Picking Out My Very Own Barrel with Jim Rutledge at Four Roses
Bourbon has never been more popular than it is right now. In fact, it’s becoming difficult to even find quality bourbon outside of Kentucky these days. What’s more impressive, though, is people travel from all fifty states to do private barrel selections at Four Roses in Cox’s Creek, Kentucky. Private barrel selections allow individuals – often representing stores, bars and barrel clubs – to select a their favorite barrel(s) from the distillery for their own private bottling that will bear their own name alongside that of the producing distillery.
Four Roses is a unique Kentucky bourbon distillery for a number of reasons, the biggest of which is that they have ten different recipes made by combining five yeast strains with two mash bills. While the use of multiple mash bills is rare in itself, it’s unheard of for a bourbon distillery to use more than 1 or 2 yeast strains. The reason Four Roses has so many yeast strains is it was part of a larger company called Seagram’s until 2001. There were distilleries all over the U.S. and Canada that owned and used hundreds of yeast strains over the years. As some of the distilleries closed down, their yeast strains were sent to the other distilleries. During this consolidation period, Four Roses stepped in and saved the best of these yeast strains, each of which produces an integral part of the Four Roses flavor profile today. Sure, an unconventional decision, but one that has fared quite well for Four Roses over the years.
Four Roses is a unique Kentucky bourbon distillery for a number of reasons, the biggest of which is that they have ten different recipes made by combining five yeast strains with two mash bills.
For decades, Four Roses was also the only bourbon brand made in Kentucky that you couldn’t purchase anywhere in the United States. It was an export-only brand that became popular in Europe and Japan. The Four Roses that many of us knew in the U.S. was made at a different distillery altogether; it was a class 2 blended whiskey made in Indiana and Maryland that was largely made up of neutral grain spirits. Because of this, Four Roses developed a bad reputation in the United States until 1995, when Master Distiller Jim Rutledge took over the distillery. In the early 2000’s Four Roses introduced their first small batch release to the US Market since the 50’s. Much of Rutledge’s work around this time was to get fans to try the new offerings and to change the perception that Four Roses was a second-rate bourbon. Rutledge is largely credited with turning the perception of Four Roses around in the US and has garnered multiple awards for his work with the brand.
When you contact Four Roses for a barrel selection, you are given an appointment at their facility in Cox’s Creek, Kentucky, which is the where warehousing and bottling takes place. You can typically get in within 2 weeks, though with the recent announcement of Rutledge’s retirement in September, getting into this place is nearly impossible.
When I arrived, we had 9 barrels to choose from, each between 6-9 years old and offering its own unique character and flavor profile. Bungs are removed from each barrel and the whiskey inside is removed with a whiskey thief and poured straight into your glass. You spend the next hour or two nosing and tasting, taking notes along the way. It’s important to take the tiniest of sips as you taste because, remember, you’re tasting 9 different recipes of barrel-proof bourbon!
After everyone in the group comes to an agreement, the process almost turns into a ceremony. Someone hammers the bung back into the barrel. It’s rolled over to the door of the bottling facility where the purchasing information is written on the barrel head. Everyone involved signs the barrel head and then poses for pictures with their selection.
Because of the popularity of the barrel buying program, there’s about a six month wait to take delivery of your bottles. When you do finally receive the product, rest assured that inside each bottle you have a unique moment of Four Roses history that will never be repeated. A delicious piece of American Bourbon history, chosen by yourself. Yes, doing a private barrel at Four Roses, or any other distillery for that matter, can be expensive (each barrel can yield up to 200 bottles!), but I’ve never heard of anyone complaining they had too much Four Roses on the shelf.
For more information or to set up your own private barrel selection at Four Roses, contact Mandy Vance.
Thank you to the folks at Dean’s Liquor in Collinsville, IL for allowing us to tag along during their barrel selection!