Earlier this year, legendary Four Roses Master Distiller Jim Rutledge announced his retirement and named his replacement – Quality Director and current co-Master Distiller of Four Roses, Brent Elliott. On the eve of Brent assuming the title of Master Distiller, he was kind enough to answer a couple of questions via email regarding his new position, the future of Four Roses, and the upcoming Limited Edition Small Batch release.
BC: Brent, in just a few weeks’ time you are taking on the role of Master Distiller at Four Roses, replacing Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Famer Jim Rutledge as he retires. On top of the exhaustive duties that job title normally carries, the last few years have seen it elevated to a sort of rock star status among bourbon enthusiasts, with countless trips, tastings, and publicity that go along with it. How do you prepare for a change like that?
BE: Let me start with the easy part. The core of what I will be doing publicly will be sharing my knowledge, experience and passion with fellow bourbon enthusiasts. It is easy to talk about something that I have been involved with daily for the past 10 years. Because I love the industry, my job, and Four Roses it’s exciting to meet people and talk about bourbon.
When I was fresh out of college and considering different careers, I always knew that I was not cut out for Sales in any capacity. I knew that I had no gift for approaching strangers and trying to sell a product. I just assumed this meant I was a bit of an introvert. In all of my interactions with consumers and enthusiasts, I never feel that I am trying to sell or promote our bourbon. People come out to meet US. Everyone is so genuinely curious about bourbon and Four Roses that it makes public interactions fulfilling and fun. That aspect of my job allows me to meet wonderful people and make new friends with a common passion. It’s really hard to call that a “job” with a straight face.
The challenging part of my new role will be balancing my continuing role as Quality Director and the aspects of Master Distiller that involve the public. As much as I like to travel and promote Four Roses, my primary obligation will always be the quality and consistency of the bourbon. If we don’t maintain the same exceptional quality that has earned us our loyal fanbase, then I am not fulfilling my primary goal as Master Distiller. Of course I will be travelling, but I have to keep my priorities straight.
BC: Tell us a bit about your background in the whiskey industry, and your current role as Director of Quality at Four Roses.
BE: I began at Four Roses 10 year ago as an assistant manager of Quality Control. I immediately started working in the lab and began my training in sensory evaluation and mingling. Soon I became more involved in all aspects of QA and QC from the raw materials to the finished product. My role in the blending of our products grew until 2009 when I became the Senior Manager of Quality and assumed the responsibility of leading our sensory team and mingling of our products. This gave me the opportunity to work with Jim Rutledge in formula creation and all Single Barrel Selections.
BC: Besides continuing to make quality bourbon, what would you want your legacy as Master Distiller at Four Roses to be?
BE: At this point thinking about my legacy is a stretch for me. Frankly the idea of being the Master Distiller has not entirely “sunk in”, yet. I just want to do my best to maintain the quality of Four Roses and help grow the brand to share it with more consumers. I think that as long as I am successful at that, a great legacy will take care of itself.
BC: Jim Rutledge has repeatedly stated his dislike for flavored whiskey. What’s your stance?
BE: I think some people’s concern is that part of the identity of bourbon lies in its tradition and that the increasing number of “modified” bourbons could jeopardize this intangible part of its appeal. I believe that as long as all labelling is honest and the very important line between bourbon and bourbon-derived products is not blurred, the integrity and mystique of bourbon will be unaffected. Only time will tell, but ultimately I hope the people that otherwise would not have tried bourbon will find their way to embracing straight bourbon through these flavored products.
I take absolutely no issue with any brand that adds a flavored whiskey to its portfolio, but at the same time I have no desire for Four Roses to develop or offer any type of flavored product. Our talent and focus is making Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey.
BC: Any talks of or experimentation with a rye whiskey at Four Roses? What’s the possibility of a rye release in the future?
BE: At Four Roses we love rye. As you know, both of our mashbills are high in rye content because we love the robust structure and flavors that it imparts. Right now, however, we can barely keep up with the incredible demand for our straight bourbon whiskey. Currently that is our primary focus. Ask me again in a few years.
BC: The 2015 release of the Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch is soon approaching. When is it supposed to be released? What are your thoughts, compared to last year’s release?
BE: This will be released just before the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in September. Without doing calculations or looking back through my records, I think this is one of the oldest (if not oldest) of all our past LE SMBs. It is a combination of 11, 14, 15, and 16 year old batches. The challenge with these older batches is to make a blend which highlights the positive characteristics of the oak AND reduces any astringency or flat oak character that can come with extra age. This bourbon achieves that balance perfectly. I’m sure this one will be very well received.
I had a chance to speak with Brent in person during Tales of the Cocktail 2015 here in New Orleans. This guy is the real deal. We talked bourbon and Four Roses for about 30 or so minutes. The conversation could have easily gone on for another hour or so. There’s no doubt in me the quality of Four Roses bourbon will remain, but I wonder about future Small Batch limited releases during Brent’s tenure. I don’t pose that thought in a negative or doubtful light. It’s pure curiosity as a bourbon enthusiast and Four Roses fan. The last several years have seen some outstanding releases, and I can’t wait to see how he mingles some of Four Roses’ ten bourbon recipes. Brent fully assumes the role of Master Distiller of Four Roses on September 1, 2015.