In 1884, one Paul Jones Jr. moved his grocery business from Atlanta, Georgia to Louisville, Kentucky, where he took premises at 118 East Main Street, a part of the street nicknamed ‘Whiskey Row’. But it was not until four years later that he trademarked the name Four Roses, claiming production and sales back to the 1860s. If this creates some confusion around the actual date Four Roses bourbon emanates from, it illustrates that even back then makers were already becoming marketeers and seeking heritage and provenance for their brands.
Jones also either knew how to tell a good brand story or was something of a charmer: chances are he was both. One story goes that Jones was so smitten by a beautiful southern belle that he sent a proposal of marriage. She replied saying that if her answer was ‘yes’, then she would wear a corsage of roses on her dress to the upcoming grand ball. Jones excitedly anticipated her answer and on the night of the ball she did indeed wear a corsage of four red roses. Sadly, it’s just a great brand story and despite his undoubted talents as a charmer, Jones never married. This romantic tail is further dashed by the back label of some old bottles of Four Roses explaining that the name celebrates the four daughters of the Rose family, though their relationship with Jones is not substantiated.
However, it appears that in the 19th century there indeed was a ‘secret language’ that people called the “Victorian Language of the Flowers.” People would pass – by messenger or other means – flowers from one to another and the number of flowers passed, and the colour, sent a specific message. In essence, passing of one flower from one person to another indicated that the sender was wishing to enter into a contractual agreement with the recipient of the flower. The return of “two” flowers ensured the original sender that the contract (proposal in this instance) had been received. If the original sender ultimately received three flowers in return the contract/proposal was rejected, while the receipt of four flowers indicated acceptance. The colour red indicated love and passion.
Paul Jones died in 1895 and the business was taken over by his nephew, Lawrence Lavelle Jones. Whether or not he was a charmer is not recorded, but he was certainly a romantic and when his beloved wife died in 1938, Lawrence sealed her room to become a shrine to her.
Prohibition was enacted on 16-January 1919 and hit America when enforcement started a year later. Rather than concentrate on other areas of the family grocery business, Lawrence saw and ceased an opportunity. Two years into Prohibition the Paul Jones Company purchased the Frankfort Distilling Company and its Old Prentice Distillery. Although, like all other distilleries it was rendered non-operational, it was one of six distilleries granted permits to sell their existing stocks of bourbon for medicinal purposes.
Built in 1910 in the ‘mission’ architectural style, the Old Prentice Distillery lies just across the Bonds Mill Road from a previous distillery originally established in 1818 by ‘Old Joe’ Peyton, whose Old Joe whiskey is considered to be bourbon’s oldest brand. Old Joe had chosen this spot, near the mouth of Gilbert’s Creek on the Salt River, due to the plentiful supply of soft water and local grain supplies. The Old Prentice Distillery has long since been renamed the Four Roses Distillery and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
An antique one pint bottle of Four Roses from the Prohibition period is displayed at the distillery. The label describes it as “an alcoholic stimulant made from the fermented mash of grain” and below this the Sparks Drugs Store dosage label prescribes that the patient, one Chas Bliveir, should take 1 ounce of the 100 proof whiskey in water. The good news for the obviously afflicted Mr Bliveir is that no reference is made to how frequently he should take the remedy. (A prescription could be renewed and the bourbon medicine issued at the rate of one pint every two weeks. There must have been a lot of sick people during Prohibition.)
Thanks to this medical loophole in the Volstead Act, The Frankfort Distillery not only stayed in business throughout Prohibition, it thrived and Four Roses accounted for one in every six bottles of whiskey sold in the USA. This gave Four Roses a head start when Prohibition was repealed on 5-December 1933, and with Jones’ astute business sense, firmly established Four Roses as one of the leading bourbon brands.
Lavelle Jones died in 1941 and two years later Seagram, the Canadian drinks giant, purchased the Frankfort Distilling Company and with it Four Roses bourbon. Four Roses was the number one selling Kentucky Straight Bourbon in the U.S. during the 1930s, 40s and 50s and in 1945 Seagram introduced a blended whiskey with the Four Roses name to sell alongside the bourbon. A blend of 100% American whiskies, this was still a good whiskey. By the end of the 1950’s the blended whiskey was selling more than 250,000 12-bottle cases domestically but Four Roses Bourbon remained the best seller. Seagram decided to focus domestically on their vast array of blended whiskey brands and removed Four Roses Bourbon from the domestic market. Instead it started to sell Four Roses as a blended whiskey with 66% grain neutral spirit. Worse, the packaging and label design of the new blended product was near identical to the respected but now discontinued Four Roses bourbon. The distinctive yellow label and corsage of roses remained: only the fact that the word bourbon was missing warned sharp-sighted purchasers of the change. The similarity in branding was no doubt a cynical ploy to capitalise on the reputation of Four Roses and to take advantage of loyal drinkers. They were not fooled and sales of Four Roses quickly started to slide.
What was behind the decision to remove what was the leading brand of Bourbon from the market? It appears resentment and one man’s ego also played a part. Seagram was run by Samuel Bronfman who had built his empire selling Canadian whisky to America during Prohibition and wanted to firmly establish his high-end Seagram branded Canadian whiskies as brand leaders. Turning his newly acquired Four Roses brand into a blended whiskey left the way clear for his cherished ‘Seagram 7 Crown’ and ‘Seagram VO’ whiskies to take the top position and enabled him to profit from the use of his plentiful stocks of Canadian whisky. Fortunately, he allowed Four Roses to survive as a Kentucky Straight Bourbon in export markets where its launch coincided with its demise in the USA, becoming the top selling Bourbon in both Spain and Japan.
It was a similarly ill-judged business decision to acquire Universal Studios, MCA, PolyGram and Deutsche Grammophon by Edgar Bronfman Jr., grandson of Samuel Bronfman, that finally sealed the fate of the Seagram empire. Its misadventure into the entertainment business forced the breakup of Seagram and the sale of Four Roses¬ - along with all 225 Seagram brands.
In December 2001, the Kirin Brewery Company purchased the Four Roses distillery and on 1 January 2002 ceased production of the blended whiskey and later that year set about buying back every bottle that it could from distributors. Having cleared Four Roses blended whiskey from the U.S. market, Kirin then reintroduced Four Roses as a Kentucky straight bourbon.
Throughout this turmoil the Four Roses Distillery remained under the control of its Master Distiller, Jim Rutledge, who when I sent the first draft of this piece commented, “Four Roses Blended Whiskey was originally produced in Seagram’s distilleries in Maryland and Indiana. When the Maryland operation ceased operations in 1985, 100% of the blended whiskey was produced in Indiana. The Seagram distillery in Indiana was located in Lawrenceburg – a city with the same name as the home of Four Roses Bourbon – Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. This has often confused people, but the Kentucky distillery produces ONLY Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. We never produced grain neutral spirit, light whiskies or other straight whiskies – ONLY BOURBON. My frustration was that Seagram had a blended whiskey with “OUR” name on the bottle (and made in another state) which ultimately destroyed the once renowned name Four Roses Bourbon. In 1996 I persuaded Seagram to sell Four Roses Bourbon in Kentucky so our employees could purchase a bottle of Bourbon, and the fruits of their labor without having to travel to Europe or Japan. Seagram agreed, but told me: “Don’t ever ask for one penny of support for the brand. We’ll sell it in Kentucky for the employees, but we will not try to build the brand.” I was thrilled with the decision because our foot was back in the door of the U.S. Unfortunately, it took Seagram going out of the beverage alcohol business in December 2001 for Four Roses Bourbon to commence, in earnest, a return to the USA. That was the “silver lining” behind the dark cloud of Edgar Bronfman’s decision.”
Jim Rutledge’s enthusiasm for Four Roses helped persuade Kirin to do the right thing and he continues to be the driving force behind Four Roses to this day. Happily, Four Roses Kentucky straight whiskey is now widely available across America where it has once again established a loyal following. The familiar yellow label Four Roses is now joined by a range of top-shelf line extensions.