A legend returns. After nearly a half-century’s absence, Four Roses Bourbon has been reintroduced in the U.S. marketplace. Produced in Lawrenceburg, Ky., at the famous Four Roses distillery, the brand had been the top-selling bourbon in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s but vanished in the ‘60s. Dan Harvey reviews its past, the associated folklore and the mystique.
Like a spirit arising from the ante-bellum landscape, a distinctly domestic libation is once again available in the United States after an absence of more than 40 years. The heady whiff emanating from a bottle of Four Roses Bourbon is an intoxicating aroma of Americana, as evocative as a Stephen Foster melody – “My Old Kentucky Home,” perhaps.
The potation speaks of legend and product mystique, and the best way to appreciate its story is in chronological fashion – like a tale told at the end of Derby day, beneath a blue Kentucky moon, shared among Southern gentlemen who’ve retired to the porch for cigars and drinks, savoring the placid atmosphere while sipping on a bourbon-on-the-rocks cocktail.
History has it that Four Roses was established by Paul Jones Jr. in the late 1800s, and legend indicates that the company name derived from his romantic love for a Southern Belle. Through the years, separating fact from fiction has become increasingly complex. “There’s been a lot of debate about the company founding and how it got its name, but we’ve been able to ascertain some essential facts by examining historical documentation,” says Jim Rutledge, Four Roses’ Master Distiller and a member of the Bourbon Hall of Fame.
“We do know that Paul Jones Jr. purchased a distillery near Atlanta in the mid-1860s and started making bourbon,” he continues. “He moved the company to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1884. That much has been documented.”
That takes care of the founding; however, the origin of the company name veers in the direction of folklore. Rutledge subscribes to one version, and he relates the details in cadences that recall William Faulkner’s southern-flavored and extended sentence structures: “Our understanding, based upon surviving historical records and interviews with members of the Jones family, is that Jones, shortly after purchasing the distillery, courted a young lady and eventually asked her for her hand in marriage; and, during a social event – a grand ball, that is – this young lady provided her answer by wearing a corsage comprised of four red roses, symbols of her acceptance. To honor his love and her acceptance, Jones named his bourbon ‘Four Roses.’”
Certainly, several other versions exist. One of the more mundane involves the Rose family name: There is a possibility that Rufus M. Rose owned the distillery that Jones purchased, and other Rose family members were involved in the business. While that story’s very prosaicness suggests authenticity, it’s still more fun to embrace the flower legend. Even more, Rutledge brings up an interesting point that lends credence to the tale of the corsage, and it’s related to the Victorian language of flowers. “Today, young people communicate abbreviated messages through things such as text messaging. But, back in Jones’ day, they communicated through flower symbolism,” he informs. “Red, as in roses, indicated love and passion. Further, if a male sent four roses, it signified a marriage proposal. In turn, a lady might indicate her refusal by sending back three roses. But if she accepted, she wore the four roses. This was a language often used in the southern United States,” he explains.
Four Roses produces its bourbon within its historic distillery that was built in 1911 and features unique Spanish mission-style architecture. The facility is located in Lawrenceburg, positioned on the banks of the Salt River. “We sit on about 78 acres and we can produce about four million gallons a year,” informs Rutledge. “So, we’re a mid-sized distillery but we have decent capacity. Most distilleries are measured by how many bushels of grain they can mash, or cook, each day. Right now, we’re up to about 300 bushels a day. Of the eight bourbon distilleries in Kentucky, we’re about fourth in terms of capacity – about equal with Wild Turkey, but not nearly as big as Jim Beam.”
The Four Roses distillery, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, operates continuously except for the summer months (which typically includes July through mid-September). Further, Four Roses’ distinctive, mellow taste results from several significant production elements that include a unique limestone water source (from the spring-fed Salt River), high-quality grain sources (Four Roses will only purchase premium grains), five proprietary yeast strains (each producing different flavors), and its mash mills. “We use two mash bills, and we have five proprietary yeast strains and with that combination we distill 10 different bourbon recipes,” Rutledge points out.
In addition, Four Roses is the only distillery that uses single-story rack warehousing to minimize temperature variances, which provides an even maturation during the aging process. Also, with its single-barrel production process, the company can specially select barrels of one particular bourbon flavor, which are withdrawn at maturation peak.
The company’s current bourbon product line includes Four Roses Yellow Label (40% alcohol/volume), sold in the U.S., Europe and Japan; Four Roses Small Batch (45% alcohol/volume), sold in the U.S.; Four Roses Single Barrel (50% alcohol/volume), sold in the U.S. and Japan; Four Roses Super Premium (43% alcohol/volume), introduced in 1992 and sold only in Japan, and Four Roses Find Old Bourbon (40% alcohol/volume), also sold only in Japan.
In early 2008, to observe the 120th anniversary of the trademarking, Four Roses released a special, limited edition, single-barrel bourbon. It has been aged for 12 years and is uncut and nonchill filtered with proof range of 103 to 116. Only about 2,300 bottles are being produced. The anniversary bourbon possesses the kind of distinct taste that has made – and continues to make – the Four Roses name a favorite among bourbon connoisseurs: a mellowness combined with spiciness and hints of nutmeg, vanilla, toasted almonds, baked apples and pears in each sip.
The previous year, the company paid tribute to Rutledge’s 40-year career in the industry by releasing its first-ever limited edition bourbon. The 1,400 bottles sold out very quickly.
Despite his long service to his beloved industry, Rutledge’s enthusiasm hasn’t diminished a bit. Neither has his optimism for Four Roses. “This is the most exciting time in the company’s history,” he says. “Our goal is to once again become a nationally distributed brand as well as a household name for people who enjoy premium bourbon.”
Four Rose’s employees share Rutledge’s dedication. The legacy of Paul Jones, Jr. will long endure, as should the romance of the Roses.