Behind the Bar Bar Talk

Bourbon Distiller Jim Rutledge Talks Life After Four Roses

After 50-plus years making bourbon with Four Roses, master distiller Jim Rutledge retired in 2015. But where most retirees would settle in to relax or play a round of golf, Rutledge promptly started setting up his own venture, J. W. Rutledge Distillery, where he’ll be making bourbon (natch) and other whiskeys in Middletown, Ky.

Of course, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. An initial plan to crowdfund the distillery via Indiegogo was shuttered, plus an ambitious emphasis on environmental sustainability means a slow, deliberate build of the facility. But Rutledge has big plans, and he chatted with us about what’s in store.

Four Roses Distillery

Tell us about your time at Four Roses. What were the highlights?

I had been there almost 21 years when I retired. Four Roses was part of Seagram’s, and so I’d been with the same company since 1966—nearly 50 years.

I worked in the New York corporate headquarters for about 15 years and was trying to get Seagram’s to bring Four Roses back—it had been export-only since the late 1950s. I didn’t have much success until I got to the distillery in the early ’90s. Bringing Four Roses back to the U.S. was the major highlight. In 2012, Whisky Advocate named Four Roses the best whiskey of the year, and in 2013, it won global whiskey of the year. There were many more awards for the bourbons, but those two acknowledgements were highlights. To consistently put the good quality of bourbon into the bottle has always been my focus.

After 50 years in the biz, most people would just retire. What made you decide to pursue your own distillery now?

It didn’t take me long to realize that it wasn’t my cup of tea. I worked all my life and stayed busy, and I loved that part of the business. To me, it’s very exciting, starting a distillery.

What do you have planned whiskey-wise?

We will have four different bourbon mash bills, plus a rye whiskey. The focus will be on straight bourbons and ryes.

Four Roses was very dedicated. We used two high-rye mash bills, higher than any of the other major [bourbon] distilleries. We focused on what we did, doing it right. I had suggested maybe 10 years ago that we needed to make a straight rye whiskey; I thought it would have a place in the distilled spirits market. I was never able to convince anyone to do it. I also want to make a bourbon with wheat as opposed to rye. At Four Roses, there was never an opportunity to do anything different, because the demand for what we had was so high.

We’ve heard rumblings about an environmental focus at the new distillery. What’s the plan?

We want to do something unique—to build an environmentally friendly, sustainable distillery. It will be the first globally, if we can accomplish it. Geothermal for heating and A.C., solar panels to generate electricity to run the facility. And we’re talking with someone to have a geomass system on the property. We can use our waste bioproducts to generate the energy to run the distillery, at least to supplement the natural gas. It’s really unique and different, building for the future. It’s exciting doing this sort of thing.

Sounds great! So how far along are things?

We’re raising capital; we have several commitments. A lot of people are willing to help us because they think it’s exciting, and some people would like to help us in exchange for a piece of equity. We need investors who understand our business. It’s not a quick return on money.

In the meantime, we’ve found the ideal property we want. Once [the property is secured] and we have the investment in hand, I want to be part of the whole process while we’re building and constructing. After the building is in place, I look forward to being back at the distillery every day and making straight bourbons and straight ryes.