Drinking Bourbon with Four Roses Master Distiller Jim Rutledge

Drinking Bourbon with Four Roses Master Distiller Jim Rutledge

Having reviewed nearly a dozen different expressions of Four Roses bourbon, I’m well familiar with its famed “10 recipes” claims… but I’ve never really stopped to think about what that really means. Why would you need 10 recipes of your whiskey?

Jim Rutledge, Master Distiller at Four Roses for 40 years, stopped by San Francisco recently and, well, explained it all.

First, a little history. Four Roses as a brand dates back to 1888, and after the repeal of Prohibition it was the #1 selling bourbon in the country. Things went south after Seagram bought the brand. Way south: The company turned Four Roses into a blended whiskey, and a rotgut one at that. For decades the brand wallowed in obscurity, selling honest, high-quality bourbon overseas only, until Four Roses was finally relaunched in 2001 as the premium Kentucky Bourbon it once was. Now the company is doing some of the best and most consistent work in the bourbon world, and it was a pleasure to hear someone like Rutledge be so candid about how his product is made.

So, how does Four Roses get away with “10 recipes?” It works like this:

  • The company has two standard mashbills, a blend of grains used for fermentation. These are normally closely guarded secrets. The two mashbills are “OE:” 75% corn, 20% rye, and 5% barley. And “OB:” 60% corn, 35% rye, and 5% barley. That OB mashbill is a whole lot of rye for a bourbon.
  • To these two mashbills, the company adds five different strains of yeast, fermenting and aging them separately. Each yeast adds a much different character to the final spirit.
  • Do the math: 2 mashbills x 5 yeasts = 10 recipes.
  • After they’re aged, Four Roses then blends these various recipes into its final bourbons, with hundreds of combinations available.

And that’s why various Four Roses bottlings taste so different from one another. Four Roses Single Barrel is made exclusively from OB mash with “V” yeast, and I find it to be a very hot bourbon, where that rye content really comes through. Four Roses Small Batch is made from half OE and half OB, with each of those fermented with “K” and “O” yeast. The result is a wildly different whiskey, with an amazing balance of sweet and spice and a lush finish.

Various other bottlings — namely the annual Mariage edition — change annually.

One of the most instructive things I’ve encountered in my years of writing this blog is tasting Four Roses’ “white dog” new make spirit fermented with different yeasts. Rutledge produced samples of his OB mashbill straight off the still, one fermented with “V” yeast and one with “K.” The differences were astonishing. The OB/V was silky and smooth, not at all harsh like most white whiskeys tend to be. The OB/K was clean but with a racy spice character to it.

Now imagine what happens after these spend seven years wallowing about in oak barrels. Well, you don’t have to, I guess. You can just go out and buy them.

Christopher Null is the founder and editor in chief of Drinkhacker. A veteran writer and journalist, he also operates Null Media, a bespoke content creation company.


  1. Attente on November 3, 2010 at 8:39 am

    Thanks for revealing that much info about Four Roses “behind the curtains” process, I wholeheartedly enjoyed reading this post. Small Batch was the first bourbon I tried and it made me an immediate convert. Old Fitzerald which contains wheat instead of rye didn’t appeal to me. Now I’m about ordering a bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel but can’t decide on what to choose 43% or 50%.

  2. EricH on March 18, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    A little historical trivia about Four Roses. When Seagrams owned the distillery, Four Roses continued making great bourbon in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky while another Seagrams distillery made the rotgut (Seagrams owned the Four Roses brand name and so they slapped it on the blended whiskey). The real bourbon was taken off American shelves and sold in places such as Japan where it was really popular (which is why Kirin, their Japanese distributor, ultimately bought distillery and brand name). In fact Jim Rutledge had to fight Seagrams to allow the distillery workers the chance to purchase the product they were making (since the only other way was to hope on a flight to Japan or Europe). Jason Pyle of Sour Mash Manifesto has more details on his site but I have to say this history is interesting enough to probably fill a book.

  3. Alison webber on April 9, 2011 at 11:49 am

    The whole process is well documented. This vintage whiskey is rich in taste and leaves nothing to chance. The quality has remained the same over the years making it popular among the old folk who value quality more than quantity.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.