Photo by J. Christian Walsh

March 13, 2013

Profiles in flavor

Meet three of Kentucky’s most intriguing distillers

Talking about flavor profiles with a master distiller can make you almost as hungry as it does thirsty. Taken out of context, those appetizing descriptors like vanilla, nutmeg, hints of wild berry and so on can make it sound as though a cake is about to come out of the oven. One legendary distiller has been known to take the solid food analogy a step further, offering at least one visitor a handful of malt to snack on.

The world certainly seems to have acquired a taste for America’s native spirit. The silver lining from the retracted proof reduction at Maker’s Mark last month was how it highlighted the demand for Kentucky bourbon around the globe. Japan, Australia and much of Europe have been strong markets for some time. Now countries like India — which already consumes about as much whiskey as the rest of the world combined — have increased orders for imported brands by up to 40 percent.

The master distillers we spoke with all agreed that the current bourbon boom is unlike any they’ve seen in their careers. This is saying something, considering how long some of these guys have been in the game.

“Bourbon is going absolutely crazy right now — domestically and internationally,” says Jim Rutledge, the master distiller from Four Roses who broke in with the company back in 1966.

The legendary Jimmy Russell, who joined Wild Turkey in 1954 at age 19, agreed, “The last 20 years, it’s just been going-going-going!”

Despite the rosy outlooks — which include National Geographic recently listing the Kentucky Bourbon Trail as one of the world’s “Top 10 Spring Destinations” — the three distillers we spoke with all stopped short of saying the boom is here to stay. Part of this can be attributed to the predictive nature of making a product that won’t be ready for six, eight, 10 years or more.

Another contributor to their cautious optimism might be Prohibition’s long hangover and other factors that have caused each of these three distilleries to shut down for considerable stretches.

The recently rebooted Willett Distillery, for example, was dormant for years following a short-lived conversion to ethanol production in the early-’80s. Four Roses straight bourbon completely evaporated from the United States from 1960 until 2004 due to the questionable decisions of the Seagram’s CEO at the time, Samuel Bronfman.

A distiller can never be certain what the next calendar might bring: drought, tornado or, as Jimmy Russell learned one “beautiful, sun-shiny day,” a warehouse inferno.

When the river was whiskey

- Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey

In 1930, Charlie Poole sang, “If the river was whiskey and I was a duck, I’d dive to the bottom and never come up.” In May 2000, this was an unfortunate reality for many of the creatures that called a 66-mile stretch of the Kentucky River home. A seven-story warehouse at the Austin, Nichols Distillery burned to the ground that day, spilling thousands of gallons of flaming bourbon into the river and setting it ablaze.

Jimmy Russell reflected on that day and many others in his distinguished career as distiller of the “kickin’ chicken,” “dirty bird,” “screaming eagle,” or the great bourbon better known as Wild Turkey.

LEO: Things have changed a lot since your first day here.

Jimmy Russell: Bourbon, when I started in the business, was a Southern gentlemen’s drink. They got off work in the afternoon. They went to their favorite bar. They got their bourbon. They got their cigars. They went to the back and played cards. The last 30 years or so, it’s been different. The ladies are a big part of the bourbon market now. The foreign markets have really come big. Australians are paying huge for us. And the last few years, the young cocktail mixers, the mixologists, they’ve really gone big into the rye whiskeys and bourbons.

LEO: Today we have access to information like never before. People want to know everything. Has that contributed to what you’re seeing in the business?

JR: Oh, yes. Nowadays, people’s well educated. If you don’t believe it, go on straightbourbon.com, Bourbon Society, Women’s Whiskey Society. They’re up on it all the time, worldwide. They know exactly what’s up. I tease; on the production end, we’re all in it together. But Maker’s comes out, they’re lowering their proof, and bang-bang, everybody’s right on top of ’em. Forty years ago, it would’ve been done and nobody’d ever know about it. That’s how things have changed.

LEO: The Maker’s story highlighted the demand for the product. Is this the biggest boom you’ve ever seen?

JR: Yes, since I’ve been in it. The last 20 years, it’s just been going-going-going. Everybody’s had to increase capacity, and bourbon’s one of the things you can’t make today and sell tomorrow. You have to plan way in advance. We’re eight to 12 years old. When we have a big upswing, we can’t meet the demand a lot of times.

LEO: When you’re looking for that perfect, single-barrel whiskey, what are the qualities you’re after?

JR: At Wild Turkey, the basics we’re looking for is the caramel, the vanilla, the sweetness. Good aroma. One of the most important things in tasting is aroma. Good color: deep, rich amber color. In bourbon, that’s natural, you can’t make it whatever color you want. And the finish: It should leave a good, clean taste in your mouth.

LEO: The fire you had here was big news. What are your memories of it?

JR: I was in Spain at the time.

LEO: Maybe that’s why it happened.

JR: Haha, no. They called me. I never will forget it. We lost 17,281 barrels. I’ll remember that number as long as I live. It flowed over into the river. Lit the river on fire. If we had a whole year in that building, 17,000 barrels of one season, we would have been really hurting. We try to space our barrels throughout the buildings. Tornadoes, we’re big on tornadoes. If you had a tornado and lost a 20,000-barrel house, you can see what that’d do if it were all the same year. So, we try to spread ours out so there’s some of each year in every building.

LEO: What’s excited you most in your long career?

JR: Seeing how bourbon has become a worldwide drink. Women, ladies — we’ve never had this problem in Kentucky — but seeing ladies in the whiskey business worldwide. This has changed in my lifetime. And then I’ve had the opportunity to be with a lot of the older people — and I’m old, too. That’s been great for me. Jim Rutledge at Four Roses, Parker Beam and I are about the three oldest ones left. My good friend at Buffalo Trace, Elmer Lee, he’ll be 94 this August, and he’s still around!

LEO: Jim Rutledge told me one prerequisite for becoming a master distiller is being old. But it is convenient that you have these younger guys who have that thirst for knowledge.

JR: It’s good. Younger people coming in, just like we were when we all started! We were younger people, too, once.

LEO: To an outsider like myself, “master distiller” seems on par with being a professional video-game tester. Is this a dream job?

JR: I’m going into my 59th year, and it’s not a job. Somebody asked when I was going to retire. The first day it becomes a job. That’s when it’s time for me to go home. I enjoy getting up and making my rounds. I walk the fermenters every morning. I sit down and talk with the operators. I’ll do the same thing on the second shift this afternoon. The other thing is being with all the other master distillers. We’re in competition, but we’re real close friends. We do what we can to help each other. That’s what I enjoy so much.

A run for the roses

- Jim Rutledge of Four Roses

“The Roses Summer Sour: It’s a 10 oz. air conditioner,” read a mid-’60s magazine ad that ran the same year Jim Rutledge joined Four Roses’ research and development team.

Air conditioning? The round, robust Four Roses that Rutledge loved — the country’s No. 1 selling straight bourbon before it was pulled from the market by Seagram’s in the late 1950s — wasn’t something one should equate with a box that blows cool air. Nor should it be distilled from 63-percent grain neutral spirits. That’s neutral, as in, not tasting like anything.

He may not have known it at the time, but this was an argument Rutledge would make for decades with the Seagram’s marketers.

“I’d been trying for years to make that blended whiskey go away. The people in New York knew they were going to hear it in every conversation. ‘When are you going to get rid of this rotgut with our name on it?’ Well, they weren’t going to stop saying no, and I wasn’t going to stop trying.”

It would take millions to correct CEO Sam Bronfman’s mistake of switching to blended whiskey, the company was fond of reminding Rutledge, who would become Four Roses’ master distiller in 1995.

A sea change occurred when Seagram’s went out of business in 2001. As a top-selling bourbon in Japan, it perhaps comes as no surprise that when Kirin Breweries took over Four Roses, they saw things Rutledge’s way. By 2002, the master distiller hired an agency that would scour the country for every bottle of Four Roses Blended Whiskey they could find. The “rotgut” was pulled from bars and liquor-store shelves and subsequently destroyed by the agents before anyone at Kirin could change their mind. Making those yellow labels disappear was the completion of one of Rutledge’s career-long ambitions.

Now he could get to work on another: bringing his bourbon back home, which in its 40-plus-year absence, remained one of the most highly regarded bourbons overseas. Since reintroducing Four Roses Single Barrel in 2004, Rutledge’s whiskey has grown: up 58 percent last year and 42 percent the year before that.

Perhaps the ultimate symbol of Four Roses’ successful return home, and the great run that followed, will be the limited-edition barrels Rutledge selects this month with Penny Chenery, the 91-year-old former owner of Secretariat. Chenery has chosen to commemorate the 40th anniversary of her racehorse’s historic Triple Crown victories with her favorite bourbon. It will be sold at the Kentucky Derby Museum, as well as in Maryland and New York, the other two jewels in the Triple Crown.

“There were those who said it’d be too hard to bring Four Roses back to Kentucky, and here we are being selected as Secretariat’s official bourbon,” Rutledge says. “I’m living a dream come true.”

Viejo Kentucky

- Drew Kulsveen of Willett Distillery

Mexican bourbon? Such a thing once existed, as you’ll learn when touring the Willett Distillery, a boutique, family-run brand in Bardstown that recently fired up its stills again after a lengthy hiatus. One of the vestiges of the Mexican whiskey era is in use here, a towering, 60-foot column still that the Willett family uses to strip away impurities in its distiller’s beer.

Drew Kulsveen, the 32-year-old exception to Jim Rutledge’s rule that master distillers must be older than the hills, informs me that the unusual still once belonged to the Waterfill and Frazier Distillery, established in Anderson County, Ky., back in 1810. At the onset of Prohibition, the company disassembled its distillery and physically moved the entire thing to Juarez.

The column still, which bears the familiar label of Louisville’s Vendome Copper and Brass Co., has found its way back home. So, too, have the old Willett mash bill recipes, which are once again being put to good use.

It’s somewhat ironic that with brandy and cognac producers dating back to 17th century France, Kulsveen and family are kind of the new kids on the block. Currently, they bottle brands like Rowan’s Creek and Johnny Drum, while sourcing outside whiskeys to fulfill their flagship Pot Still Reserve and Family Estate Bourbon.

Kulsveen says his father’s 35 years of blending expertise — a skill Evan Kulsveen passed down to son Drew — has allowed Willett to develop some strong flavor profiles.

Asked what they’re looking for in the selection process, Kulsveen answers, “Something fairly graceful. Light, not necessarily in flavor, but very little burn. We try to maintain the honeyed nose with a little bit of citrus, notes of butterscotch and nutmeg. This is what’s most important.”

The blending of open-market whiskeys will cease, of course, once the barrels they’re laying down today reach that happy place — a period that will last five to seven years. Kulsveen knows the namesake bourbon that eventually comes out of its white oak resting place will differ from what they’re currently bottling but says they’ll cross that marketing bridge when they come to it. For now, time is on Willett’s side, and the mystery of what’s in the 19 barrels they produce here each day is providing quite a thrill.

In an appeal to the hypothetical bourbon drinker who has not heard of his brand, Kulsveen says, “Come see what we’re doing. You’ll understand. We’re a very small producer and can focus on the old-fashioned methods of doing things. We’re trying to recreate the small, family distillery. You can grasp that when you come here. The process is still the same. It’s not something you can screw around with: grain, water, yeast, barrel and time.”

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