The day began bright an early with a bus ride to the sold-out “Let’s Talk Bourbon” show at the Four Roses Bourbon distillery. This was part of the program for the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival, which has all the major brands of bourbon whiskey in attendance.
Master Distiller Jim Rutledge led the presentation and fielded questions about the intricacies of making the best bourbon. I was surprised to learn that older bourbon isn’t usually better than younger bourbon and to obtain the desired taste, Jim and his team of tasters actually sample the batches to know just when the bourbon is the best age. It is proven that machines only can analyze to a certain depth of accuracy whereas the nose and mouth are said to be in the 3 billion range. To properly define a whiskey as bourbon, it has to contain at least 51% corn in its mashbill, be stored for at least 2 years in new charred oak barrels and be made in the USA. After the lessons on bourbon, Jim was available to sign each bottle in gold pen, which makes for a great collector bottle.
I was able to do a few interviews with local press about my experiences with Four Roses Bourbon. Before my assignment, I had many misconceptions about the production of bourbon and through this experience I have developed a fascination of the level of care that’s devoted to ensure the quality is top notch. I’d like to say my palette has expanded greatly with this experience and has reminded me of sailing for the first time. At first I didn’t know where I was going or how to manage shifts but with practice and hard work, I became comfortable in my abilities. Similarly, I did not know much about bourbon and now I feel well-versed in the product and really enjoy the finer taste deviations.
Later in the day, I was with many of the key distributors of Four Roses Bourbon at a small team dinner. I quickly learned how tightly regulated the distribution and sales of the spirits industry is today. Prohibition created a three tier system for distribution of spirits in the USA. For most states, the first tier includes the producer, i.e. Four Roses Bourbon. The second tier is the distributor, or in some regions, a broker. I found it interesting that the state is the distributor for 17 states across the USA. Finally, the third tier includes the premises, or the bars, restaurants and stores that deliver to the end user.
How fascinating that despite the evolution in the spirits industry, some of the historical practices, such as the three-tier system and the high taxes on bourbon still exists today! In Kentucky Four Roses Bourbon pays tax as soon as the bourbon is poured in the barrel and pays tax each year it ages in the warehouse! Much effort was made to encourage distributors to support the Four Roses Bourbon brand and this dinner helped relay that message of appreciation.