Master distiller Jim Rutledge, who almost single-handedly resuscitated the Four Roses bourbon brand, announced that he will retire Sept. 1 after almost 50 years in the business.
Rutledge, who will be 72 in December, said Wednesday that the decision was difficult but that he will continue to work with Four Roses as a consultant.
"The difference will be I can choose when and where I work, and I can spend more time at home," with his wife, Beverly, he said. "I feel like I've cheated my family over the years, I've put so much of my heart and soul in the distillery."
Rutledge said he also hopes to get back into actual distilling, perhaps with the many start-up distilleries that ask for his input.
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"I can't ever envision myself picking up a fishing pole or golf clubs. I have to have something to do," Rutledge said. "I feel like I could go another 10 years or more, but I've chosen to do it in a different way, on a more relaxed basis and still do some good for Four Roses."
After the distillery announced in May a $55 million expansion that will double the Lawrenceburg distillery's capacity, Rutledge said, "Four Roses is back, and I'm comfortable in saying now we're here to stay."
When Rutledge came to the plant 20 years ago, its bourbon was being sold only overseas. Drinkers in the United States could buy a bottle of Four Roses, but the label was about the only thing remaining from the original whiskey.
In 2002, Japanese beer maker Kirin took over, and Rutledge begged them to "let us bring our bourbon back home to the U.S.," he said.
Kirin agreed, recalling and destroying all the bottles of bargain-basement blended whiskey. The distillery reintroduced a single-barrel bourbon in Kentucky, and it has since become one of the most honored whiskeys in the industry, with phenomenal sales growth.
Four Roses Distillery CEO and president Satoko Yoshida said in a news release that Rutledge will be succeeded by quality director Brent Elliott, who will transition to the role of master distiller.
"With Brent's knowledge of the Bourbon industry, the distillery process, and his passion for all facets of Four Roses Distillery operations, I have every confidence the growth of Four Roses Bourbons will continue under Brent's leadership," Rutledge said in the news release. He said there are no plans to change Four Roses' process, recipe or use of five yeast strains, which make it unique in the bourbon industry.
While Rutledge might remain as a master distiller emeritus, it's unclear whether a special release to honor his tenure is still coming next year. Rutledge had previously said that Four Roses planned one for him and for longtime brand ambassador Al Young.
Rutledge said Wednesday that it would be up to Four Roses. "It's OK with me either way," he said. "I just won't be there to do it."
In a statement, Yoshida thanked Rutledge for his dedication and loyalty to Four Roses.
"He will be missed as the 'face of Four Roses Bourbon,' but we now wish him much happiness and success in his retirement years. I am also excited to have the opportunity to work with Brent in his new capacity as master distiller," she said.
Last month, Rutledge said in an interview with the Herald-Leader that the expansion, which includes building new warehouses in Bullitt County, will enable the brand to increase sales substantially from the 700,000 cases sold last year.
"We're just beginning to scratch the surface," Rutledge said. "Ten, 15 years from now, our case sales may be tenfold what they are today."
This year, he said, the United States will become Four Roses' top market, outselling Japan, where it is the second-best-selling bourbon, behind Jim Beam.
In 2001, Rutledge was inducted into the inaugural class of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. He was given a "Lifetime Achievement Award" by Malt Advocate Magazine in 2007, and in 2008, Whisky Magazine named him the American Whiskey Ambassador of the Year. In 2012, Whisky Magazine also named Rutledge to its Icons of Whisky Hall of Fame for global whiskies. He was only the second American so honored.
"Jim Rutledge has become synonymous with the highest standard of excellence in distilling and is one of the commonwealth's most treasured bourbon ambassadors," said Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers' Association, in a statement. "Jim's passion for Kentucky is legendary, as evidenced by his driving role behind the rebirth of Four Roses. In addition, he was a long-serving member of the Kentucky Distillers' Association board of directors and spent many years guiding the growth of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival as its chairman representing the KDA. ... On behalf of the Kentucky Distillers' Association and all our members, we wish Jim the best in his retirement and thank him for his years of outstanding service. We also congratulate and welcome Brent Elliott to his role as Master Distiller, and we look forward to spending many mellow moments with him as the new face of Four Roses Bourbon."