It wasn’t technically Al Young’s decision to submit an application at the Louisville Seagram Distillery in 1967. It was his wife, Gretchen — at that time his fiancée — who urged her beau to get a more stable gig than what his master’s degree in theater offered.
If she was going to start a family with this goofy, hard-working man, he needed a more routine job that paid a better wage than his position in public relations for Actors Theatre of Louisville did.
Young catches on pretty quickly to the ways of the world, and he understood immediately the age-old mantra, “Happy wife, happy life,” so he submitted his application to Seagram and began his job at the distillery on Monday, June 5, 1967.
Two weeks later, he married Gretchen. And now, 50 years later, the couple is celebrating a milestone anniversary.
Young, 74, also has a second milestone achievement, one that will be toasted around the world, as Four Roses Bourbon, a product of the old Seagram Distillery, honors Young with the 2017 Limited Edition 50th Anniversary Small Batch Bourbon.
Young is the brand ambassador and resident historian of Four Roses, but prior to this, he worked just about every job a distillery offers, including the prestigious distillery manager position, throughout those five decades. And he has no plans of slowing down now — but more on that later.
Though the bourbon was officially just released on Monday, the buzz from bourbon bloggers, aficionados and media who have gotten to try a sample is bountiful.
A caramel-laden fruit bouquet, followed by unending vanilla, leather, tobacco, cotton candy, marshmallow, quince, cinnamon, hints of juniper, and wildflowers. Then, brown sugar butter and maple syrup over buttermilk pancakes, Cracker Jack, raw honey, bittersweet chocolate, and hints of pecan shell. Extremely long finish with a fried apple pie note. An incredibly complex and intense, must-have sipper. Perfection. —Fred Minnick
And “The Bourbon Babe” blogger Carla Carlton related the bourbon’s sweet notes to Young’s personality.
Just like Al Young himself, this Limited Edition Small Batch is a warm and welcoming ambassador for Four Roses. It’s full-bodied and complex, revealing new layers with every sip. —Carla Carlton
The day Insider caught up with Young, he had just read Minnick’s review of his bourbon, and a boastful smile appeared as he shared the news.
“Cracker Jack’s? That’s a new one, but I get it,” Young said. “Fred gets it. I wanted a Southern concept in expression, and he picked up on that.”
So what exactly does Southern mean when applied to bourbon? Young explained he was after some sweet notes — pecans, magnolia blossoms, honey, roses … you get the idea. And as we sipped the bourbon and reminisced about his last 50 years, flavors of those Southern winds sauntered across our tongues.
Young said he never expected to get a bourbon named in his honor. In fact, when he was called into master distiller Brent Elliott’s office a few years back, he was expecting maybe he’d get a pat on the back, or a commemorative watch.
“Brent said, ‘We’re coming out with a limited-edition release for your anniversary, and I need to know what you want it to be,’ ” recalled Young. “I was honored they even decided to do it. So I thought for a while, and then I set the perimeters of what I was looking for.”
Young wanted some of the bourbon that went into the small batch to be from when he was in charge of the distillery — from 1990-2007. And he wanted those previously mentioned Southern flavors to be in abundance.
Because Four Roses uses somewhat of a high-rye mash bill and its bourbon is known for its distinct spiciness, this was going to be quite a task for Elliott. But every rick house has its honey barrels, and the master distiller went to work creating a concoction Young had dreamt up.
“After he’s spent half a century handcrafting our product and guiding the Four Roses brand, Al’s 50th Anniversary Bourbon had to be as memorable as the man himself,” Elliott said in the product’s press release.
Elliott knew Young wanted older bourbon in his bottle, so he pulled together several ages of barrels — from 23 to 12 years old — and began mixing and mingling, adding and subtracting. He then called in Young, who blind tested a few samples and immediately honed in on one in particular.
“I picked one I really liked, and it ended up being the same one he liked,” said Young. “If you know anything about Brent, he doesn’t tell you he likes something just to agree with you.”
Elliott then disappeared back into his mad-scientist lab and tweaked the recipe ever so slightly. A few weeks later, he emerged with yet another set of samples for Young.
“I went directly to the one I liked before. And then I reached down a couple more and picked up the one we chose,” Young recalled. “It sparkled. I guess that’s a bad word to use, but it’s true. It just sparkled. It hit all the flavor profiles I was looking for.”
“The uniqueness of the final product is the direct result of Al’s insistence on what he wanted to see in the bourbon,” Elliott told Insider. “Because this was Al’s release, we would not have released any blend he was not happy with.”
Four Roses is the only bourbon distillery that combines two mash bills with five separate yeast strains, creating 10 distinct bourbon recipes that are always noted on the bottles. Fans of the bourbon brand can name off the four-letter recipes faster than they can swallow a two-finger pour, and they know the nuances of each.
So we’re about to get technical.
The final 50th Anniversary Bourbon includes 5 percent of a 23-year-old OBSV recipe (showing off a delicate fruitiness, with hints of spice and creamy vanilla and caramel); 25 percent of a 15-year-old OBSK (full-bodied, light spice, caramel); 50 percent of a 13-year-old OESV (light, creamy, fruity); and 20 percent of a 12-year-old OBSF (herbal, full-bodied).
Elliott said it was a bit of a challenge getting the 23-year-old bourbon to mingle well with the others, because a bourbon that old likes to dominate.
“We used 5 percent of the 23-year-old — just enough to give a nice undercurrent of elegant aged oak without being overly woody or flat,” he explained. “The variety of flavors — a lot of unique fruit — from each batch mingles together to build a remarkably complex palate. The finish is even complex and unravels into new flavors as it stretches out.”
And in another nod to Young’s legacy, Four Roses decided to bottle the bourbon in a retro glass similar to what the product looked like in the late ’60s, when he first started at the company.
“It’s such a unique piece. It’ll look nice on your bar, but what’s inside the bottle is really good, too,” Young joked.
The First 50
When Al Young began his entry-level job at Seagram in 1967, he figured he’d work there a couple of years to beef up his résumé and then move on.
He had no idea he was about to fall in love with distilling, or that his job would take him to other cities, or that he’d be sitting here now, touting a product named in his honor, 50 years later.
But everything is cyclical, he said, addressing the current bourbon boom. It’s also a sentiment that can apply to his own life trajectory.
Young has an amicable personalty, and he’s always had a knack for history and storytelling. It’s what led him to pursue a bachelor’s degree from Western Kentucky, followed by a master’s degree in theater from Southern Illinois University.
Those skills landed him the PR gig at Actors Theatre, and they are ultimately what helped him climb the ranks in the distillery — that, and lots of hard work, skill and dedication, of course.
When Young looks back on what college had prepared him for, what he did for 40 years, and now what he’s doing as an ambassador, it’s all come full circle.
“I made a dramatic shift from what I was trained to do to a distillery worker, and now I’m bringing those elements back,” he said. “I have an uncanny ability to listen and look and see things and remember — so far. I don’t know how long that’ll last.”
As an ambassador, Young travels the country, hosting tastings and events for consumers, promoting the brand and leading private barrel selections at the Four Roses Cox’s Creek Warehouse and Bottling Facility.
In 2010, he published “Four Roses: The Return of a Whiskey Legend,” a coffee-table book all about the birth and resurrection of the brand.
Young is indeed invaluable to Four Roses, as well as the bourbon industry in general. In fact, Young recalled a recent conversation with Kirin — the Japanese-based company that now owns Four Roses — president Satoko Yoshida.
She told Young, “You’ve got things in your head I can’t get anywhere else.”
“If that’s what’s keeping me here,” said Young, “then I’m OK with that.”
Young started in the distillery’s quality lab and worked alongside (former Four Roses master distiller) Jim Rutledge, who actually gave Young his very first tour and started working for Seagram one year before Young.
“Jim says he gave me my first tour, but I was so overwhelmed that first day, I don’t even recall it,” Young said.
Rutledge remembers an eager newbie ready and willing to learn everything there was to learn about distilling.
“Al was always very punctual, generally arriving early on his job, and paid attention to details and followed instructions and guidelines as provided by the distiller,” Rutledge told Insider.
Back then, Four Roses was only being sold overseas as a blended whiskey. Rutledge was a champion for the brand, and he insisted throughout the years it be brought back to the U.S. market and return to its roots as a premium straight Kentucky bourbon.
But it wouldn’t be until 1994 when Seagram finally let Rutledge have his way.
Up until then, Young worked his way through the Louisville distillery, and when it closed in 1983, he relocated his family — Gretchen and the three children — to Cincinnati to continue working at Seagram’s Lawrenceburg, Ind., distillery.
In 1990, Young was transferred back to Kentucky to work as the distillery manager at the Lawrenceburg, Ky., distillery, which is where Four Roses’ home base resides today. He moved his family to Lexington, where he and Gretchen currently live.
Around this same time, Rutledge returned to Kentucky as well from a stint at a Seagram’s distillery in New York, and in 1994, he became master distiller just as the brand was being returned to its original glory.
“Jim had run his heart out to make the thing work (bringing back the brand),” said Young. “He should get a lot of credit for putting the brand out there in front of the owners — and the retailers around the country.”
Young and Rutledge worked well together, mostly because they shared the same work ethic and passion for the bourbon.
“He set the tone for what he wanted, and you abided by that,” Young said.
In 2002, Seagram was purchased by Vivendi, which sold off most of its spirits to Diageo and others. It was then that Four Roses was purchased by Kirin. For the most part, the company utilizes a hands-off approach and lets Four Roses do what it does well — make quality bourbon.
The Ambassador Al
In 2007, Young was thinking it was time to retire from the high-stress position of distillery manager, and he went into a meeting with Kirin management with this in mind. That’s when they offered him the brand ambassador role, which still requires 40 or more hours a week, but allows him to interact with consumers, share stories and promote the brand.
Young fancies himself a conversational historian and has taken on the ambassador role as if it was made for him.
“I’m just holding on and enjoying every minute of it,” he said. “It’s time-consuming, but so far I haven’t felt the pressure of any of it.”
Young can be somewhat modest when it comes to touting his accomplishments, so we consulted others to weigh in.
Bourbon historian Michael Veach tells Insider he is not surprised a bit that Four Roses is honoring Young’s legacy.
“He was as talented as the master distillers at the plant,” Veach said. “I think his legacy will be as the historian who brought Four Roses’ heritage to light and as a brand ambassador of the finest quality.”
Rutledge, who retired in 2015, believes Young is just hitting his stride.
“Al has always been very dedicated to the industry, but really found his home and passion when he was transferred from distillery operations to a marketing function as brand ambassador,” he says. “Al is a student of the bourbon industry and its long and storied history, and he has become an excellent promoter of Four Roses Bourbon and the entire bourbon industry.”
Current master distiller Elliott says if you ever get a chance to sit down and talk to Al, you should not pass it up.
“His contribution as brand ambassador and historian cannot be understated,” added Elliott. “He travels, he hosts, he entertains. He is such a part of Four Roses in so many ways, his contributions can be seen and felt in all aspects. He is a huge part of Four Roses as we all know it, and it is an honor for me to know Al.”
Al Young was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2011.
Approximately 10,000 bottles of the 2017 Limited Edition 50th Anniversary Small Batch Bourbon will be distributed through the U.S. The proof of the bourbon is 107, and the suggested retail price is $150.