Welcome to the first installment of Straight Up!, a new Santé segment where we interview spirits industry leaders, from brands both big and small, to explore their professional backgrounds, the lesser-known stories behind their products, and get their unique perspective on the state of the spirits industry today and where they see it heading tomorrow. We’re kicking things off with Four Roses Master Distiller Brent Elliot, whose candor actually gave name to this series. Before our interview began, Brent told us that he would let us know if he was “shooting from the hip” on any response to our questions, but he assured us that if he were confident, he’d answer “straight up.” No shooting from the hip ensued.
Four Roses is a storied bourbon brand with a long history. Next time you see the iconic photo of the sailor kissing the nurse on V-J Day, look at the billboards in the background in Times Square. It can be hard to make out, but Four Roses is at the very top of the New York Times Building. The brand got its start long before that, perhaps as early as the 1860s. Prohibition shuttered almost all of the bourbon industry in 1920, but the Paul Jones Company, owners of the Four Roses brand at the time, received a rare medicinal use permit from the U.S. government, which allowed them to continue distribution. Four Roses thus remained popular during America’s dry years among an increasingly devoted and surprisingly sickly consumer base.
Throughout the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, Four Roses was the top-selling bourbon in the United States, but after Seagram acquired the brand, U.S. distribution shifted to trendy blended whiskey while bourbon distribution was refocused on the growing whiskey markets in Europe and Japan. Thus began a long decline for the brand in the U.S. that wasn’t reversed until the 1990s when Master Distiller Jim Rutledge, a Seagram employee since the 1960s, made it his mission to return Four Roses bourbon to the United States. After Kirin Brewing acquired the brand in 2002, that dream became a reality, and Four Roses bourbon was once again sold where it was made. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Brent Elliot is a unique Master Distiller in that he’s spent his entire career riding the rocketship of the Kentucky bourbon boom. His first taste of Four Roses bourbon was the night before his interview with the distillery in 2005. That may seem like poor interview prep, but the bourbon was only available in Kentucky at that time and not widely so. Today, the brand is in every state and distributed in several foreign markets. I asked Brent what it was like to have a career that so closely tracked the resurgence of the bourbon industry.
Brent: “It’s the only world I’ve known, really. Because of our European markets, we had the infrastructure for larger production, but we started in the U.S. like a lot of craft distilleries today on a grassroots level. We started adding markets outside of Kentucky right after I was hired, and our growth ran parallel to the resurgence in bourbon. In my 15 years, every year has been catching up, keeping bourbon on the shelves, keeping the brand exciting and fresh. As fast as the category has been growing, we’ve been growing even faster. It’s been exciting, and it’s made time fly. Only ever so often do we sit back and reflect on how far we’ve come.“
Brent had some big shoes to fill, taking the reins from Bourbon Hall of Famer Jim Rutledge, whose decades of dedication to the brand helped make it the award-winning bourbon that it is today. Jim was also one of the first Master Distillers to recognize the value of interacting directly with the consumer and part of the first class of Master Distillers – with the legendary likes of Jimmy Russell, Parker Beam, and Booker Noe – to earn rock star status among their fans. I asked Brent what he learned from Jim before his retirement.
Brent: “I learned so much from both Jim and Al Young (former Senior Brand Ambassador) and others. We were so small when I started, so I really got to learn all aspects of the business. From Jim in particular, I learned the fundamentals of distillation and fermentation, but more importantly, I learned from Jim how to treat and really appreciate consumers and guests at the distillery. As distillers, we have this unique bourbon knowledge. It means so much to our guests that we share it.“
After 11 years with the distillery, Brent had the most consequential meeting of his career. In a sit down with the management of Four Roses’ parent company, Kirin Brewing, Brent was told that Jim was retiring and that he would be replacing him. I asked Brent when in his career he began to think about earning the top spot of Master Distiller.
Brent: “We were a small team when I started out, so it was always a possibility. It was always in the back of my mind, but I never really let myself think it could happen. I didn’t want to set myself up for disappointment. I loved my job, even without the extra title. More importantly, no one believed Jim would ever retire.”
But Jim did retire, without much warning, right before hitting 50 years with the distillery he helped put back on the Kentucky bourbon map. Naturally, the marketing folks were nervous about losing any of the brand’s momentum and eager to introduce Brent as the new face of Four Roses. Quite literally, actually.
Brent: “We already had the bourbon samples pulled for the commemorative bottling we were planning for Jim’s 50th anniversary, and the marketing team suggested we do something with my name on it instead. Well, actually, my face. They had done a Wall Street Journal-style drawing of me, and they slapped that on the side of the bottle. Even though it was a little embarrassing, I thought it was still a pretty cool thing for my kids to see their dad’s face on a bottle. My younger daughter still has it in her bedroom, but I’ll probably need to get it out of there in a few years.”
Not long after taking the helm of a booming bourbon brand, Brent set to work planning for a much-needed expansion of the century-old distillery in Lawrenceburg. I asked him about the challenges and the opportunities of such an expansion and what it would mean for the brand in the future.
Brent: “We could have gone offsite with a new facility or just next door and pulled from the same water source, but we didn’t want to introduce any unknown variables. We didn’t want to tempt fate and affect the quality of the distillate, so the challenge became to double capacity in essentially the same space. We monitored the build-out at every step of the way to make sure the sensory results were still the same, that nothing was deviating. Once we actually turned everything on, it was great to see that paying attention to those details had paid off. It was such a relief. We essentially doubled our capacity, but we haven’t yet employed all of that capacity. We’ll be there very soon. We’re not going to double in sales overnight, but we’re easing into it based on sales forecasts 6-7 years out.”
Four Roses is famous for the number of recipes it produces. Some brands, like Wild Turkey, only have one recipe for their entire bourbon portfolio, other distilleries have several, but few if any can boast, like Four Roses, a whopping 10 which are derived from two different mashbills (one 20% rye and the other 35% rye) and five unique yeast strains. I asked Brent if having that many recipes made it easier or harder to create a product.
Brent: “It makes the management of the inventory and balancing of all the recipes much more difficult. But it makes blending much more interesting and easier. Most importantly, it gives us the ability to create a broader range of flavors.”
In addition to the core lineup, Four Roses periodically releases a special edition bourbon. Brent’s commemorative special edition was a Single Barrel offering, but since then, he’s kept all of the limited-edition releases in the Small Batch line, preferring the ability to blend prized batches and create a whiskey greater than the sum of its parts. Those component whiskeys have grown older and older in recent years, so I asked Brent what he thought those older stocks were contributing to the final blend.
Brent: “There are certain older batches that have a really good side to them, whether it’s an interesting fruity flavor or an elegant oak tone. You still have some of the astringency to deal with, so it is a challenge to bring out the best of all batches in the blend. That oak can be a wet blanket that overpowers those brighter flavors. I do enjoy tinkering with older batches, but we probably won’t do that with every release.”
Not long after Brent joined the team at Four Roses, the brand introduced Small Batch, an offering that joined their entry-level, five-year-old bourbon (sometimes referred to as Yellow Label) and a Single Barrel offering. Brent was “in the room” for those discussions, but he didn’t have much to do with the actual formulation of the new line at the time, he told me. When Four Roses introduced Small Batch Select in 2019, the latest edition to the lineup, Brent was naturally instrumental in its development. I asked him about his process for creating the “fourth rose.”
Brent: “For Small Batch Select, there wasn’t a target profile, so the guidance I used was pretty simple: I made something that I liked. My approach was similar to the limited editions, but I wanted something in the permanent lineup that could be available year-round. We also wanted to build it inside the Small Batch line, where we could showcase the different recipes. I always really liked the F yeast strain, and prior to the private barrel program, the only place that Fever went was in our entry-level bourbon, as a top note. I expected we’d be adding new products in the future, so I started adding a few extra batches of F in the production cycle each year. When we decided to expand the lineup, we also really studied what the consumer was looking for, which was higher proof, non-chill filtered bourbon. So, we wanted those elements, as well.”
The number of craft distilleries in the United States is now pushing 2,000. Needless to say, craft spirits, and craft bourbon, in particular, has become a very crowded space. I talked with Brent about the growing craft distilling landscape and asked him what advice he might have for someone who wants to start distilling now?
Brent: “I would say it’s all about the product, the quality of the liquid. There are a lot of other aspects that are important to get people to try your brand as far as marketing and the story behind it but to have sustainability; you really have to focus on what’s in the bottle. It takes patience, and especially for a lot of micro-distilleries, a lot of courage. The learning curve just to produce quality distillate is big enough, but then you have to wait 5-6 years for barrel aging to find out if you achieved what you set out to. Everything comes back to the liquid.”
At the conclusion of our interview, I wanted to ask Brent the question he gets so often: What is the future of bourbon? While tariffs have recently resulted in declining overseas sales, the bourbon boom’s end appears nowhere in sight. In 2019, off-premise sales grew nearly 13% according to Nielsen data and even more during the pandemic shutdown, and global analytics firm IWSR predicts at least 5% growth per year over the next five years for both volume and value. So, what does the future look like from Brent’s perspective?
Brent: “I’ve learned you can’t be pessimistic about the bourbon industry’s growth. I would have told you five years ago that we couldn’t grow more and look where we are. It surprises me every year how much it’s growing. It inevitably will have to slow down, but I don’t see it happening in the next couple of years.”