LAWRENCEBURG — Imagine you are a young man with a passion for chemistry. You've loved it ever since you first combined baking soda and vinegar in an empty soda bottle. As you grew older, learning about the noble gases inspired you; the letters on the periodic table — Mg, Be, Ag — became as potent symbols of life's mysteries as AAPL (Apple) and WMT (Wal-Mart) are to finance majors.
It's 2005. Brent Elliott, a University of Kentucky graduate with a degree in chemistry, is working down in the land of Tennessee whiskey. He's browsing jobs online when suddenly he sees a posting by Four Roses Distillery that sounds too good to be true. It was looking for someone to perform quality control.
"I jumped on it," says Elliott. "I'd always been a fan of bourbon. On the way to the interview, I stopped in Bowling Green to sample Four Roses." And the verdict? "I thought it was the best bourbon I'd ever tasted."
Old brand, new lease on life
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If the name Four Roses doesn't immediately bring to mind top-quality bourbon, it just means you haven't heard about the brand's resurgence during the past decade. But that's OK because the people who work at the picturesque 100-year-old distillery on the banks of the Salt River outside Lawrenceburg are proud of their products and the care that goes into them, and happy to explain what sets them apart.
In the first half of the 20th century, Four Roses was one of the best-selling bourbons in America. But in the second half of the century, under Seagram's ownership, all Four Roses bourbon was marketed exclusively overseas. In America, the label was used on mediocre blended whiskey. But since 2002, when it was bought by Kirin Brewery Co., the distillery has been focused solely on making premium bourbon for the U.S. and overseas markets. Whisky magazine recently named Four Roses the 2011 "Icons of Whisky America" Distiller of the Year.
Elliott, 36, is now five years into his job as senior manager of quality control for Four Roses. It's his responsibility to make sure "everything that goes into the bottle is quality bourbon," he says. He performs tests and analyses with fancy instruments, but his own sensitive olfactory nerves are also crucial to the job. "When I was hired I wasn't sure I had a special nose, but it's been developed."
In his office on a recent day he's surrounded by bottles containing the "standard" — for comparison purposes — and smaller bottles containing the crystal-clear liquid known as "white dog" that's fresh off the tailbox after its second distillation. White dog — a more evolved white lightning — has seen its popularity soar recently; it's being sold by Buffalo Trace and a growing number of craft distilleries out of state. But the white dog at Four Roses is headed for barrels in the distillery's Cox's Creek warehouses after it's approved by the panel of trained noses that Elliott oversees.
"Everyone's nose has strengths and weaknesses," says Elliott, so they need an assortment to make sure nothing falls through the gaps.
The best part of being senior manager for quality control is evaluating barrels for the first time, Elliott says, after the white oak and the white dog have teamed to create a mellow, caramel-colored elixir that hints of vanilla and light fruit.
This chemistry major still finds himself wondering how he got where he is. "It's one of those jobs you think don't exist. Then there you are, you're the bourbon taster."