Four Roses: the Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of America’s Favorite Bourbon

Four Roses: the Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of America’s Favorite Bourbon

In honor of our upcoming Four Roses Tasting, I thought it’d be fun to share the history of Four Roses with y’all. It truly is my favorite distillery, as they distill some of my favorite bourbons in the country. They consistently churn out the best single barrel picks, best Limited Editions, and even the best small batch on the market. They have been through some ups and downs throughout their 130-year run, but they are now every whiskey geek’s obsession. It all started with the Jones family back in 1888. 

According to legend, Four Roses got its name from a corsage. It’s undecided who this story is attributed to - the founder of the distillery, Paul Jones, Jr, or his nephew & eventual successor, Lawrence Lavalle Jones. Apparently, Lawrence was in love with a woman named Mary Peabody. She was a beautiful woman and was being courted by all the men in Columbus, GA. Well, Lawrence met her and it was love at first sight, on his end at least. He met her many times over five years and proposed but she always said no. He was in town visiting her and sent her a dozen roses with a card proposing one last time, saying either marry me or you’ll never see me again. If the answer was to be yes, then she was supposed to wear a corsage of roses at the dance that night. She obliged accordingly and wore a corsage of four roses. The rest, you would say, is history. Now, Four Roses themselves attribute this story to Paul Jones Jr, but interestingly enough, Al Young (their brand ambassador), says it was actually Lawrence Jones. Considering Paul never married while Lawrence married Mary Peabody, I want to think it was Lawrence whose heart skipped a beat by seeing four roses on a corsage.

Regardless of where the story originates, we know that Paul Jones Jr registered the trademark in the Midas Criterion in 1888. Back then, they didn’t have trademark laws like they do today. The Midas Criterion was a publication that you could list your business and identifying marks for it to become legally protected. The Jones’ started in the business like most did at the time: they were rectifiers. This meant that they would purchase whiskey from distilleries, large and small, and then mixed it till they got the flavor profile they liked. They would then batch it up and sell it with their own label on it. This was a very common practice and could leave to some unscrupulous whiskey products as some rectifiers would add all sorts of ingredients to make it look and smell older. I haven’t come across any records to suggest that Four Roses did anything like that though.   

Paul Jones Jr passed away in 1895 which led to Lawrence and Saunders, his nephews, to continue on in the family business. They constructed the Paul Jones building in Louisville in 1907. The business was going very well until the small unfortunate event that was the 18th Amendment. The 18th Amendment was passed in 1919, banning the sale and drinking of alcohol, otherwise known as Prohibition. In 1920, Congress decided to allow the sale of medicinal whiskey. A person was able to go to a doctor to get a prescription for whiskey that they would then fill at a pharmacy. In 1922, Lawrence Jones and his newly created Frankfort Distilling Corp was able to get the license to distill medicinal whiskey. They were one of six distilleries that were able to obtain this license. 

Lawrence Jones’ insistence on maintaining the high quality of the brand soon made Four Roses a household name lasting through Prohibition, Repeal, and the Great Depression of the 1930s. With the 21st Amendment passing in 1933 repealing Prohibition, Four Roses was primed to succeed. By 1938, Four Roses advertisements hit Times Square in New York City. Four Roses was essentially everywhere. In fact, I can guarantee that everyone of you have seen a Four Roses ad from NYC without even realizing it. We’ve all seen the VJ Celebration picture in Times Square of the sailor kissing the woman. Look at the advertisements at the top of the picture behind them. You may have to squint a bit but you can definitely see the Four Roses name up there.

As World War II loomed, distilleries had to switch from whiskey production to wartime manufacturing. The war effort needed munitions and grain alcohol. Many distilleries quit distilling whiskey altogether through 1944. This led to aging whiskey becoming a seriously hot commodity. Unfortunately, Lawrence Lavalle Jones, the last of Paul Jones Jr’s nephews passed away on October 21st, 1941. Samuel Bronfnan, owner of Joseph E. Seagrams & Sons, Inc purchased Frankfort Distilling Corp in 1943 for $42 million. At the time, this was the country’s 5th largest liquor group, which included two major brands, Four Roses and Paul Jones. 

By 1948, Seagrams owned 3 of the top 10 brands in the game: Seven Crown, Calvert Reserve, and Four Roses. Not including the Calvert distillery, Seagrams purchased 5 distilleries in Kentucky in the 1940s. The aforementioned Frankfort Distilling, plus the Old Lewis Hunter Distillery, the Athertonville Distillery, the Henry McKenna Distillery, and the Old Prentice Distillery. These five distilleries had lasting effects on Four Roses. We will get into more detail down below on why. Old Prentice is another important distillery that most of y’all have a tie to. The bourbons that came out of Old Prentice include Old Baker, Old Prentice, Benchmark, Eagle Rare, and the Four Roses bourbon export. 

As much good as the purchase of Seagrams did for Four Roses, they experienced a sharp decline in quality under their leadership. At the time of Seagrams purchase, Four Roses was a 90 proof blend of straight bourbon whiskeys. By 1947, Seagrams took Four Roses from a “blend of straights and converted it to a spirits blend.” This means it was no longer straight bourbon whiskey. Their sales did, however, explode post WWII. Before the acquisition, Four Roses was producing 325,000 cases a year. By 1945, they were up to 600,000 cases and 1952 they exceeded 1,250,000 cases a year. They were a highly regarded brand by this time, one of the most popular in the country. The problem by the 1960s was that there was a major decline in whiskey across the board. The counter-culture of the 1960s led to people wanting clear liquors like vodka and rum. Four Roses adapted by launching the Four Roses Premium Light Whiskey in 1971. They’ve claimed that it was the best selling light whiskey at the time but that honestly doesn’t mean much. This was the height of the dark period in Four Roses history. A once renowned bourbon, they were selling swill that was a slight step better than vodka.

Even during this time, there was a slight hope for this mighty bourbon. In 1972, Kirin partnered with Seagrams to create the Kirin-Seagram Co., Ltd to market and distribute Four Roses Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey in Japan. Huge sales followed this and exports moved to more Asian countries and Europe throughout the rest of the 1970s & 80s. The brand was in shambles in the U.S. but incredibly profitable and well-liked in foreign markets. At this point in our story, a hero is about to emerge named Jim Rutledge. 

I could write an entire story about Jim Rutledge. To keep it brief in this already long history lesson, Rutledge is a Kentuckian who went to work for Seagrams in 1966. He was allowed to eventually move back to Kentucky and he started working at Four Roses in 1992. He ended up replacing Ova Haney as Master Distiller in 1994. Four Roses was still selling their light whiskey on the shelves of the US when he took over but after lobbying for many months, he was allowed to sell Four Roses Yellow Label in limited quantities in Kentucky only for $9.95 a bottle. Seagrams ended up going under in 2000. Four Roses was then sold to Vivendi, then Diageo, and finally Kirin took full ownership of the brand in 2002. The rebirth is finally beginning.

In February 2002, Kirin bought Four Roses and started to take control of the company. They do that by actually listening to Jim and the rest of his team to allow them to truly self-operate within a few years. They were committed to letting Four Roses shine as a bourbon distillery. They bought back as much of the old American Light whiskey stock as they could. They wanted to besmirch that nastiness from their image. In 2004, they launched nationwide with the Four Roses Single Barrel and released Four Roses Small Batch in 2006. The rest, as one might say, is history.

Currently, Four Roses distill their bourbon using two different mashbills. The “E” mashbill consists of a mixture of 75% corn, 20% rye and 5% malted barley while the “B” mashbill is 60% corn, 35% rye and 5% malted barley. They have 5 different proprietary strains of yeast: 

  • V - delicate fruitiness
  • K - slightly spicy character
  • O - rich fruitiness
  • Q - floral essence, and 
  • E - herbal. 

Their standard single barrel is OBSV, meaning mashbill B and yeast V; it is chill-filtered and barreled at 100 proof. Their small batch is a blend of OBSK, OESK, OBSO, and OESO, chill-filtered and barreled at 90 proof. Four Roses releases barrel picks to different stores and groups; those are barrel proof, non-chill filtered releases of a single recipe, like OBSK or OESQ. They do different Small Batch Limited Editions every year, which are always extra aged and extra delicious. 

The last thing I want to talk about today is their yeast. I know, finishing the great history of Four Roses with yeast, what is this guy thinking? Well, hear me out before you judge away. When Kirin purchased Four Roses, they acquired all aspects of the brand. With the brand came 5 strains of proprietary yeast. Remember above when I mentioned that Seagrams ended up buying five Kentucky distilleries in the 1940s? Frankfort Distilling, Old Lewis Hunter Distillery, the Athertonville Distillery, Henry McKenna Distillery, and Old Prentice Distillery, right? Well, when Seagrams attained these distilleries, they also acquired each of their own yeast strains. So, mid-1940s, Seagrams owns five distilleries and five different yeasts. Seagrams standardized operations amongst all five of them which meant that within a few years, those same yeast strains were being used across all five places. When it all eventually consolidated to just the Old Prentice distillery, the building that Four Roses currently resides in, they still had control of the 5 strains of yeast. These same proprietary yeast strains that are being used every day at the Four Roses Distillery started from those distilleries of yesteryear. You are literally drinking history every time you have a glass of Four Roses. 

It may not sound like much, I mean I’m getting excited about yeast here. But, this is truly revolutionary in the bourbon world. The fact that a distillery whose origins date back to the 1880s is still operating as a close-shell of what it once was is crazy enough. Now, we can enjoy bourbon whose origin is from the 1940s, that’s bonkers to me! There are a lot of reasons why whiskey geeks go crazy over Four Roses. Its quality, consistency, and transparency are among its most impressive attributes. The history in a glass, though, simply can’t be matched … for me at least!

If you want to taste this history, join us at our upcoming Four Roses Tasting & BBQ Bash (BSoBR Members Only): https://bit.ly/33e2kZK.

Cheers,

David Steele
President & Co-Founder, BSoBR

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