Four Roses, as a brand and as a whiskey, has seen more than its share of ups and downs over the years. Like other brands, there are many stories concerning their history — some of which are actually true.
Four Roses: A Walk Down Memory Lane
There was a gentleman named Rose who had a brother and two sons. While some stories say that he may have created the brand, the official story (as told by current owners, Kirin Brewery) credits a man named Paul Jones, as he was the first to register a copywrite of the name in 1888.
The story goes that Lawrence Jones had been courting Mary Peabody for some years. At a big dance, he decided he would try his luck one more time. He gave her a dozen roses with a card, asking that if her answer is yes, to wear a corsage of Four Roses, which she did. And thus, the brand was born.
Initially, the Jones family were rectifiers, meaning that they bought Bourbon from many different distilleries and blended it together. Because they had enough money to purchase some of the best barrels available, Four Roses became a hugely popular brand pre-prohibition.
The current Spanish-Mission style distillery was built in 1910 as the Old Prentice Distillery. Over the years it would function under many different names and produce many brands, such as Eagle Rare and Benchmark, which were both introduced by Master Distiller Charles Beam, a cousin to Booker Noe.
A couple of years into Prohibition, the Paul Jones Company purchased Frankfurt Distilling and the Old Prentice Distillery. During this time, 6 distilleries were allowed to produce medicinal whiskey, so they produced medicinal whiskey under the Frankfurt Distilling Co. Medicinal Spirits License and the Four Roses brand name. Not only did they innovate medicinal bottles, they also patented a bottle design with a pourer that made it almost impossible to refill, protecting the integrity of their whiskey. From there they would also patent a bottle with a tamper-proof seal.
At the same time, they also became advertising innovators, creating posters and billboards that are still beautiful today. The most notable advertisement at the time was the giant neon sign on the top of Times Square that appears in the background of the famous photograph from 1945, Kissing the War Goodbye.
However, thing were about to get tough. In 1946, the distillery, as well as four other American distilleries were purchased by the Seagram's Corporation. The owner of the company didn’t care so much for bourbon, as he preferred the Canadian style of blending whiskies. So by 1950 Four Roses was no longer a Bourbon. It was now a blended Whiskey. Four Roses would also get into the Light Whiskey category, which was a lighter style of whiskey meant to compete with America's growing love for white spirits and wine.
But by the 1990’s Four Roses was poised to make a comeback because of a man named Jim Rutledge. Jim started with the Seagram Company in 1966, working in research and development. Then he transferred to the corporate office in New York, where he would remain 17 years. Eventually he would request to be sent back home to Louisville with a mission to revive a brand he felt needed a little love. In 1994 the distillery was renamed the Four Roses Distillery, and Jim managed to convince Seagram's to let him bottle Four Roses Yellow Label for the first time in limited quantities for Kentucky. They were also making Bourbon for many other brands at the time, most notably Bulleit.
Four Roses Today
In 2002, Kirin purchased the brand from then owner Diageo and set about bring it nationwide — and then to globalize it. It found a special home in Japan, as for several years Four Roses Bourbon was made exclusively for Japan and was already hugely popular there. To this day, there are still certain bottlings that are only available there. This would also lead to the release of Four Roses Single Barrel in 2004 and Small Batch in 2006.
Jim would retire in 2015, having brought Four Roses back to the top of the Bourbon world and setting it up for a bright future. In 2019 ,new Master Distiller Brent Elliot released Small Batch Select as the newest permanent addition to the lineup.
A Flavor All Its Own
Maybe the most import and unique attribute of Four Roses Bourbon was born out of those Seagram years. When Seagram's purchased Four Roses originally, they also purchased four other distilleries. Each one was instructed to make 2 specific mash bills, but each distillery had its own yeast strain. In time, these ingredients would be made available to each of the distilleries. That would allow each distillery to make each of the 10 different Bourbons that Four Roses now makes. In fact, they are the only distillery to make ten different Bourbons of their own; the other four closed and Four Roses was the last one left.
Four Roses boasts 2 different mash bills (60% corn, 39% rye, 5% barley (OBS) and 75% corn, 20% rye, 5% barley (OES)) and five different yeast strains (V, K, O, Q, F). These 10 combinations make for some of the most unique and complex Bourbon available.
Here's how they break down.
The first and third letters — O & S — don’t change. The O means it is made at our (Four Roses) distillery and S stands for simple or straight whiskey, depending on what you read into it. The second letter represents the mash bill and the forth letter is for the yeast strain.
- V - delicate fruit
- K - slight spice
- O - rich fruit
- Q - Floral Essence
- F - herbal
With Father's Day fast approaching, why not pick up one of these unique blends to toast to dad?