“The interest and enthusiasm have been unbelievable,” Jim Rutledge tells me on the phone a mere 27 hours after announcing his plans to build a midsized bourbon distillery with partners Stephen Camisa and Jon Mowry, located near Louisville, Kentucky. By 11 p.m. Thursday there had already been 11,000 visitors to the new company’s website, and within the first 30 minutes there were 333 votes for which mash bill would be produced first.
After Rutledge’s retirement from Four Roses in the fall of 2015, there was constant speculation and rumor as to what would be next for the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame Master Distiller. Some even went as far to speculate publicly he had been pushed out of his job at Four Roses, though Rutledge himself says nothing could be further from the truth. “It has been blown totally out of proportion. Everything was so amicable and there was such a pleasant atmosphere when I retired. All it takes is one speculation and pretty soon it mushrooms into something that has no foundation whatsoever.”
The facts, as Rutledge recounted to me once again on the phone, are that he was getting tired of traveling so much and he wanted to give Brent Elliott space to grow into his new role. He has attended a few private barrel selections at Four Roses since his retirement for customers who requested him, but he’s happy to turn the reins over to Elliott now.
“Brent was my choice as Master Distiller. I knew he would be great and he’s going to get better and better as the years go by. Brent is excellent. Every time I see him on TV he looks like he’s been doing it for years already. I’m very proud of him for that,” says Rutledge.
Still, severing ties has allowed Rutledge to pursue what he once considered a pipe dream – the dream of owning his own distillery. He excitedly details multiple times the plans the trio has of going green. “We want to build this midsize distillery with geothermal, solar, biomass- anything we can do to be sustainable,” he says, adding they are looking not just 10 or 15 years down the line, but 50 or 100.
They want not only to build a distillery that will last, but they also want to make the highest possible quality product. “I won’t move away from the integrity of bourbon. We will never use any flavoring components or finish it in a different barrel.” Rutledge has already pledged to produce a rye whiskey within the first year of operation, and aside from that he hopes to be able to take suggestions from the public on which bourbon mash bill they would like to see. “We will listen.” (You can vote on that here.)
The J.W. Rutledge Distillery is also involving the public in another way- via crowd funding. The Indiegogo campaign began today, Monday, May 2. “We thought it would take a few days for the word to get around, but it took hours.” The more capital they are able to raise via crowd funding, the less rigid the corporate structure will be, the thought process goes. That will free them up to focus more on making whiskey and less on pleasing investors. So if you want to keep the boardroom out of your bottle, consider kicking in a few bucks.
“With the responses we’ve had – they’ve all been so positive – I think it’s rare to find someone now who’s disappointed I won’t stay with Four Roses,” says Rutledge, reporting he’s received hundreds of phone calls, text messages, emails, and social media pings with messages of happiness and support. Indeed, the whiskey world seems to be elated with the news.
I ask him before we end the phone call if there’s anything else he wants people to know, and he laughs. “Tell them to please bear with me on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve never been on either one.” He says he’s gotten hundreds of messages on both and he just hasn’t had the time to respond to them all. “Apologize to them for me; I sincerely appreciate everyone’s support.”
One night during Derby week, I was working in the liquor store while Four Roses Master Distiller Jim Rutledge was doing a tasting. I kept trying to make my way over to talk to him, but we were super busy (did I mention it was Derby week?) and I didn't...