledge: The Steward of a Spirit

Bourbon belongs to America, yet Four Roses bourbon was absent from the U.S. for nearly 50 years, pulled from domestic shelves in the 1950s. It returned largely because of one man—Jim Rutledge.

In 1992, after a long stint at Seagram’s New York office, Rutledge moved back to Kentucky just as Seagram considered closing the Four Roses Distillery. “Everybody’s jobs were on the line,” Rutledge said in 2015. With Rutledge at the helm, corporate quality control conceded the whiskey was too good to give up.

With Four Roses badly in need of hope, the next decade would test Rutledge’s resolve. Rutledge fought to bring Four Roses bourbon back to the U.S. market and the Yellow Label returned to Kentucky liquor stores and a warm welcome in 1996.

Seagram sold the distillery to Japan’s Kirin Brewing in 2002, and soon thereafter Four Roses Single Barrel, Small Batch, and eventually Limited Edition landed on American shelves, winning fans and dozens of awards over the next decade.

When Rutledge announced his retirement in 2015 after nearly 50 years, he left knowing he had returned Four Roses to a place of prestige and to American soil.

Liquid Legacy: Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch 2013
97 points in the Winter 2013 issue of Whisky Advocate, this is one of the greatest American whiskeys ever made. So complex with baking spices that it’s a whiskey likely never to be duplicated.
Find it: Hard Water, San Francisco; Flatiron Room, New York; Canon, Seattle.

Discover more legendary bourbon distillers

More From Dispatches

How India Drinks Whisky

The subcontinent has a powerful thirst for whisky, especially as the drinking culture broadens.