A dozen roses is a romantic gesture that is appreciated by many loved ones. It is a symbol of love, compassion, kindness and thought, however in the story of Four Roses bourbon, just four red roses were enough to start the namesake of the brand of bourbon that is enjoyed to this day. The Four Roses story is one that has many peaks and valleys such as surviving one of the most tumultuous times for distillers in American history and coming out stronger than most, to its downfall of being removed from the American whiskey market to making its grand return. Various owners, numerous master distillers, a unique approach to its distillate and even a love story makes Four Roses what it is today.
The story behind this iconic brand begins with the origin of its name. Although there are conflicting stories on how the name came to be, we will follow the one that the distillery acknowledges. Four Roses was founded by a gentleman and Civil War veteran named Paul Jones, Jr. Paul was born in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1840. In the years before the Civil War, Paul fell for a Southern Belle and had intentions on wanting to marry her. With an upcoming annual event, the Grand Ball, in Atlanta Georgia, Paul sent his marriage proposal to the lady. If she rejected his proposal she was to show up at the ball wearing a corsage of three roses, however if she accepted the proposal to arrive with a corsage of four roses. The young lady appeared at the ball wearing a corsage of four red roses, signaling her acceptance of marriage to Paul. Through this romantic event, the name Four Roses was born.
Shortly after the ball, Paul went to fight in the Civil War for the Confederate Army from 1863 to 1865 and earned the rank of lieutenant. In 1864 he fought alongside his brother, Warner, under General Robert E. Lee’s command helping to defend Atlanta, Georgia. In the efforts, Warner was killed during the Battle of Atlanta. After the south surrendered and the war was over, Paul returned back to his home in Virginia only to find it dismantled and destroyed from the years of war. Paul and his father made the decision to relocate themselves to Atlanta. Together they opened a grocery store and distribution center. Here near Atlanta Paul began producing whiskey under Paul Jones Company. In 1884, with the laws in Georgia tightening on the sale of alcohol, Paul once again relocated, but this time to Main Street in Louisville, Kentucky on Whiskey Row. By this time his father, Paul Sr., had already passed away. Paul Jr. had the Four Roses name trademarked in 1888 and then in 1889 purchased the J.G. Mattingly Distillery at an auction. The distillery had been built in 1874 by John Graves Mattingly and his brother where they produced a bourbon and a rye whiskey. Around that time the distillery went to auction, the company was having financial issues and had stopped production, thus allowing Paul to purchase the facility for a reported $125,000. The property included a mill for grains, a cattle barn, a building for distilling, a building for boiling and a building for fermenting. Paul was able to take possession of the distillery on Wednesday February 12, 1890 and just a couple weeks later on Thursday February 27th he began operating the distillery. Paul Jones’s brands that he produced at the distillery included Jones Four Star, Four Roses, West End, Old Cabinet, Old Cabinet Rye and Paul Jones.
In 1895 Paul Jones, Jr. passed away from complications with Bright’s disease, a type of kidney disease, known today as Glomerulonephritis. He had no children of his own, so his late brother’s son, Lawrence Lavelle Jones, inherited the distillery. Lawrence was a business owner himself with connections to Peerless Manufacturing Company, Jefferson Island Salt Company and Kentucky Electric Company (known today as Louisville Gas and Electric Company). On January 17, 1920 Prohibition on alcohol sales in the United States began and most distilleries had to cease operations unless it was one of the six distilleries that were granted a license to produce medicinal whiskey. One of those lucky distilleries was the Frankfort Distillery Inc. and a couple years into Prohibition the Paul Jones Company purchased the distillery allowing Four Roses to be produced and sold during this era legally as a medicinal product. The Frankfort Distillery was created in 1902 and is located in Frankfort, Kentucky where the whiskey brand Antique was being produced. Many brands and distilleries during the time of Prohibition went out of business and never returned, however being able to produce the Four Roses brand helped to aid in its survival. Although medicinal sales helped keep the Four Roses brand alive during Prohibition, the distillery in which it was being produced wasn’t without hardship. There were three reported fires at the Frankfort Distillery between 1923-1933. In 1933 Prohibition was repealed and distillation sales became legal again. Although Prohibition was over, the country was still in a great hardship as the Great Depression had begun just a few years prior to the end of Prohibition. During this time period a branding image change came to help bring new hope to the consumers of Four Roses. Originally the image of Four Roses was four red roses hanging downward, but as an attempt to restore hope for better days ahead, the direction of the roses were changed to upward.
Coming out of the medicinal market after Prohibition, Four Roses became one of the most popular bourbons during the following decades of the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s. The popularity gained attraction from Seagram, who at the time was the largest spirits producer owning seven distilleries. In 1941 Lawrence Jones died of pneumonia and was buried at Cave Hill Cemetery. He left behind three daughters, his wife and son had passed on years before, thus ending the Jones name in the Four Roses history. In 1943 Seagram, who was owned by Samuel Bronfman at the time, purchased Four Roses and the Frankfort Distilleries from the Jones family for $42 million. Samuel was born on February 27, 1889 in Otaci, Bessarabia (which in the present day is part of Moldova) to Mindel and Yechiel Bronfman. The Bronfmans were a wealthy and Jewish family but suffered from the anti-Semitic affliction in their homeland. The family set out to seek refuge in Canada. While there the family tried their hands in various jobs such as working on the railway, at a sawmill, selling firewood, horse trade and fish trade. Eventually in 1903 the family got involved in the hotel industry and learned that most of their profit from this business venture was from the sale of alcoholic beverages. Samuel married Saidye Rosner on June 21, 1922 and the two had four children together; Aileen Mindel “Minda”, Phyllis, Edgar and Charles. In 1924 Samuel formed Distillers Corporation in Montreal, Canada which focused on the distribution of alcohol. During the time the United States was experiencing Prohibition, so with his operations being in Canada he took advantage of being able to produce and sell alcohol where it was still legal, which some of his products probably made it across the border. In 1928 Samuel expanded his business by purchasing Joseph E. Seagram & Sons distillery in Waterloo, Ontario from the heirs of Joseph Seagram.
Joseph Emm Seagram was born April 15, 1841 in Fisher’s Mills, Canada to the parents of Octavius Augustus and Amelia Stiles Seagram. His parents died when he was just a child and left him and his brother Edward Frowde behind. The brothers spend some time being raised by clergymen followed by boarding school. He attended college at Bryant & Stratton College in Buffalo, New York then returned back to Canada and took up some bookkeeping jobs. After switching jobs a couple times, Joseph found himself working at Granite Mills, a flour mill, in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada in 1864. Here is where he began to be introduced to the world of distillation. Extra grains from the mill would be used to make alcohol at the Waterloo Distillery. The Waterloo Distillery was established in 1857 and was affiliated with George Randall, who also owned Granite Mills. George was one of three partners in the distillery. His partners were William Hespeler and Willam Roos. In 1869 Joseph bought George out and took partial ownership of the company, joining Hespeler and Roos. The company was renamed Seagram and Roos. When 1883 came around, Joseph bought out the other two partners and took full ownership of the distillery. This is where the renowned name of Seagram came as he renamed the company after himself. The Seagram plant went on to produce one of the most successful whiskeys, Seagram VO which was introduced in 1907. In Joseph’s personal life he was married to Stephanie Urbs and the two had six children. Joseph was a fan of thoroughbred horseracing and even opened Seagram Stables in 1888. Ultimately Joseph passed away in 1919 and was buried at Mount Hope Cemetery. He left behind a legacy and a successful distillery operation to his heirs, who then sold the operation to Samuel Bronfman.
After the purchase by Seagram, changes came to the Four Roses brand. Prior to the purchase Four Roses was a 90 proof straight bourbon whiskey, however Seagram at the time was very heavily involved with blends, so by 1947 the brand was converted to a blend of spirits to align with the new owner’s way of business. Despite the popularity of Four Roses bourbon during the decades before Seagram took over, the new owner decided to remove the bourbon line from the American market in the late 1950’s and move exclusively to the Asian and European markets. The Asian and European markets were rapidly growing at the time while the American market was in a decline for bourbon whiskey. In 1946 Seagram purchased the Old Prentice Distillery in Lawrenceburg. The Old Prentice Distillery was built in 1910 with an architectural style of Spanish mission and was named after George Prentice, a well-known editor of a newspaper. The distillery was used for production by J.T.S. Brown & Sons up until Prohibition, then was shut down and most of the equipment sold. This distillery is the current home of the Four Roses production. Despite moving sales out of the country, the products were still being produced in the United States and Seagram was investing into the brand. In December 1960 a piece of land, about 298 acres, in Cox’s Creek was developed into the Four Roses Bottling and Warehouse Facility. It featured a bottling facility that products would be shipped to and bottled as the production and bottling facilities are separate. Across these acres were 21 single story warehouses, commonly referred to as the Lotus Warehouses, labeled as Warehouses A through U that were constructed with wood that was cleared out from the land they were built on. The Bottling and Warehouse Facility are still used to this day.
In 1962 Charles “Chuck” Llyod Beam was hired at Four Roses. Charles was born in Louisville, Kentucky on Saturday October 7, 1922 to Roy Marion Beam Sr. and Mattie Frances Dugan Beam. His father, Roy was born on Friday September 22, 1899 in Bardstown, Kentucky and his mother Mattie on December 12, 1899 in Kentucky. His parents were wed in Bardstown on Wednesday August 20, 1919. Charles was the grandnephew of Colonel James Beauregard “Jim” Beam and was Booker Noe’s cousin. Charles attended St. Xavier High School, a private all male Catholic high school, in Louisville, Kentucky. He went on to attend University of Louisville where he earned his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry. Like many did when World War II occurred, Charles volunteered for the Army Air Corps. He would move through the ranks to become staff sergeant and be accredited with flying thirty missions over Europe. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, which is awarded to those who have shown extraordinary heroism during an aerial flight. After the war Charles returned home and married Mary Lee Kuhn on Saturday January 5, 1946. Mary was born on Saturday May 9, 1925 in Louisville. Together the two had three children: Rebecca, Charles Jr. and David.
On June 5, 1967 Albert “Al” Young, Jr. began working for Seagram and would later become a great historian and legend of the Four Roses brand. Al was born on Saturday June 20, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky to Albert W. Young, Sr. and Arnie Maynard Young. Al graduated high school in 1960 from Waggener High School in Louisville. He continued his education at Western Kentucky University and graduated with his undergrad in 1964. During this time he was interested in acting and performing arts so he decided to attend Southern Illinois University to earn his master’s degree in fine arts. After his graduation he became engaged to a young lady named Gretchen. She suggested to him to try a career in the distilling industry as she felt that the acting industry was far less stable, especially to raise a family with. He heeded the words of his fiancé and applied for a position at Four Roses which he received. Two weeks after accepting the position Al and Gretchen were married. Together they went on to have three children, Marc, Heather and Christine. In his time away from the distillery Al would enjoy painting, drawing, traveling, building model ships and collecting miniature figurines.
In 1966 another iconic legend of the Four Roses brand and one to thank for us being able to obtain Four Roses came into the picture. Jim Rutledge began working for Seagram doing research and development in Louisville at the Seagram’s owned Calvert Distillery. Continuing his growth with the company, in the winter of 1975 he moved to New York in order to work at the Seagram corporate headquarters where he became head of budgets and industrial engineering.
After just six short years of working at the distillery, Charles was promoted to the Master Distiller in 1968, the fourth in the company’s history. The following year under his tenure, Charles released Benchmark Bourbon in 1969. In 1975 Eagle Rare was released to market and it featured a 101 proof (50.5% alcohol by volume) offering and was aged ten years. It was being produced at the Old Prentice distillery. In the same year that the brand was released, Charles’s mother passed away. She died on Sunday April 6, 1975 and was buried at St. Joseph Cemetery. Charles retired as Master Distiller in 1984.
The role of Master Distiller was given to Ova Haney after the retirement of Charles Beam. Ova showed great interest in restoring the Four Roses distillery to its former glory. Years of neglect by Seagram allowed for the Spanish style that was once an appealing touch to the plant to deteriorate. With original drawings of the building that were designed by Joseph and Joseph, an architectural firm in Louisville that designed the building, Ova set off to get Seagram’s approval for the renovation. After approval, the restoration efforts were led by Seagram’s Central Engineering firm in which they restored the building to its original appearance but also added a number of improvements including dust collectors, exterior grain silos and a mill building. The improvements and exterior of the distillery is still seen to this day.
By the time 1990 came around, Al Young was promoted to distillery manager and after seventeen years away from Kentucky, Jim Rutledge found his way back to Kentucky in 1992. At Four Roses Jim began overseeing and managing budgets at the Warehouse & Bottling Facility. It didn’t take long for Jim’s role to change once more as in November 1994 he was named the new Master Distiller for Four Roses.
For many years Seagram was a major company in the alcohol business, however they were not without their troubles. The company found itself overproducing and over extended in debt. A company once founded in the alcoholic beverage industry found themselves as majority owners of Universal Studios. The struggles to stay in business eventually led to Four Roses being sold to Vivendi. Vivendi is a French media company and the ownership of an alcoholic beverage company didn’t fit their portfolio so after a short time of ownership they sold to Diageo in 2001. Diageo is a company with a history of its own and a backlog of successful companies in its portfolio. The Four Roses brand found a final settlement in February 2002 when Kirin Holdings purchased the company. Kirin was distributing the Four Roses products in the Asian market, so it had a connection to the brand. Kirin is a Japanese based company and although far from Kentucky it was the ownership change that was needed to help return the brand back to its home country.
Jim Rutledge had dreams of bringing back the Four Roses that was once offered in the United States back to the market instead of just being available in the foreign market. At this time the blended whiskey that the company was offering was still being sold. Under Seagram ownership the brand was taken away and even after many decades off the market they still did not want to return it back. The brand at the time being a blended whiskey was still doing well in other markets outside of the United States so it was a tough sell for Jim to convince them to change. With the new Kirin ownership, Jim pushed to have the products return and they listened. The blended whiskey products were removed from the market and Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey took its place. At first the only offering was an eighty proof offering that was limited only to Kentucky. Although it was limited, it was the start of a movement of having true Four Roses return. Jim was even able to release a new Four Roses product in 2004, the Four Roses Single Barrel. Far from the blended products that used to be offered, the single barrel offering was not a mix or marriage of whiskeys, but rather the aged distillate of one product out of one barrel. In the early years of Four Roses’ comeback the Seagram stock that they were left with was only enough to support the export market and didn’t leave much excess stock for the United States. Originally distribution was limited to just Kentucky, but eventually expanded as production grew with the new direction of the company.
During a trip to visit his sister in law in Kentucky, Brent Elliot took a tour of Woodford Reserve and became intrigued with the bourbon industry. At the time, Brent was living in Nashville, Tennessee and upon arriving home began looking for openings in the bourbon industry and came across an opening at Four Roses. At this time Four Roses was still not readily available in all markets in the United States, so Brent had never tried any products from the company. After speaking several times to Four Roses representatives, the next step was an in person interview. On his way there he was able to acquire a bottle of Four Roses and the night before the interview he had his first taste of the product. He enjoyed the product and enjoyed the people at Four Roses so much that his desire to join the company grew even more. Despite wanting to work for Four Roses the decision was still a difficult one as not long before this process he had gotten married and had a child. He and his family had a life established in Nashville along with a house and his current career working in the smokeless tobacco industry. He had been working at the smokeless tobacco company for nearly five years at this point and picking up and moving his family to Kentucky for a position that would be earning less money than the one he currently had was a tough decision. Ultimately he decided to join Four Roses and in 2005 Brent started his career in the bourbon industry as a chemical engineer that was assistant manager of quality control for the distillery.
Brent was a native of Owensboro, Kentucky where he attended Daviess County High School. After graduating high school he went to the University of Kentucky to earn his chemistry degree. With his degree in hand he began working at a company that made adhesive parts of credit cards for about a year and a half. He soon realized this is not what he wanted to do so he packed up and moved to Nashville and received a job in environmental chemistry which he worked for a couple more years. After that job is when he began working in the smokeless tobacco industry in which he worked with similar equipment that Four Roses was using. This helped his transition into the alcoholic beverage industry once he joined the distillery.
In the few years after Brent joined the team, the company had many milestones occur. In 2005 Kirin decided to move its Four Roses headquarters out of Japan and back to its homeland in Kentucky where it would be closer to the production of its products. A year after the move came a new line of Four Roses, the Four Roses Small Batch which is a 90 proof bourbon. Al Young became brand ambassador for the brand in 2007. Although with all of the positive milestones Four Roses was achieving, sad news struck on Friday January 5, 2007 when Charles L. Beam passed away at Baptist East Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. The day that he passed was his 61st wedding anniversary with Mary. A funeral was held in his honor at St. Brigid Catholic Church and he was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Louisville. In 2010 he was posthumously inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame joining many other Beam family members who were already inducted. Nearly a decade after his passing, his wife Mary died on Sunday June 11, 2017 and was buried at Calvary Cemetery after a funeral at St. Brigid Catholic Church.
In 2010 the history of Four Roses was published in a book by brand ambassador Al Young. The book titled Four Roses: The Return of a Whiskey Legend was pinned by Al and showcased all of his knowledge and years of research on the brand that he loved. Al Young joined Charles in the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame when he was inducted in 2015.
Fast forward to 2015 and the distillery began undergoing a $55 million expansion on both the distillery and the Warehouse & Bottling Facility. The investment included $21 million towards the Warehouse & Bottling Facility that would now have a visitor’s center for guests to visit and a barrel tasting room for single barrel selection. $34 million went to the distillery expansion that included a new column still, doubler still, fermenters and two new buildings to house it all. This distillery expansion would allow the distillery to double their production capabilities. In September of 2015 it was announced that long time master distiller Jim Rutledge would be retiring and Brent Elliot would be taking over. Brent recalls being called to the office of the COO of Kirin’s office where he was greeted by both the COO and CEO. They sat him down and told him that Jim was retiring and that he would be the next master distiller. He was both surprised about Jim’s retirement and that they would honor him with being the next in that position. Brent’s ten years of working with Jim had helped shape and train him for such an important position.
Not long after Brent’s new position, he sent out a statement in the spring of 2016 with a Four Roses product named after himself called the Four Roses Elliott Select. The namesake bourbon was a limited release of a single barrel bourbon that was the first limited release under the new distiller’s regime. He hand selected OESK barrels that were at least fourteen years old. Three years later under the tenure Four Roses Small Batch Select was introduced in 2019. 2019 ended with the passing of Albert Young on Christmas Day, December 25, 2019. His funeral was held on Saturday January 4, 2020 at Trinity Hill Methodist Church.
The Four Roses bourbon products of today feature ten different recipes that are derived from a combination of two different mashbills and five different yeast strains. Each creates their own distinctive flavors, smells and profiles and can sometimes be blended with each other to create a number of the products offered by the company. The blending influences of the days of Seagram can still be seen today with the number of recipes and the blending of them to create various products. The two mashbills are referred to as Mashbill E and Mashbill B. Mashbill E is lower in rye and is composed of 75% corn, 20% rye and 5% malted barley. Mashbill B is known as the higher rye mashbill made up of 60% corn, 35% rye and 5% malted barley. All of the grains in each of the mashbills are non-GMO products. They source their corn from Indiana and rye mostly from Germany and Sweden. Each of the yeast strains in the fermentation process helps yield different characteristics. Each yeast strain is given a letter to help differentiate each one. Yeast V is known to produce delicate fruit, O gives off rich fruit, F is known for herbal notes, K produces a slight space and Q often has a floral essence. Each recipe goes through two distillations, with the first run exiting the still at around 132 proof and then going through a second distillation in a doubler and having a final off the still proof of 138-140 proof. The distillate is then hauled off to the Warehouse and Bottling Facility. Water is then added to the distillate to proof it down to 120 proof before barreling. While in the barrel, they are labeled with each recipe and batch information and then set away in a single story warehouse for years of delicate aging. In these single barrel warehouses the barrels are placed on racks during the aging process and here temperatures can vary around eight degrees from the bottom rack to the top creating the uniqueness of every barrel. Although Four Roses is not age stated, the distillery ages its products for a minimum of five years and then is bottled once it has reached the taste profile of the product it will be a part of. Once aging is complete the bourbon is chill filtered, mingled depending on the product it is, or not if a single barrel, and bottled for our enjoyment.
Each Four Roses offering includes at least one of the recipes, with many including a combination of the recipes.
Recipe 1- OBSV: Mashbill B (60% corn/35% rye/5% malted barley), Yeast V- Tastes: delicate fruit and rye
Recipe 2- OBSK: Mashbill B (60% corn/35% rye/5% malted barley), Yeast K- Tastes: Rye and baking spice
Recipe 3- OBSO: Mashbill B (60% corn/35% rye/5% malted barley), Yeast O- Taste: Rich fruit
Recipe 4- OBSQ: Mashbill B (60% corn/35% rye/5% malted barley), Yeast Q- Taste: Rye and light floral
Recipe 5- OBSF: Mashbill B (60% corn/35% rye/5% malted barley), Yeast F, Taste: Delicate rye and mint
Recipe 6- OESV: Mashbill E (75% corn/20% rye/5% malted barley), Yeast V, Taste: Delicate fruit and caramel
Recipe 7- OESK: Mashbill E (75% corn/20% rye/5% malted barley), Yeast K, Taste: Baking spice
Recipe 8- OESO: Mashbill E (75% corn/20% rye/5% malted barley), Yeast O, Taste: Rich fruit and vanilla
Recipe 9- OESQ: Mashbill E (75% corn/20% rye/5% malted barley), Yeast Q, Taste: Delicate grains and light floral
Recipe 10- OESF: Mashbill E (75% corn/20% rye/5% malted barley), Yeast F, Taste: Herbs and mint
The standard offering from Four Roses, commonly referred to as the “yellow label” by many but officially named Four Roses Bourbon, contains a mixture of all ten recipes, bottled at 80 proof and aged for a minimum of five years. The Four Roses Small batch is bottled at 90 proof, aged 6-7 years and is a mingling of recipes 2, 3, 7 and 8. The Four Roses Single Barrel is aged 7-9 years, bottled at 100 proof and can be any of the mashbills since it is a single barrel, however the common offering that is on the shelf and not a store or group pick is recipe 1. Going up in proof once more is the Four Roses Small Batch Select which is made up of recipes 1, 2, 5, 6, 7 and 10, aged 6-7 years, non-chill filtered and bottled at 104 proof.
Four Roses is a brand with many peaks and valleys that has shaped the brand we know today. Through some of the toughest years for alcohol producers, Four Roses survived and remains a brand that we can sip and enjoy today. Without the accomplishments of the most influential people in Four Roses history the brand could be one that was lost to history, rather it is one that made history. The next time that you sit down and pour yourself a glass of Four Roses bourbon whiskey, remember you are sipping more than what’s in your glass, you are sipping history.