Four Roses

The story of how Four Roses went from the bottom to the top shelf is one of the great turnarounds in American business.

Four Roses ranks among the country’s best-regarded distilleries – but there was a time, not long ago, when the mere mention of its name elicited sneers.. After my first trip to the distillery, in 2006, I told my grandfather where I had been. “Why did you waste your time there?” he asked. “That stuff is rotgut.”

Obscure Origins

In the early part of the 20th century, Four Roses was a reputable, middle-of-the-road brand, based out of the Old Prentice Distillery near Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. For reasons that have been obscured by time, the distillery was designed in a Spanish mission style – some say it was meant to evoke a California winery, at a time when the American wine industry was beginning to build prestige.

The origin of the name is just as obscure: It may come from the family name of an early owner, or it may refer to a romantic encounter in which another early owner asked a woman to marry him, and her response was to wear a corsage of four roses. At its height, the brand had a neon sign high above New York’s Time Square – visible, just barely, in Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous photo of a soldier kissing a nurse on V-J Day.

Moving to the Bottom Shelf

In 1943 Seagram, the Canadian distilling giant, bought the brand and Old Prentice as part of a network of distilleries it owned across the United States. At first, the distillery produced whiskey for Seagram’s higher-quality blends, as well as straight bourbon for export. As consumer tastes shifted toward lighter spirits, Seagram – and Four Roses – followed suit. By the 1970s, the brand in the United States was a “light” blend, combining whiskeys from multiple distilleries, the result being somehow less than the sum of its parts.
While Bill Samuels enjoyed bourbon, he reportedly wasn’t a fan of the family recipe and sought a fresh start at Star Hill Farm. Initially, he sourced his whiskey from various distilleries, a common practice for new distilleries lacking aged stocks. But by 1958, Samuels was bottling his own bourbon using a recipe with soft winter wheat, as opposed to the more commonly employed rye, as the secondary flavoring grain – a method that he reportedly learned from his friend, Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle. He called it Maker’s Mark, thanks to a suggestion from his wife, Margie Samuels, a collector of fine pewter who admired how craftsmen left their mark on their art. She created Maker’s Mark’s signature seal, the “S, IV” circled by a star, as well as the iconic red wax seal which adorns every Maker’s Mark bottle to this day.

Moving to the Bottom Shelf

In 1943 Seagram, the Canadian distilling giant, bought the brand and Old Prentice as part of a network of distilleries it owned across the United States. At first, the distillery produced whiskey for Seagram’s higher-quality blends, as well as straight bourbon for export. As consumer tastes shifted toward lighter spirits, Seagram – and Four Roses – followed suit. By the 1970s, the brand in the United States was a “light” blend, combining whiskeys from multiple distilleries, the result being somehow less than the sum of its parts.
While Bill Samuels enjoyed bourbon, he reportedly wasn’t a fan of the family recipe and sought a fresh start at Star Hill Farm. Initially, he sourced his whiskey from various distilleries, a common practice for new distilleries lacking aged stocks. But by 1958, Samuels was bottling his own bourbon using a recipe with soft winter wheat, as opposed to the more commonly employed rye, as the secondary flavoring grain – a method that he reportedly learned from his friend, Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle. He called it Maker’s Mark, thanks to a suggestion from his wife, Margie Samuels, a collector of fine pewter who admired how craftsmen left their mark on their art. She created Maker’s Mark’s signature seal, the “S, IV” circled by a star, as well as the iconic red wax seal which adorns every Maker’s Mark bottle to this day.

Rescue

Seagram continued to export Four Roses as a straight bourbon to Europe and Japan, and therein lies its eventual redemption. In the late 1990s, Seagram, having made an ill-fated decision to diversify into entertainment, was facing financial ruin, and sold off its liquor business. It might have closed Old Prentice (which it had renamed the Four Roses Distillery) entirely had it not been for Jim Rutledge, a longtime Seagram employee who had become master distiller in 1994. He persuaded the company to keep the brand alive, and began to improve the quality of its product through the following decade.

In 1999 ownership of the distillery passed to the French media company Vivendi, and three years later to Pernod Ricard and Diageo. Finally, in 2002, the Japanese drinks giant Kirin stepped in to buy the distillery and Four Roses brand. Kirin had long distributed Four Roses in Japan, and didn’t want to see its lucrative supply disappear. Almost immediately, Rutledge persuaded the new owners to reintroduce Four Roses straight bourbon to the United States.

Resurrection

It took time, but today Four Roses is once again among the most admired whiskey brands in the country, even though its production and distribution are much smaller than other legacy distilleries like Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark. Though that may be changing: In 2019 it completed a $55 million expansion, which doubled its capacity, included a second identical, 48 inch, 45 foot column still and an additional 24 fermenters, along with additional warehouses and an expanded bottling facility.

Resurrection

It took time, but today Four Roses is once again among the most admired whiskey brands in the country, even though its production and distribution are much smaller than other legacy distilleries like Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark. Though that may be changing: In 2019 it completed a $55 million expansion, which doubled its capacity, included a second identical, 48 inch, 45 foot column still and an additional 24 fermenters, along with additional warehouses and an expanded bottling facility.

Ten Recipes

Four Roses uses two different mash bills, one with about 20 percent rye, the other with 35; it ferments those using one of five yeast strains, resulting in 10 distinct recipes. The goal is not, as one might assume, diversity; instead, it’s consistency and control. Four Roses strives to keep everything else uniform. Rare among Kentucky distilleries, it utilizes single-story warehouses for aging, to reduce the often radical temperature swings that one finds in a typical seven-story rickhouse.

Each recipe has a four-letter code. The first letter is always “O,” a holdover from when it was the Old Prentice Distillery (and when Seagram had several distilleries, each with a different code). The second is either “E” or “B,” identifying whether it is the high or low rye. The third is always “S,” which stands for either “straight,” as in “straight bourbon whiskey,” or “simple method,” an anachronism from when Seagram had multiple ways of making whiskey. The fourth letter identifies the yeast strain: F (herbal), K (mild spice), O (rich fruitiness), Q (floral), or V (soft fruitiness). Each yeast strain originally belonged to one of Seagram’s five distilleries that fed into its blended whiskeys, but as the other four closed, the strains consolidated at Four Roses.