What I Learned From Dinner With Jim Rutledge

Last week Bourbon & Banter had the honor of hosting a Four Roses bourbon tasting dinner with Jim Rutledge as our guest of honor. Before his arrival at dinner, I was like a child at Christmas–eagerly awaiting Santa Claus to come down the chimney.

Four Roses Dinner with Jim Rutledge
There’s no better sight than a bunch of Four Roses standing at attention.

Four Roses biggest fans in St. Louis.

Last week Bourbon & Banter had the honor of hosting a Four Roses bourbon tasting dinner with Jim Rutledge as our guest of honor. Before his arrival at dinner, I was like a child at Christmas–eagerly awaiting Santa Claus to come down the chimney. I had met Jim on several occasions, but couldn’t help but be excited that he was coming to St. Louis to spend some time with the local Bourbon & Banter community. There was no doubt in my mind it was going to be an amazing evening.

Upon arrival guests were treated to one of Juniper’s signature cocktails, a local riff on a Presbyterian featuring Four Roses Yellow Label bourbon, Big O Liqueur, ginger beer and lime juice. Drink in hand, everyone met Jim before dinner and engaged in some banter with other guests. Once seated for dinner, Jim began by sharing a detailed overview of Four Roses’ history in the US and how he became involved with the brand during his years at Seagrams. As each dinner course was presented by Juniper’s chef, Jim provided an overview of each Four Roses bourbon paired with it. Over the course of the evening we sampled Four Roses Yellow Label, Small Batch, Single Barrel and a special private selection single barrel chosen by Juniper. (Special thanks to Juniper for extending an amazing offer on bottles of their selection for our guests.)

Throughout the evening Jim spared no details in answering questions and educating us on all things Four Roses. While I was already familiar with much of what Jim shared, there were some interesting nuggets I wrote down to  share with our readers.

Here’s a list of what I learned from dinner with Jim Rutledge:

  • Jim arrived at the distillery and was given six months to turn things around or face Seagrams closing it down. Through hard work, dedication and absolute attention to detail (vs focusing on volume) Jim led his team to one of the most amazing turn around acts in distilling history. He didn’t necessarily make the bean counters happy but he won over the executives and the rest is history.
  • Jim absolutely hates focus groups–with a passion. True story: At one time he was hoping to bring their Super Premium bourbon to the US market (from Japan) but a focus group study killed the idea–dead. No more discussion.
  • When Jim is asked about what he likes to drink other than Four Roses his answer is always Diet Coke. He doesn’t feel it’s fair to name any other bourbons he likes because people would automatically start judging those brands based on what he names or doesn’t name. He also keeps some Diet Coke on his bedside table in case he gets thirsty in the middle of the night. That’s some serious brand loyalty folks.
  • For the first time in decades, the US market will become the largest market for Four Roses bourbon later this year.
  • Four Roses is currently in the study phase for distillery expansion. Their biggest need currently is warehouse space to keep up with increased production. Luckily they’re freeing up warehouse space as a result of parting ways with Diageo on production of Bulleit so they don’t need to build more storage quite yet.
  • When it comes to the topic of innovation in the industry Jim said it wasn’t something he was interested in discussing. Demand for Four Roses bourbon–the labels their distilling now–is so great that it’s hard to simply keep up with demand. He doesn’t see a reason to take their eyes off the ball and try to innovate just to be trendy. His ability to focus on what matters without getting distracted, while gaining support of brand management, is what makes Jim such an amazing talent.
  • Jim’s been very vocal that there will never be a flavored whiskey at Four Roses while he’s the Master Distiller. But what about after he retires? He’s hoping that the brand will stay focused on what their doing now but he’s also concerned that there’s no one able to stand up to brand executives like he has over the years. The day he announces his retirement I suspect there will be a run on Four Roses stocks at your local liquor store.
  • When questioned about when he might retire Jim shared that it wouldn’t be long. No further details were provided so it could be anywhere from 6 months to 3 years. However, when he does retire he’s very interested in consulting around the industry. In his own words, “I enjoy nothing more than what I’m doing now.” I hate to think Four Roses without Jim but the possibilities what he could bring to other distilleries is exciting.

Without a doubt everyone walked away from dinner smarter about and more dedicated than ever to Four Roses. Jim Rutledge is the real deal and a true living legend within the whiskey community. If you ever have the chance to spend some quality time with Jim do whatever it takes to make it happen. You won’t regret it.

On behalf of Bourbon & Banter and all of our guests, I want to thank Jim again for taking the time to come to St. Louis for our event. I also want to thank our friends at Lohr Distributing for helping to coordinate the event and the staff at Juniper for a top-notch dinner. And of course, thanks to all of the members of our community who came out to spend a few hours with Jim Rutledge over some great bourbon and banter.