I'm not really close with many master distillers. I'd consider Jim McEwan an acquaintance, I guess. I've shaken hands with Jimmy Russell and I've talked to Harlen Wheatley on the phone once. Jim Rutledge, on the other hand, is a man who I've been communicating with more frequently as of late. I have a lot in common with him. Beside the fact that we're both devilishly handsome, we seem to share common philosophies when it comes to whiskey. I find that the more I correspond with Jim, the more I like what he has to say, which has led to numerous conversations over the past few weeks. We all know that his whiskey is masterful, but there's a lot more than just fine Bourbon keeping Four Roses in the game. Rutledge's keen insight and common sense have a lot to do with the success of the brand. Seeing that he was in the area, he freed up a few minutes to drop by our Redwood City store and have a brief chat. Here are some of the highlights:
- Jim was interested in what other distilleries had to say about the current corn drought. I told him that of all the people I had spoken with, he was the only person who had mentioned non-GMO corn or a decrease in quality as part of the problem. Everyone else had discussed price increases and availability. Jim said that their current agreement with several farmers (which has been in place for more than 50 years) is a big help to their supply issues and quality concerns. They've worked with the same families for decades so there's a long history of loyalty. He did hint that other producers have tried to convince these same farmers to switch sides, but that they've remained dedicated to Four Roses. He was candid, however, about the fact that GMO corn may be unavoidable in the future. Not so much because of production concerns, but because there may be no other choice.
- We talked about some of the special releases and the fact that Four Roses is one of the few distilleries that hasn't faced a shortage, or been forced to allocate their product. Jim told me that he approached the company board about California's booming market years ago, letting them know about the huge spike in whiskey sales they should expect and that Four Roses would need to be prepared for it. That foresight paid off big. Jim makes regular visits to the Bay Area, so he's experienced the scene for himself. He definitely recognized early the feeling in San Francisco when it comes to Bourbon - there's an insatiable thirst.
- I also mentioned to him that the shortage of aged stocks has limited my top shelf selection - no more Elijah Craig 18, no Vintage 17, no older Bourbon of any kind. I told him that the current 2012 single barrel release from Four Roses is probably the best choice I have for any customer in search of a special bottle. There are no older, pricier options right now from any producer, which surprises many people who see the exact opposite on the single malt shelf. Jim mentioned that they would be releasing a new limited-edition small batch in September that would feature some older 17 year old stock as part of the marriage. He did say that the Four Roses gift shop currently sells this 17 year Bourbon as a special in-store-only single cask, so if you're in the area get one for me! However, Jim has more respect for the small batch creation than for the single barrel stuff because it's a creative process that allows for artistic expression. He said, "One plus one doesn't necessarily equal two when it comes to crafting a whiskey. We might be able to make a four or a five if we do our job well." For him, the upcoming small batch edition is one of the best whiskies Four Roses has ever released.
Like me, Jim feels that Bourbon tends to peak around eight to twelve years of age, so he's definitely out there trying to put an end to age-ism, or the idea that older is better. However, he refuses to tell people that any type of whiskey is "better" than any other, choosing to taste with enthusiasts and demanding that they make up their own mind about quality. I love the way this guy thinks about whiskey. He's quality-oriented and dedicated to education. We'll likely be sitting down together again soon for a podcast episode (it's been quite a while, hasn't it?) where we can flesh out some of these thoughts in more detail.
In the meantime, I've got a store full of autographed bottles. It's the first thing he does every time he walks in. Straight to the shelf, pen out, ready to go. A true professional and a class act in the booze industry.