LAWRENCEBURG — Ryan Ashley, director of distillery operations for Four Roses, used to be, as he says, "a beer guy through and through."
One grandfather was a brewer for 40 years, the other worked for Red Star Yeast. His great-grandfather ran a still. As a boy in Milwaukee, he was surrounded by stories of bootleggers.
But after graduating from Marquette University, what had been a hobby became both an obsession and a profession. He studied brewing in Munich and is currently working on a master's in distillation and fermentation from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. He opened a brewery, was a beer judge, consultant and home craft brewer. "Every beer had to be unique," he says.
Eventually he took a job with Miller Brewing Co. in Los Angeles, thinking that would get him back to his hometown of Milwaukee. But "Miller wanted to send me to different plants," which didn't work well with a young family. And besides, he says his job was so disconnected from the product that "for all intents and purposes Miller could have been making laundry detergent."
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Ashley, 39, started with Four Roses in January 2007. He took the job because at the Lawrenceburg operation he's able to wrap his arms around the whole process — which "up until distillation is incredibly close to beer."
It's Ashley's job to ensure everything is running smoothly, which means he's constantly monitoring for consistency and tweaking for the best results. "Do we need to apply more steam, raise or lower the temperature? Some of it is proactive, some is reactive." Some of it is done from a computer in his office, but regular walkthroughs are essential in order to listen, smell, taste ...
So what is that in the air? "I'm smelling a cook," Ashley says. The telltale aroma wafts by as he's walking from one building to another. He can sniff out where they are in the process of converting starch to sugar. "On the other side of the building we'd get the CO2 of fermentation, champagne for your nose." Nearby, a truck is loading up, one of two each day that carry distillate down to Cox's Creek, about 45 minutes away, to be put in barrels. It will spend five to 12 or more years there before it's deemed ready for the bottle. The time-consuming process that drew him to Four Roses is far removed from his old job at Miller, something that clearly pleases him.
"What sets us apart? Quality," says Ashley. "When we do tastings with anyone, we lay out our products next to those of our competitors."
Back in the day, Ashley's grandfather used to enjoy a sip of the old Four Roses. Now, says Ashley, after several years working along the Salt River, "bourbon has become what beer once was for me."