LAWRENCEBURG — On the hill above the Salt River, the future of bourbon looks rosy indeed. Four Roses Distillery, headed for the scrap heap 20 years ago, now plans to double its distilling capacity and add warehouses — eventually more than a dozen in Bullitt County.
"Four Roses is back, and I'm comfortable in saying now we're here to stay," master distiller Jim Rutledge said.
It's very different from what Rutledge thought would happen when he came to the Kentucky plant in 1995 for Seagram. The drinks giant had planned to close the distillery, which at the time was making bourbon only for the overseas market.
Seagram eventually went out of business, and in 2002 the distillery ended up with Japanese beer maker, Kirin.
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Kirin agreed to Rutledge's request to stop selling bargain-basement blended whiskey under the venerable Four Roses label and "let us bring our bourbon back home to the U.S.," he said.
The distillery reintroduced a single-barrel bourbon in Kentucky in 2001, and within a year it was the top-selling single-barrel bourbon in the United States, Rutledge said Thursday during the ceremonial ground-breaking for the project.
During the past four years, growth has been phenomenal for the award-winning whiskey. In the United States, sales rose 42 percent in 2011, 58 percent in 2012, 71 percent in 2013 and 78 percent in 2014, he said.
"You see why we're here today," Rutledge said.
Kirin is investing $55 million in the expansion — $34 million for a duplicate column still and more fermenters at the Lawrenceburg distillery and $21 million for four new warehouses at Coxs Creek outside Bardstown.
With the second column still, capacity is scheduled to increase to about 8 million proof-gallons (about 11.2 million regular gallons), enough to fill more than 211,000 barrels a year.
The new still is expected to be completed in 2018 and create 15 jobs; the new warehouses, which Rutledge said will be the first of an expected 13, will be operational by 2022 and add about five more jobs. The warehouses will join a new 60,000-square-foot bottling plant, which will be up and running by spring 2018.
The state has approved more than $1.1 million in economic incentives for the three projects.
"Every time we sell a bottle of bourbon made here in Kentucky anywhere in the world, it sends a message about our state," Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen said at the ceremonial ground-breaking. "It sends a message about our heritage, our rich history, our traditions and the quality of our workmanship here and our commitment to excellence."
Kentucky Distillers' Association president Eric Gregory called the expansion "a dream come true for Four Roses and another chapter in its incredible success."
Thanks to the efforts to bring back heritage distilleries like Four Roses, which was established in 1888, Kentucky's bourbon industry is thriving and now is a $3 billion industry, he said.
"We are literally entering the gold age for bourbon," Gregory said.
Rutledge said he thinks Four Roses' future will be bright, and the expansion 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. Next year, Rutledge will celebrate his 50th year as a distiller; he's working on a special Four Roses release.
He said that he always knew "what we could put in a bottle" and that it would be a hit with bourbon drinkers.
Four Roses is unique among bourbons because it uses five strains of yeast and two mashbills to create nearly endless variation in flavor without elaborate warehousing routines. All of Four Roses' barrels are aged in low-level warehouses.
Rutledge does envision line extensions one day and would like to bring to the United States the Four Roses Fine Old and Four Roses Platinum, sold only in Japan.
But don't look for a cinnamon Four Roses: "You can print this in bold letters: That will never, ever happen. As long as I'm around. ... As a purist, that will never happen as long as I'm master distiller."