There are some old and derogatory sayings about one being “too fond of the bottle” or “diving nose deep into the glass,” yet both describe the essential portion of Brent Elliott’s work at Four Roses Bourbon in Lawrenceburg, Ky. As the director of quality at the distillery, he sniffs, tastes and discards more whiskey than most of us could afford or, perhaps, even want. His razor-sharp palate is second to last in line when it comes to the final bourbon expressions bottled by the brand.
Well, until Sept. 2, anyway. That day he’ll become the final word on its bourbon when longtime master distiller Jim Rutledge steps down from that post after 29 years. Elliott admits to some nervous thoughts regarding the day he takes the standard so carefully resurrected and defined by Rutledge, a beloved and respected industry icon. But he says his excitement over the new challenge blinds him to any doubt he’s not fit for the master distiller’s job.
And how bad could it be? He is, after all, tasked with making some of the world’s best bourbon on a daily basis.
Insider Louisville visited him at Four Roses to discuss his new position.
Insider Louisville: What will it feel like to be master distiller the day you take the role?
Brent Elliott: (Following a long pause…) I’m not sure I know. Maybe about like a birthday or some other event you know is significant on some level, but you don’t really feel different when it happens. I’m sure I will feel different that day, but I guess I’ll have to go through it first.
IL: Dream job for you?
BE: Oh, yeah, it was a dream when I started here (as assistant manager of quality control) 10 years ago. To be from (Owensboro) Kentucky and understand how significant the culture of bourbon is here — and then to work here was a dream in itself.
But I have to admit that when I applied to work here, I didn’t even know the brand. I bought a bottle of it on the way up from Nashville, where we lived at the time. I was quickly convinced it was good bourbon.
IL: So how did your superiors approach you about the job? Did they soft shoe it and take you to dinner, or kind of head-fake and say, “We’ve got something serious to speak with you about”?
BE: Neither. I was just called into a meeting, and the CEO (Satoko Yoshida) was there … and they didn’t even ask me about it. They said it like it was a foregone conclusion, that Jim’s retiring and that “you will be the master distiller.” I was sort of shocked, but of course I was excited.
IL: How’s the news been received in the industry?
BE: Everyone both here and in public has been very supportive; they’re happy for me.
IL: No doomsayers claiming it’ll all fall apart once Jim leaves?
BE: I’ve seen a few (such) comments on websites from people who believe the master distiller does everything … people saying, “When (Rutledge) leaves, it’ll all fall apart.” I mean, what can you do? Everything Jim knew and worked for to help Four Roses came from his passion for quality and integrity. And these are things he spread to the whole group. We’ll just continue to build on that.
IL: Do people put too much emphasis on the master distiller’s role over a brand? On one hand, some believe they’re only brand faces, while others believe they’re in front of the stills turning the knobs every day.
BE: What a master distiller does and how deeply involved they are in the process is different across the board. Every master distiller’s job has its own unique requirements, especially at larger companies. What some people don’t understand is that it’s impossible for one person to be involved at every level of every operation. One person cannot maintain every aspect of the process. To do that, you’d almost have to be making it in your garage.
But maybe I shouldn’t say, because I don’t want to destroy the distiller mystique either!
The master distiller’s job here is to be involved in the oversight of every aspect of production, but to be focused mostly on making quality liquid.
IL: Who will take over your role once you step up to the master distiller’s post?
BE: For now, I’ll do both, and that’s fine with me. I wouldn’t want to relinquish what I do on a day-to-day basis and risk quality. Down the road, I wouldn’t mind shedding some of the procedural stuff, but right now I can’t give up the blending aspect of the actual liquid.
IL: Sounds like a significant workload. Is it not?
BE: Yes, it is, and it will be a difficult balance to manage my current obligations with my desire to get out and meet people and talk about Four Roses. Satisfying the all the duties of the master distiller will be a sharp learning curve.
IL: What’ll it be like to follow Jim Rutledge into that role?
BE: (He sighs and pauses.) 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.
IL: How long before customers will get to taste Four Roses bourbon that was made by you as master distiller?
BE: That’ll probably be a small batch or single barrel seven or eight years from now. But (me being the master distiller) is not going to make a difference in the bourbon. Everybody here knows their job and they’re all in tune to the quality of what goes in that bottle.
IL: You said Jim Rutledge has taught you a lot, but surely you’ve got more to learn. Name one of those priorities.
BE: I don’t mind meeting people at all; I like intimate groups of 25 to 30 people. But speaking to large crowds will be a first for me. When you see Jim in front of 300 people, he makes it look easy. But something tells me it’s not.
What’s good is I know the material, and I get so excited about it that I kind of forget my aversion to public speaking. I kind of get lost in it, because I enjoy bourbon so much.