After nearly 50 years in the industry, Master Distiller of Four Roses Jim Rutledge is retiring effective September 1. This doesn’t mean he won’t still be around as a brand ambassador. In fact, after speaking with him it doesn’t sound like he has plans to slow down much, if at all. The Whiskey Wash recently sat down with Jim Rutledge to learn more about the path that led him to become one of the most highly respected figures in the bourbon industry.
Rutledge never had a clear idea of what he wanted to be when he grew up. He recalls he didn’t even have a television until he was 7 or 8 years old, and instead created his own fun outside year round. By the time he started college at The University of Louisville, he had aspirations of becoming a mechanical engineer. After changing directions several times during his college career, first to science, then arts and sciences, then business school, he finally settled on a marketing degree.
Rutledge had been working at Sears throughout college in the credit collections department, where he would remain for a time after graduating from The University of Louisville. He made the conscious decision not to take whatever job offer came along first, noting he wanted to be sure he would end up on a career path and not just in a job. Then came two job offers- one at Phillip Morris in Louisville and the other in Research and Design at Seagrams.
Over the years Rutledge would work in almost every department at Seagrams, from production management to bottling. In 1977 he was transferred to New York with only two weeks’ notice. “Back then I thought it was the end of the world and I’d never see another tree,” he recalls, adding if it hadn’t been such short notice he might have tried to find another job instead. At the same time, the trains were converting from diesel to electric, which meant a significant commute. This two and a half hour commute was taxing, but once the trains were converted and the commute shrank down to about an hour an fifteen minutes things got better for Rutledge.
In 1988 he moved again to another Seagrams facility, this time in White Plains, NY. “All of a sudden I could drive again,” he laughs, adding there were lots of trees in White Plains. “[But] the entire time I was up there I was trying to get back to Kentucky.”
His opportunity came during his 1990 performance review with industry mentor Stanley Bershaw. Bershaw was about to retire, and Rutledge took the opportunity to ask to be transferred back to Kentucky. Rutledge was back in Kentucky by 1992 working in a barrel warehouse facility.
Rutledge was asked to be the Master Distiller in 1994. After traveling back to White Plains to train his replacement there, he became the Master Distiller of Four Roses in 1995. The Lawrenceburg facility had been experiencing some quality issues and Rutledge was tasked, under threat of a shut down, with turning things around. He recalls not wanting to tell those working under him because it would have destroyed everyone there.
Though he had been out of distilling operations for quite some time at that point, he was successful in turning things around at the Lawrenceburg plant. Unfortunately, most of what was being produced at the Lawrenceburg facility was for the export market. The Four Roses whiskey that was on the market since 1945 was a blended whiskey- first an “A” blend of all whiskeys, and later a “B” blend that included grain neutral spirits in 60% of the bottle. That whiskey wasn’t even produced by Four Roses- it was distilled in Indiana, Maryland. It was garbage, and Jim Rutledge knew it was hurting the Four Roses name. He’d asked Seagrams to stop producing it, to no avail. Just one month after Kirin bought Four Roses from Seagrams in late 2001, the blended whiskey that caused so much damage to the Four Roses name ceased to be.
Rutledge set out to turn the brand’s image around. He knew that simply releasing Four Roses bourbon in the United States wouldn’t be enough. Four Roses Single Barrel was released in September 2004, followed two years later by Four Roses Small Batch. Though the focus was on the premium offerings, the Yellow Label Four Roses continued to gain momentum in the background as Rutledge convinced the higher-ups not to discontinue it and instead just see how things would progress. It’s now their biggest seller.
Rutledge is well known for pounding the pavement during the early years and getting the new American releases into the hands of bartenders and liquor store owners. “All we had to do was find a way to get people to try what was in the bottle,” he says. There were instances where he had bottles in his car that he traded with bartenders to get the old blended Four Roses off the shelf, but it really came down to spending time connecting with consumers. He’d go out to any liquor store to sign bottles, telling one owner to schedule him 7 days a week. “Be careful what you wish for,” he chuckled, recalling the story.
Three things contributed to the rise of Four Roses in America, according to Rutledge. First, the premium releases’ rapid popularity slowed the negative association of Four Roses caused by the discontinued blended whiskey. Second, social media changed the way information was disseminated to consumers. If someone tries a new bourbon and puts it on social media it’s around the world the next day, says Rutledge. Third, education, both domestically and internationally, has turned perception around. “[Kentucky] makes the best bourbon in the world, always has and always will,” he says.
It’s worth noting that even though Rutledge is largely responsible for saving Four Roses, ending the negative perception of the brand, and turning Four Roses into a multiple award-winning line of bourbons, he is hesitant to take credit. “People say, ‘You are Four Roses.’ That’s crazy. I’m one person and I can be replaced.” He was careful to choose a time to retire that would benefit the brand. “We’re on solid ground . . . we have tremendous momentum.” He wanted to leave his successor in the best possible position possible. He chose Brent Elliot, Director of Quality at Four Roses, as his replacement because he wanted someone who would be focused on quality to lead the brand into the future.
In addition to continuing to promote Four Roses as the Master Distiller Emeritus after retirement, Rutledge hopes to do some consulting work with smaller distilleries. “I could never promote another brand,” he says, “but supporting and teaching isn’t going to interfere. The better these small guys are, the better we all are. When they put out bad bourbon, it hurts the name of bourbon. It can only help our industry.” While he’d like to stay focused on Kentucky, he’s not placing that limit on himself.
Jim Rutledge may be retiring, but he’s going to have a hand in promoting bourbon as a category and Four Roses as a brand well into the future.