The One That Almost Wasn’t

“You have seven months”.  That’s what Jim Rutledge was told in 1994 when he took over as Master Distiller for Four Roses. If the quality of the bourbon produced at Four Roses wasn’t significantly improved in seven months then the distillery would be shut down and the brand would continue using only sourced whiskey.  Fortunately for all of us, Jim and his team was up to the task.  They took a brand infamous for low-quality product to a brand famous for its high quality bourbon.

Four Roses Night

The Bourbon Fellowship enjoyed the accomplishments of Jim and Brent Elliott, current Master Distiller, during our recent Four Roses Night.  This gathering was extra special because it was the first time all eleven “core” members of The Bourbon Fellowship were actually together.  We also had a couple of guests with us making this the highest attended Fellowship in our short time as a group.

All ten of the Four Roses recipes were represented (several of them by more than one bottle).  We also had traditional small batch, yellow label (momma called it “yellow label”, I’m gonna call it “yellow label”), the 2017 limited edition, the 130th anniversary, and the Japanese-only release Super Premium.  With timing being everything we were also able to include the new Four Roses Small Batch Select which was released just a week before our Four Roses Night (review coming soon).  We appreciate Brent being considerate of our schedule when making that release.

Fortunately, nobody tried to be a hero that night and sample all ten recipes.  We did set up several blind tastings for the guys both to see what they really liked and test their skills at identifying the recipes they were drinking.  The OBSK recipe was most frequently selected as a favorite.  Nobody was really great at naming the recipes blind.  Everybody got to share some laughs while enjoying some of the best Bourbon on the planet.

The ABCs of Four Roses

When we talk Four Roses it can sound much more complicated than it really is.  People start spouting off letters like they are trying to win the world’s worst spelling bee. 

OESF.
Word origin, please.
Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.
Can you use it in a sentence?
Pass me that bottle of Four Roses OESF.
O-E-S-F.
Correct!

The four letter combinations associated with Four Roses are the codes that tell us the recipe of the Bourbon. The first letter is easy.  It represents the production facility.  The production facility is always Four Roses and the letter is always O.

The second letter is the mash bill.  Four Roses uses two mash bills.    One is at 35% rye and the other at 20% rye.  The first uses 60% corn and 5% barley.  The second uses 75% corn and 5% barley. The higher rye mash bill is code letter B.  The lower rye mash bill is code letter E.  To remember this, I always think: “B is bold.  More rye is bolder”. 

The third letter is for the whiskey distillation.  This one is also easy.  It is always S for “straight”. As in “go straight to the liquor store and buy another bottle of Four Roses”. Or maybe it’s for straight whiskey. It’s tough to say with certainty.

The fourth and final letter is for the yeast strain.  Four Roses uses five proprietary yeast strains: delicate fruit (V), rich fruit (O), herbal (F), spice (K), and floral (Q).  What’s the key to remembering which code matches which yeast strain?  Practice.


I created this Four Roses Cheat Sheet for our Bourbon Fellowship Four Roses Night.  There are even spots arranged to set up your tastings. If you’d like a copy, shoot me a DM or leave an e-mail address in the comments section.

Bourbon and Relationships

We started The Bourbon Fellowship to focus on the friendship side of Bourbon.  The Bourbon was the really great excuse to bring friends together.  I’ve had the opportunity to ask Jim Rutledge (now with his own J.W. Rutledge Distillery) and Brent Elliott their thoughts on the connection between Bourbon and friendships.  I hope you enjoy their responses.

Jim Rutledge’s answer was forged from his experience of taking over Four Roses.  The relationship side of Bourbon was with the people working at the distillery.  He knew everyone’s job was on the line, but they didn’t.  He was passionate not so much about the bourbon, but about the people.  Digging out of that hole and making the huge improvements that they did in such a short amount of time created a great bond among the team.

I sent Brent Elliott an invitation to our Four Roses Night.  What else could he possibly have to do the week before the Kentucky Derby and a week after his distillery released its first new brand in twelve years? Brent was very gracious in sending his very polite regrets, but he also included his thoughts on the Bourbon – friendship connection:  “I get asked all the time what I feel is responsible for the rise in Bourbon’s popularity in recent years. I believe there are many contributing reasons, but I feel there are two that stand out – One, It tastes great and new consumers are learning this. Two, Bourbon is more about the bonds and friendships that form around it. No one I meet talks about Bourbon in a “vacuum”. It’s always about sharing Bourbon and moments with friends or family. And, as you probably have noticed, people in the Bourbon community are universally great people who enjoy sharing and the company of others.”

I ran into Brent at a bottle signing last week. He remembered who I was and actually apologized that he couldn’t attend our Four Roses Night. He asked about our group and how the Four Roses Night went. We talked for a while about the many things going on at Four Roses. He could not have been nicer.

I appreciate the personal responses from both of these Bourbon legends.   I know I’ve toasted many friendships with several Bourbon expressions distilled and bottled by Jim and Brent.  Thanks to Jim for saving Four Roses. Without him, our Four Roses Night would not have been possible (the one that almost wasn’t).  Thanks to Brent for continuing and expanding on the traditions of quality and excellence that are now synonymous with Four Roses.

I had been collecting Four Roses single barrel recipes for a few years. There was one that I was missing and I needed to find it before The Bourbon Fellowship could have the Four Roses Night. Three of the guys in the group got together and found that elusive OBSK and gave it to me for my birthday.
Thanks Drew, Mark & Jared for the bottle and all the stupid bourbon things. Further evidence that it is more about the people than it is about the bourbon.

Kevin Rose

One thought on “The One That Almost Wasn’t

  1. I was recently at the distillery and decided to participate in the tasting. The guide said that the “O” stood for onsite. I politely waited until everyone was gone and asked her if she knew the O actually stood for “Old Joe” back in the Seagram’s days. She was shocked! I suggested that if she didn’t believe me to go ask Al Young. All she said was “well, that’s what they told me” :/

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