Jim Rutledge | Courtesy of Four Roses Bourbon
Jim Rutledge | Courtesy of Four Roses Bourbon

When Four Roses master distiller Jim Rutledge retires on Sept. 1, don’t expect much to change. It’s safe to say Rutledge, 71, has distilling in his blood, and it’s something he won’t be quitting cold turkey.

Rutledge has witnessed the ebb and flow of the bourbon industry throughout nearly five decades in the business, and he has worn the hat of just about every position there is — from chemist to ambassador. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was returning Four Roses Bourbon to Kentucky in 2002 and reviving its tarnished image from years as a substandard blended whiskey.

Nowadays, the Four Roses Single Barrel and Small Batch lines have won numerous awards from magazines and competitions across the world, and earlier this year, Four Roses was named “Whisky Distiller of the Year — America” for the fourth time in five years by Whisky Magazine.

Insider caught up with Rutledge a few weeks back as he was finishing up a private barrel selection at Four Roses’ Cox’s Creek campus, which features a handful of rick houses, a bottling operation, gift shop and tasting room. He was gracious and never at a loss for words. He spoke matter-of-factly about his past, present and future with bourbon, and shared his thoughts on the industry’s recent boom.

* * *

During our recent visit, Rutledge recommended we hop back on Clermont Road to Bardstown, Ky., for home-cooked Bosnian fare at Kreso’s Restaurant. It’s one of his favorite places to take small groups who come for a tour or barrel selection.

Four Roses Single Barrel debuted in 2004.
Four Roses Single Barrel debuted in 2004.

Once we settled in and his order for goulash was placed, the first topic, naturally, was his impending retirement that was announced in July. It’s something he began contemplating more than a year ago, and when he first brought it up to the executives of Four Roses’ parent company Kirin, based in Japan, they hoped he would stay on at least 10 more years.

Rutledge doesn’t plan on leaving the distilling business — or Four Roses — as he’ll still be the face of the bourbon at tastings and events like September’s Bourbon Festival in Bardstown. With at least a few dozen gigs already on his calendar after his Sept. 1 departure date, he says he doubts much will change — except now, he can pick and choose when he works.

“At my age, I can slow down and do it at my own pace,” he says. “I feel like I’ve always gone 100 miles an hour — I don’t know how much I will actually slow down.”

Rutledge says since announcing his retirement, he’s gotten several calls from small, out-of-state distilleries with offers of full-time work and part ownership. While he’s flattered, a 40- to 50-hour work week is not something he’s looking for, although he did say he would love to get back into the nitty gritty of the distillation process.

“That’s what I really, really love,” he admits. “I just gotta make sure I don’t end up busier than I have been. I haven’t taken a real vacation in six or seven years.”

The first project he plans on tackling is to secure a car, cell phone and computer — all of which were provided by Four Roses. He then wants to fix up his house in Lebanon, Ky., so he and his wife Beverly can put it on the market and move back to his hometown of Louisville.

His current home environment sounds somewhat torturous. Rutledge was once an avid golfer, and his home near a golf course was supposed to be paradise — until a lower back problem caused him to hang up his clubs.

“All I do on the weekends is listen to golf balls hit the house,” he says.

* * *

Rutledge is a man who never cuts corners — he believes quality and consistency make a top-notch bourbon, and he’s not afraid to stand up to anyone who believes otherwise. He and his team worked hard to dust off and polish Four Roses and turn it into a top-shelf brand in the span of about six or seven years.

He’s a master distiller who’s not versed in corporate speak — he pretty much tells it like it is, whether the marketing department agrees or not. When he worked for Seagram’s in the mid ’90s and Four Roses was only sold oversees in Japan and Europe, he was relentless in asking the company to return it to the U.S. So relentless that his nickname became “Mr. Four Roses.”

Rutledge in the rick house | Photo by Sara Havens
Rutledge in the rick house | Photo by Sara Havens

When Kirin purchased the bourbon brand from Seagram’s in 2002, they asked Rutledge what it would take to make him stay. Without  a moment’s hesitation, he said, “Bring back Four Roses to Kentucky.” They honored his request.

And after Rutledge set up the distillery in Lawrenceburg and started producing quality straight bourbon in the mid 2000s, the executives at Kirin called him into a meeting to ask if he planned to retire soon, since the average retirement age in Japan is 60.

As he sat there getting hot under his collar — having just spent many stressful, sleepless months building a distillery from scratch — he remembers telling them, after they finished their spiel, “I have two things to say: You’re sitting in Kentucky, not in Tokyo, and that’s not the retirement age in the United States. And the second thing is, the only thing 60 means to me is that it takes at least two 30-year-olds to keep up with me.”

Rutledge says they got up and left the room — and never mentioned it again.

Executives have approached him several times over the years to get him to sign a non-compete agreement, but that’s not something he’ll bend on. For now, he’ll continue working part time for Four Roses, but if an opportunity comes up to mentor or assist another distiller, he wants to be able to choose that path for himself.

And if you need another example of his convictions when it comes to making quality bourbon, ask him if Four Roses would ever jump on a trend, like creating flavored whiskey. He’ll likely make you leave the room, preferably the state.

* * *

The recent surge in bourbon’s popularity around the world stems from four simple things, according to Rutledge: technology, premium brands, education and social media.

“Through technology, our processes have gotten better and better. Things are more consistent, computerized, so we’re better in that respect,” he explains. “But what really started to turn things around was Blanton’s introduction of the single barrel (in 1984). It was such a small brand that all they needed to do at the time was one barrel. But that introduction of premium brands — single barrel and small batch — changed the image.”

One of Rutledge's favorite memories was when football veteran Terry Bradshaw stopped in for a private barrel selection in June. | Courtesy of Four Roses
One of Rutledge’s favorite memories was when football veteran Terry Bradshaw stopped in for a private barrel selection in June. | Courtesy of Four Roses

Bourbon sales declined from the late ’60s to mid ’80s, but as brands began to experiment with premium releases, collectors and enthusiasts who often set the trend began to take notice. Also, in the ’90s and early 2000s, cocktail bars started popping up in larger cities with a focus on pre-Prohibition spirits like bourbon.

“Knowledge is power,” says Rutledge. “Through education and a focus on bourbons around the world, people have begun to realize that, hey, there’s another whiskey in this world besides Scotch, and it’s Kentucky bourbon.”

He believes sites like Facebook and Twitter have helped bourbon grow as well. Liquor brands used to only advertise with billboards and in magazines.

“Now, with social media, if we would go out tonight and try a bourbon none of us had ever heard of and we really liked it, we’d get on our computers and say it — and it would be around the world the next day,” he says. “That has to be a good impact.”

* * *

I had to ask the question every master distiller despises: If you were on a desert island and drank all the Four Roses available, what would you drink next?

Rutledge in 1994 | Courtesy of Four Roses
Rutledge in 1994 | Courtesy of Four Roses

Rutledge, who respects his fellow bourbon distillers and avoids playing favorites, politely dodged the question, as expected.

“Diet Coke,” he says with a chuckle. “But you put it better than most people! Most people ask, ‘When you’re in a bar and they don’t have Four Roses, what do you order?’ And I always say Diet Coke.”

But he’d like to explain.

“The reason is, I have never, in all my years, said a negative word about anybody anyway. I speak positively about our industry and everybody in it. If I responded with a Woodford, or Maker’s, or Jim Beam Black, or Knob Creek — any of the others — then that would be second and everybody else would be below that. So that’s why I never respond to that — especially to people like you who write about it.”

Fair enough.

* * *

As our lunch conversation came to an end, I asked him one last question — what has been his favorite Four Roses release?

He says it’s a toss up between the 2010 and 2013 Limited Edition Small Batch, the latter of which was named both American Whisky of the Year and Global Whisky of the Year by Whisky Advocate.

Rutledge adds that while he was disappointed with last year’s Limited Edition Small Batch release, this year’s — which hits store shelves in September — is promising.

“This year, I approved one the first day (of tasting),” he says. “Last year, we rejected 70-75 candidates before we found one we approved. But this year’s will compete against the 2013 batch.”

He also recalls the best bourbon he ever tasted, which was a 17-year-old single barrel he was sampling from the Four Roses rick houses. It was so good, that part of it went into the 2012 and 2013 Small Batches that won the awards.

“Everything it touched turned to gold,” he boasts.

I believe the same can be said for Jim Rutledge.

* * *

Brent Elliott will be Four Roses' master distiller in September. | Courtesy of Four Roses
Brent Elliott | Courtesy of Four Roses

Along with the press release announcing Rutledge’s retirement came the news that Four Roses’ operations director Brent Elliott will become the next master distiller. Elliott has worked with Four Roses for 10 years and is committed to building on Rutledge’s passion for quality and integrity.

Earlier this month, Insider profiled Elliott, who had this to say about stepping into Rutledge’s role:

“It’s certainly an honor that this company puts its confidence in me to fill the shoes that he’s worn so well for the last 29 years. … Sure it’s intimidating some, but I’ve gotten to learn so much from him about what that job entails. He’s taught me that you must listen to the customer and build relationships with them — with everybody. He’s so good at that.

And you hear this from others in the industry: The old guard distillers have really mentored others well. That’s true.”

* * *

On Saturday, Aug. 29, Bourbons Bistro is hosting a retirement party for Jim Rutledge to give the community a chance to honor his legacy. The restaurant’s owners, John Morrison and Jason Brauner, say they’ve forged an important relationship with the master distiller since opening in 2005 and have watched Rutledge and his crew perfect the brand every year.

“There are a few living legends in the bourbon industry, and Jim is one of them,” Morrison tells Insider. “Any and all recognition Jim receives for his amazing career at Four Roses is well deserved. He has overseen the resurrection of a brand with an amazing and strange history. This has been accomplished while maintaining the highest level of quality and integrity to the brand. The challenge for Four Roses will be to maintain the standards Jim has set.”

Brauner says he’s enjoyed cultivating a friendship with Rutledge and thinks he’ll truly be missed.

“The industry should be sad to see him go,” he says. “He has an unbelievable talent. Where Four Roses was, say, in 2005 when we opened the restaurant, to where it is now speaks volumes about his technique.”

The retirement celebration begins at 6 p.m. and features complimentary appetizers. To RSVP, call 894-8838.

* * *

We thought we would reach out to a handful of bourbon folks to hear how Rutledge has impacted the industry. Here’s what they had to say:

• “Jim captured whiskey geeks’ hearts because his standard for quality is so high. He resurrected a brand that had been left for dead, and he’s one of the reasons the bourbon industry is booming. Jim Rutledge is a large piece in the larger pie of bourbon.” —Fred Minnick, author of “Bourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker,” and bourbon authority for the Kentucky Derby Museum

• “I would say Jim Rutledge is one of the most knowledgable people in the bourbon industry. He played the lead role in getting Four Roses Bourbon back in the United States, and they owe him a great debt of gratitude for doing so.” —Michael Veach, bourbon historian for the Filson Historical Society

Jim Rutledge at a Whisky Chicks event in June | Courtesy of Whisky Chicks
Jim Rutledge at a Whisky Chicks event in June | Courtesy of Whisky Chicks

• “Jim is incredibly passionate about the importance of the brand, and that quality and consistency is absolutely critical. Four Roses will not bottle bad bourbon. He will dispose of a bad barrel of bourbon regardless of the financial investment, because he knows compromising the brand is not worth it. He gets the importance of the customer and takes the time to make everyone feel special.

Jim Rutledge and Four Roses helped put Kentucky on the map, and his legacy will live on. I was sad to hear he would be retiring but was very honored to have been able to host him at one of our recent events. That evening will live on as one of my favorites since starting Whisky Chicks.” —Linda Ruffenach, businesswoman and founder of Whisky Chicks

And here’s a shoutout from one of Rutledge’s fraternity brothers at the University of Louisville, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell:

• “Jim will be missed as the face of Four Roses Bourbon, but I know the entire distilled spirits industry in Kentucky joins me in recognizing his lifetime of accomplishment and wishing him the best in retirement. I want to wish congratulations again to Jim Rutledge for his many successes in the world of bourbon.” —Sen. Mitch McConnell, in a speech on Aug. 5, 2015

Sara Havens
Sara Havens is the Culture Editor at Insider Louisville, known around town as the Bar Belle (barbelleblog.com). She's a former editor of LEO Weekly and has written for Playboy and The Alcohol Professor. Havens is the author of two books: "The Bar Belle" and "The Bar Belle Vol. 2."