By James Natsis
“It’s a nice day to visit … well, actually any day is a nice day to visit a distillery.” These words of wisdom were bestowed on me at a Valero gas station just outside Lawrenceburg, Ky., where I made a pit stop for gas and directions on my way to the Four Roses distillery about 10 minutes farther down the road. The proud local resident shared an anecdote about the autographed bottle of Four Roses she received from Master Distiller Jim Rutledge a few years back while she was working in a local restaurant. “I was serving him for years and never knew who he was,” she informed me. “He said the bottle was a token of his appreciation.”
Four Roses was first established in 1884 in downtown Louisville’s Whiskey Row along Main Street. The name “Four Roses” was branded in 1888 by founder Paul Jones Jr. as a memorial to the proposal he sent to the woman he relentlessly pursued in marriage. She replied that if she agreed, she would wear a corsage of roses on her gown to the upcoming grand ball. She wore a corsage of four roses that evening.
The distilling operation was relocated in 1910 to its current address just outside of Lawrenceburg. In 1943, Seagram acquired Four Roses as part of a larger purchase of the Frankfort Distilling Co. In 1958, the company decided to limit the popular brand to the Asian and European markets. This continued until 2002, when the Kirin Brewing Company, Ltd. purchased the Four Roses brand trademark, and named the new acquisition Four Roses Distillery LLC.
The grounds are beautiful during the summer months and, as one might suspect, gorgeous red roses are bountiful. The Salt River runs nearby furnishing the distillery with an abundance of limestone-rich water used for its bourbon products, as well as for cooling machinery, cleaning, and any other purposes. The new Visitors Center was opened in September 2012 to meet the needs of a growing tourist population.
There are several unique characteristics to Four Roses, starting with the Spanish mission-style architecture. The distillery is on the National Register of Historic Places and is certainly an uncommon sight in the state of Kentucky.
Four Roses is also the only distillery using single-story rack warehouses to minimize temperature variations. The single-story warehouses contain barrels staked up to a maximum six high, which only causes about a 6 degree temperature variance from the top to bottom rows. The warehouses and bottling operations are located in Cox’s Creek, Ky., about 20 miles south of Louisville. That site is open to tourists, as well.
Four Roses produces five bourbons, two of which are only distributed in Japan—Four Roses Fine Old, and Super Premium. The other three bourbons—Four Roses Yellow Label, Small Batch, and Single Barrel are available in the United States and elsewhere in the world. Although the selection is limited, Four Roses is the only distillery that combines five proprietary yeast strains with two separate mashbills to produce 10 distinct and handcrafted bourbon recipes.
One other small detail I found interesting is the posting of multilingual signage in English, Spanish, French, and Japanese that offers brief explanations of the various stages of production. Our tour guide, Donna, explained that these are the largest language groups among their visitors.
The tasting room tends to be a nice environment for conversation on any distillery tour. At Four Roses, our small group tried the Small Batch (90 proof and aged at 7-7½ years) and the Single Barrel (100 proof and aged at 9-9½ years). The Yellow Label is 80 proof and is aged at 6-6½ years. While sipping I spoke with a couple visiting from St. Louis on their way to several other distilleries that morning. “I’m here to buy bourbon,” the young man said as his wife nodded in approval. They stopped in Kentucky on their way to a wedding in Cincinnati. Another couple from Chicago was attending a wedding in Louisville and decided to leave early to visit a number of distilleries. “We stayed in a bed and breakfast last night in Lawrenceburg and will move on to 21C in Louisville tomorrow,” they told me. “I can’t wait to see the penguins,” the wife chuckled.
Four Roses just began charging $5 for the tour as of the first week of June—a bargain by any means of measure. In any case, an informative tour of the facilities, the tasting of several fine bourbons, good Southern hospitality, and the complimentary glass bearing the Four Roses name is worth much more than the price of a movie ticket. And the memories will last longer, as well.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail and the Bourbon Craft Tour are attracting a new breed of tourist to the Kentucky hinterland. The recent announcement of the world’s largest premium drinks producer, Diageo, to acquire 300 acres in Shelby County for the establishment of a $115 million distillery operation is a strong testament to the bright future of bourbon within the Louisville-Lexington corridor. The summer months are particularly well suited to explore bourbon country. But, then again, as the lady at the gas station stated, “any day is a nice day to visit a distillery!”