Four Roses Bus Tour – October 31, 2009

The Filson Historical Society took a bus trip to the Four Roses Distillery on Saturday, October 31st. Yes, Halloween day.  A rainy Halloween morning, but as the day progressed the sky cleared some it turned to a typical brisk fall morning in Kentucky. The bus left the Filson just a few minutes after 9:00 for the hour drive to the distillery, just south of Lawrenceburg, Ky.

The Four Roses distillery, then Old Prentice, ca. 1915

The Four Roses distillery, then Old Prentice, ca. 1915

The drive to the distillery was filled with a lecture about Kentucky’s distilling history. I started the talk with the requirements for bourbon whiskey and then launched into its history. I described the earliest records, the change from farmer distiller to industrial distilling, the conflict between straight whiskey distillers and rectifiers, the “what is bourbon” debate of the 1890s and 1900s, prohibition, World War II, the golden days of the 1950s, the decline of the 1970s and the rebirth of the 1990s. With the questions asked, the hour drive passed quickly.

The Four Roses distillery is a picturesque distillery built in the Spanish Mission style on the banks of the Salt River. The bus unloaded, and we were greeted by Al Young and Jim Rutledge. Jim, the Master Distiller, gave a presentation on Four Roses and the recent history of the brand. Jim knows as much about distilling as anyone in the industry.  He discussed the two grain recipes or “mash bills” and five different strains of yeast used to make the ten different bourbons used to make Four Roses products. Al , the company archivist and brand ambassador, followed Jim with a presentation of Four Roses advertising with several interesting examples of magazine advertisements. After the presentations, we split into two smaller groups. Half of the tour group went with Jim to the tasting lab and the other half went with Al on the distillery tour. I went with distillery tour and Judy Miller went with the group to the tasting lab.

Al Young is more than just a brand ambassador and archivist for the company.  He is also retired after 37 years as plant manager of the distillery. He takes great pleasure in showing the distillery to guests, and we received an excellent tour. Al’s only regret was that the distillery would not start distilling until after we left so we did not get a chance to taste the distillate from the tail boxes  off the first and second distillation. The groups then switched, and we went into the tasting lab for Jim’s presentation.

Jim Rutledge has been with the company for over forty years. He is an excellent speaker and presenter and the tasting lab is his natural platform. He had six out of ten samples of the distilled spirits made at Four Roses. These samples, called “white dog” in the industry, were as clear as water, yet when a person picked them up and placed their nose over the glass, the aromas were quite different. A few people were brave enough to taste this un-aged spirit and commented upon how different they taste. Jim did a very good job of explaining the differences between the samples. Jim then poured us a taste the final products of Four Roses Single Barrel and Small Batch bourbons.

The final hour of the tour was a box lunch in the conference room followed by a tasting of some prohibition era bourbon produced under the “Antique” label. During prohibition, “Antique” brand bourbon was bottled by Frankfort Distillery, which also owned Four Roses during prohibition. The bourbon was bottled-in-bond and made spring 1914 and bottled spring 1925 – eleven years old in the barrel and another 84 years in the bottle. The whiskey had a rich caramel and chocolate nose but was a bit hot and smoky on the taste. The bottle was designed with a special charcoal filter, and it is possible that this charcoal was responsible for the off tastes in the bourbon. The one really nice feature of the bourbon was the long, minty finish. It was like having a spearmint lifesaver in your mouth.

The return trip to the Filson was uneventful. There were a few questions asked but for the most part people were content to simply relax and enjoy the countryside. The pulled into the Filson parking lot by 3:15 and everybody said their final farewells and returned home.

Mike Veach

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