The First Wave Arrives

Did we get you all fired up for Armagnac yesterday? I hope so because we've got a LOT of new Armagnac to tell you about. Bring your romanticism and enthusiasm for rustic French spirits to the party and leave your disenfranchised whiskey baggage at the door; you won't need it here. You're in at the beginning of this movement. You're buying a house before the boom. You've got the chance to be a low-numbered employee in this operation because at this point there is zero demand for this stuff. Lucky you; lucky me.

Let's sample the goods, shall we?

Along with Baraillon, we've been working directly with the Pellehaut Armagnacs for three years now (and even longer if you count the standard Reserve expression that Charles Neal has been importing for the last decade). They're one of the largest producers in the region and they're definitely the biggest name from the Tenareze (they also make a great deal of wine at the estate). "Big" is a relative term in Armagnac, however. Pellehaut would be considered a tiny craft distiller in the United States, but since their scale of production is vast and efficient, they're usually a source of supreme value when it comes to mature sprits. It's not unusual for us to find 30+ year old Armagnac for around $100 when we visit Pellehaut. Located near the town of Montreal-du-Gers, Pellehaut has 140 hectares of fruit in the Tenareze (compared to 16 hectares at Baraillon) and they mature their distilled spirit in a variety of different casks. Owned by the Béraut family, which purchased the estate after WWII, the property is run today by the sons of Gaston: Matheau and Martin, who have apprenticed at Tariquet, Beycheville, and even Au Bon Climat near Santa Barbara. Today they grow mostly ugni blanc and folle blanche (which also make for tasty wine). For maturation, they begin with new oak (of various types), but often transfer the brandy to 400 liter barrels when the wood becomes too dominant a flavor.

While the older Armagnacs with their high age statements and low prices are obviously going to catch your eye, it’s the 14 year old 2001 vintage that’s the star of this show:

2001 Chateau de Pellehaut 14 Year Old K&L Exclusive Vintage Tenareze Armagnac $49.99 – While Bas-Armagnac gets all the press, and the Haut-Armagnac gets completely ignored, the Tenareze region of Armagnac is quietly producing some of the best brandies in the world. Much like the Borderies region in Cognac, the Tenareze brandies seem to have more fruit and a bit more life than the more classic  Armagnac style. Using only new or first fill barrels for the beginning years of maturation, the Armagnacs have richness, weight, and spice. The 2001 vintage is going to be a Bourbon drinker's delight: there's a rich, round mouthfeel of charred oak and creamy vanilla, supplemented with more texture from the raisined fruit. It's anchored entirely in richness and there's plenty of spice on the finish to keep it interesting. A slam-dunk deal if there ever was one.

1986 Chateau de Pellehaut 29 Year Old K&L Exclusive Vintage Tenareze Armagnac $79.99This 29 year old vintage Armagnac is one of the most ridiculous deals we've ever procured from the producer. Huge richness marries with decadent raisined fruit and tons of vanilla from the charred oak. Then, the most curious thing happens: the finish begins to flutter with floral and perfume notes, before completely shedding that skin and moving right back into a textural, raisined fruit finish. It's unbelievable: both the brandy and the price!

1973 Chateau Pellehaut 40 Year Old K&L Exclusive Tenareze Vintage Armagnac $149.99 – While Pellehaut has since switched to entirely Folle Blanche grape varietals, the 1973 vintage is composed of 90% Ugni Blanc. The palate opens with loads of caramel and a creamy richness the spreads quickly. The aromas are quite Bourbon-esque, with hints of soft vanilla and charred oak drifting out of the glass. The complexity of the brandy is astounding - candied fruit, stewed prunes, toasted almond, baking spices, and earthy warehouse notes, all swirling around at the same time. For an Armagnac of this quality, at an age of more than 40 years old, the price we negotiated is amazing.

Chateau Maouhum is today being completely run by Christelle Lasseignou, who began to take over for her parents more than a decade ago. Don't let her stylish clothes and her good looks fool you, she's a farmer through and through. She does everything at the chateau herself—from the vineyards to the distillation, to the management of the barrels. We were very excited to taste her stuff. One of my favorite things about Chateau Maouhum is that the vineyards are just a few steps from the warehouse, so you can get a sense of the property while you taste. Christelle's grapes are all baco and she distills only a few barrels each year. We tasted through vintages from 1983 to 2004, and even a few younger VS and XO expressions. They were all outstanding. There’s more dried herbs and spice in the flavors of the Maouhum Armagnacs than the more sweet-fruited Pellehaut selections. They’re far more old world and old school, without the richer flavors that some drinkers look for.

All three of these brandies are outstanding, but if you had to pick one it’s the 1987.

Domaine de Maouhum K&L Exclusive XO Armagnac $49.99 - The XO is a marriage of various ages that really balances the sweeter, raisined fruit flavor with just the right amount of new oak and spice. It's a stunning deal at $49.99 and offers a richness and elegance that even Cognac drinkers would find difficult to ignore.

1987 Domaine de Maouhum 28 Year Old K&L Exclusive Bas-Armagnac $72.99The 1987 was maybe our favorite Armagnac of any producer on this year's trip. It explodes with flavor in every possible way, but never steps out of line from start to finish. The first sip is all brown sugar and rich vanilla, then that richness turns immediately into barrel char and soft fruit, before transitioning to cinnamon spice and cloves on the finish. This is absolute textbook Armagnac, and one hell of a deal for an aged spirit of any kind. Bourbon drinkers, take note.

1983 Domaine de Maouhum 32 Year Old K&L Exclusive Bas-Armagnac $99.99 – The 32 year old 1983 vintage is a heavier version of everything we loved about the 1987: there's plenty of vanilla, spice, and richness, but the extra wood tames the sweetness and makes the overall profile just a bit drier. If you're a fan of ultra-mature Bourbon, then this brandy is definitely for you. A screaming deal in the new market of aged whiskies and brandies.

Ladeveze is a father and son duo is actually located in the town of Montreal, just outside the main center. Jean and his son Alexander are doing some very interesting things at Ladeveze, including higher warehouse maturation (evaporating more water to increase the proof of the spirit) and the planting of ultra-rare grape varietals for distillation. For example, they have a 1998 vintage made entirely from Plant de Graisse (apparently allowed by ancient appellation doctrine). We were stunned by the quality of the Armagnac at Ladeveze, so much so that we tasted through just about everything they had available. They're much more interested in cask strength brandy than any other producer we visited, which is right up our alley. The spirits had character, a certain liveliness, and lots of gusto. Whereas the Pellehaut brandies are soft and graceful, the Ladeveze brandies have punch and power.

The Plant de Graisse is from Ladeveze is completely unlike any other Armagnac we’ve ever carried and it’s easily my favorite. Like I said the last time we brought it in, it’s an Armagnac for wine drinkers who appreciate the pure flavors of fruit and supreme complexity. There’s a reason it sold through instantly the last time we brought it in, and there’s a reason I’ve received more positive feedback from customers about it than any other selection we’ve carried. I poured a sample bottle at a Donato’s dinner for some K&L customers and I’m pretty sure they bought most of it. 

1998 Ladeveze Plaint de Graisse Tenereze Armagnac $119.99Distilled from a rare varietal of grape called Plaint de Graisse, the character of the Ladeveze is both exotic and intense, with wacky aromas that range from earthy, almost cheesy accents to pencil shavings and brandied cherries. The palate is a wave of soft fruit that goes from green mango to an earthy papaya flavor, but with a rich and warming finish of vanilla and soft fruit. There's a mineral note and a vinous accent at the back end, making this brandy much more about the wine than the wood, but there's enough richness to balance it all out. This is not a Bourbon drinker's brandy; it's a wine lover's brandy. What makes this Armagnac incredible is the rollercoaster ride of flavors from front to back, that never go too high, or dip down too low. It's a complete and balanced experience from front to back and, man, is it delicious. The flutter of cinnamon on the back end goes on for a good five minutes. Completely unique and unparalleled when compared to anything else we have in stock. Bottled at 45%

But we've got Cognac, too! Don't think this is just a post about new Armagnac. It's about brandy in general!

Raymond Ragnaud is a producer whose Pineau des Charentes we've been carrying for some time now.  The original Ragnaud Cognac was produced by the Ragnaud family, but when the two brothers Raymond and Marcel took over they were unable to work together.  The Domaine split and now there are two separate brands under the name of each brother.  Raymond Ragnaud is still produced on the original estate and is now overlooked by his daughter, Mrs. Ragnaud-Bricq pictured above. Like Armagnac, the Cognac producers believe in aerating the spirit by changing casks every six months to a year. While visiting, we tasted a few out of the cask, but Grand Champagne Cognac doesn't taste all that great in its youth; and by "youth," I mean anytime in the first twenty years of its life. Usually the blends have more complexity because the young brandy is balanced by an older vintages. We tasted some very fine blends that we might be bringing back to the states.  Their Reserve Rare was very gentle and tasted of toasted almonds with soft stone fruits. The Cognac’s finish lasts for minutes and evolves on the palate long after the spirit has vanished.

In both the beauty of the bottle and the spirit itself, I’d put the Raymond Ragnaud in the top three Cognacs we carry at K&L. It’s layered, complex, and ethereal in nature without extra additives or sweeteners. It never tastes manipulated or caramelized, although there is likely a bit of caramel for coloring. I’m pumped to have it back in stock.

Raymond Ragnaud K&L Exclusive Reserve Rare Cognac $115.99 – This Grand Champagne Cognac from Ragnaud represents our dedicated efforts to find excellent Cognac without the use of additional sweeteners or traditional boise. Distiller Jean-Marie has spent the last thirty years perfecting his pot-still brandies into delicate expressions of the fantastic terroir in the area. He is a firm believer in the idea that the limestone-rich soils of Grande Champagne produce wines that, when distilled, create brandies capable of aging in barrel for eternity. While we originally came in search of single barrel Cognac, we tasted a few out of the cask and soon realized that Grand Champagne Cognac doesn't taste all that great in its youth--and by "youth" I mean anytime in the first 20 years of its life--nor does it taste too great out of the barrel. Usually the blends have more complexity because the expressive "young" brandy is balanced with the richness from older vintages. The Reserve Rare was our favorite of the expressions, exhibiting beautiful concentration and the elegance we've come to expect from world-class Cognac producers. Gentle richness on the entry leads into flavors of toasted nuts, stone fruit and vanilla, before finishing with a soft dash of baking spices. A masterful Cognac that managed to seduce us with subtlety and style, rather than with sweetness and weight.

Brandy drinkers searching for Grand Champagne quality at reasonable prices are going to be thrilled—there's nothing this good for this cheap on the American market and we love working with Claude Thorin for that very reason. All of the new-make from Claude Thorin goes into new Limousin oak for the first twelve months before being transferred into used russet barrels. From what I tasted, there is very little coloring or boise being added to the final blends as the clean, fruit-driven flavor of Grand Champagne is front and center. There's nothing transcendent going on with each sip, just good, honest brandy from a French farmer. It's when you see the price tags that your eyes jump out of your head.

Claude Thorin K&L Exclusive VS Grand Champagne Cognac $29.99 – We are going to sell so much Claude Thorin Cognac at K&L this year that we expect it to be a household name with our customer base by 2015. Brandy drinkers searching for Grand Champagne quality at reasonable prices are going to be thrilled because there's nothing this good for this price on the American market -- and that's because we're buying directly from the estate. All of the new-make brandy from Claude Thorin goes into new Limousin oak for the first twelve months before being transferred into used russet barrels. The VS is fresh, clean, and fruit-driven, mimicking the best $40 options of Grand Champagne but for $10 less. There's nothing transcendent going on with each sip, just good, honest brandy from a French farmer. It's when you see the price tags that your eyes jump out of your head. Grower-producer Cognac for $29.99 -- it's about time that our French brandy program caught up to our Champagne department. With that analogy in mind, Claude Thorin is the Frank Bonville of Cognac.

NEW VINTAGE! 2004 Claude Thorin K&L Exclusive Vintage Grand Champagne Cognac $59.99To taste a Grand Champagne brandy from one single year is quite rare, and therefore a bit more pricey. Nevertheless, we thought the result was definitely worth the extra few bucks. For those whisky fans who were fortunate enough to taste Bruichladdich's Bere Barley experiment, this Cognac is just as wonderfully pure. Gone are the creamy, undulating waves of richness and in their place are fresh and snappy fruit flavors contained inside of a leaner, brighter mouthfeel. It's quite surprising and it's a peek at what's possible for French Cognac when you dare to step outside of tradition and into something more rudimentary and interesting.

I'll see some of you at BrandyFest tonight. You'll see me, and many of these bottles!

-David Driscoll


Cottage Industries

What is it that turns you on about Bourbon? Is it the big, charred oak flavor? Is it the blue-collar, working-man image? Maybe it's the back-country, farm-industry roots of Bourbon that build such a romantic image in your mind. Well, let me tell you something: with descriptors like that you might as well be talking about Armagnac. Other than the fact that Armagnac is made from grapes instead of corn, the rugged French brandy is pretty much France's version of Kentucky Bourbon. Much like Bourbon likes to distance itself from Scotch as less-expensive and less-elitist, the distillers of Armagnac want nothing to do with Cognac's lifestyles of the rich and famous. There's definitely a long-standing tension between the upscale, moneyed-interests of the Charente's finest Cognac houses, and the small "peasant" farmers of the Gascogne. Most Cognac producers will openly mock the rugged and unrefined character of Armagnac, while most Armagnac producers scoff at the "ridiculous" prices that many upscale Cognac producers charge. It's every bit the antagonistic class war that it sounds like, and it's incredibly entertaining to experience first hand when you're there. The back-handed complements, the snide remarks, and the rolling of the eyes when the name of the enemy is said out loud—it's 100 times more intense than the much softer conflict between Scotch and Bourbon, and it's a rivalry that dates back many centuries.

If you're like me, and you've read countless books about Bourbon's history, then you'll know that American whiskey began as a cottage industry with thousands of country farmers turning their excess home-grown corn into something they could drink and barter with. Today, however, that old-time country image is exactly that: an image. There's nothing cottage-sized about Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey, Four Roses, or Jim Beam. These are gigantic distilleries owned by gigantic companies that make gigantic amounts of money when you buy their products. As Reid Mitenbuler points out in his book Bourbon Empire, the salesmen in Kentucky have always spun a good yarn, using well-known and recognized figures of the frontier to better market their products as bastions of the everyman. That same savvy still exists in today's Bourbon renaissance. Six-hundred years after its original inception, however, Armagnac has yet to make that same transition. It's still every bit the rustic, bucolic cottage industry you think it is. The distilleries (if the farmer actually owns his own still) are in the barn or detached garage. The barrels full of aging brandy are stored in the basement or in the shed. There is little attempt at marketing, and much of what is produced is sold locally.

Not that I have anything against Kentucky, or it's incredible whiskies. I love Bourbon, and it's exactly because I love the storied ideal of American whiskey that I enjoy the rustic reality of French Armagnac. I have many friends in the industry who work in the Bourbon trade; wonderful distillery managers, generous brand ambassadors, endearing marketing managers, and wise master distillers—lovely people who do an amazing job working for the huge interests that finance their respective operations. But when you visit a Kentucky distillery, it's not like you're driving up some long, gravel driveway lined with old oak trees with the quaint little Bourbon factory sitting at the end, smoking away as delicious whiskey is produced in small batches by a mom and pop operation. That's not to say that such a spirits reality doesn't exist, however, because it absolutely does: on the other side of the Atlantic, in the southwest of France, where hundreds of idyllic scenes of this very nature await your arrival. You pull up to the house, the family dog runs out to greet you, and the farmer comes out to shake your hand; his fingers hard and calloused from hours of work out in the vineyard. Ironically enough, it's in Gascony that the American ideal of a down-home, blue-collar spirit actually exists. In France—a country that many Americans automatically associate with high-browed food and wine snobbery. 

And the prices! If you need proof that what I'm saying is true, buy yourself a bottle of 29 year old Pellehaut for $79.99 and contrast it to something comparable from the whiskey industry. Armagnac is the last great untouched aged spirit, and the prices reflect the current lack of demand. It's only because of the language barrier, the complete lack of infrastructure, and the miniscule amounts of mature stock available that the booze industry's giant marketing machine hasn't completely gutted this category. They don't know what to do with it, how to select quality, or where to even start with a marketing plan. More importantly, they can't secure the quantities they need to make the proposition profitable enough. That's exactly why a niche retailer like K&L can get 30 year old single cask Armagnac selections for under $100. Have you seen the prices for our latest arrivals? Do a search of the K&L site and see what you find. Will you like Armagnac if you like Bourbon? I don't know, but I have to think Bourbon drinkers will be attracted by the similarities—both in flavor and image. 

If you're on the hunt for small batch, family-owned, hand-harvested, rustic brown spirits with serious age and maturity, then there's only one true cottage industry left in the booze industry. It's Armagnac, and it's every bit as honest, true, and wonderful as it seems. If you think our current selection is impressive, then I'd advise you to sit back and watch the show. We're just getting started.

-David Driscoll


Canada's Latest Export

Despite all the high-quality Canadian whisky being sent south of the border these days, most of my customers haven't caught the bug. They're too focused on snatching up the limited American whiskies and special edition single malts we have coming in each week. But if you're in need of some white goods, let me introduce you to our latest Canadian producer—one that I think should make quite a splash here at K&L. Located along Lake Ontario, in between Buffalo and Hamilton, Dillon's is a small distillery run by father-and-son team Geoff and Peter Dillon. Peter studied chemistry at the University of Toronto, and his son Geoff majored in biology at the University of Western Ontario. They've founded a new distillery in the Niagara region due to its close proximity to fruit, herbs, and a bustling local wine trade. I tried their gins, vodka, and rose liqueur last week and immediately placed an order. They're simply outstanding.

The Method 95 vodka is distilled three times from a 100% grape base. It's incredibly textural while remaining as fresh as a sip of spring water. It's not often I'm taken aback by a new vodka, but I wasn't alone. Most of the staff members who tasted last week came out of the bar talking vodka over gin. That's not to sell the gins short, however, because the Unfiltered 22 gin is incredible. It's so delicate and—again—incredibly textural. It has body, but the clean botanicals lend it an air of grace. It's refined and beautiful, very much in the same way the Berry Bros. No. 3 gin is. I was really impressed. Then there's the Rose Gin Liqueur: a gin that's been macerated with rose hips and petals for one month, then sweetened and proofed down to 30% ABV. I'd say just the liqueur with a bit of tonic water could be my late summer drink de jour. 

I plan on spending a lot of time with these three bottles over the next few weeks. They're definitely worth your time, as well.

-David Driscoll


The End of an Era: Jim Rutledge Retires

When I heard the news that Jim Rutledge was retiring, I was quickly taken aback. I just kind of sat at my desk for a moment and tried to process the announcement, wondering how long it had been since Jim and I had last spoken. As many of you know, the Four Roses master distiller is one of my heroes in the business; a true professional in every sense of the word, and a man who is every bit as skilled on the customer service side of the trade as he is on the technical side. He's been a mentor for me. He is kind, forthcoming, patient, and humble, and he's someone who has never failed to offer assistance when I've needed help over my career (which has been often). Part of me was happy, knowing that Jim—tireless worker that he is—was now free to take some time for himself. Another part of me was sad—the selfish, stubborn part of me that wants Jim to keep making Four Roses Bourbon forever. Mixed emotions aside, I knew what I needed to do right then and there. I needed to pick up the phone, give Jim a call, and say congratulations.

In doing so, I asked Jim if we could turn that conversation into a short little Q&A session about his big decision, the current state of the company, and what Jim saw for the future of Four Roses. It may be the end of the Jim Rutledge era, but its clear that Jim thinks the rise of Bourbon as a global phenomenon is just getting started. Check out what he had to say below:

David: First off—let me say congratulations on the big day ahead. You’re retiring September 1st according to what I’ve read. If anyone has earned a ride into the sunset, it's you.

Jim: Thank you. As you can imagine it was a challenging decision—one I started thinking about quite a while ago. I told Taiji Abe, our former CEO and president, at a casual meeting in 2014 that I was considering retirement at the end of the year or early 2015, and while I was talking he was sketching something—I wasn’t sure how much attention he was paying to me (laughs). Then he held up a graph and said, “Jim-san, we need you ten more years.” I just laughed. I asked, “Do you know how old I am? In ten years I just hope to be breathing.” That was the start of it. I submitted a letter to Taiji-san this year, the first part of March, when I found out that he was being called back to Tokyo for assignment, and we were going to get a new CEO. In my letter I explained that I was making this announcement now—effective July 1st of this year—because I don’t want the perception to be that I’m unhappy with the new president. If I made the announcement after his or her arrival, it might appear I’m doing so because I’m unhappy. That forced the issue, so I made the announcement in March.

David: Did the new CEO try and convince you to stay ten more years as well?

Jim: When I submitted my letter I had no idea who the CEO would be. It ended up being a female—her name is Satoko Yoshida—and, I’ll tell you what, if I had waited to make my decision until she got here I might have stayed on (laughs). She’s incredible. She may end up being the best we’ve had. Time will tell. I’ve really enjoyed working with her in the short time we’ve had and I think she’s going to be great for the company. When we first had a meeting to discuss my retirement she suggested a five year plan. Then she came back with a two year option, but then I countered with, “How about July to September?” (laughs), so we agreed that I would continue to work as much as Four Roses needed me to. After the 1st, I said I could work with marketing to do tastings and bottle signing events, things like that. It’s up to them how much they want or need me after I retire.

David: I’m sure they’ll want you at all of their events. Especially considering your esteem in the industry.

Jim: Well, marketing might choose to go in a different direction—away from me. We’ll have to wait and see. I’m ready for whatever awaits.

David: Do you really even need marketing right now considering most Bourbon distilleries can’t even keep up with the current demand?

Jim: (laughs) I think you’re right—if we didn’t have a marketing team we wouldn’t notice even the slightest drop in case sales. When the demand is greater than supply, what can you do? 

David: What have the real changes been over the last five years since Bourbon really began to take off on a mainstream level? And where do you think the industry is going?

Jim: In terms of the industry, I believe we’re just getting started. It’s always been my opinion—I’ve voiced it for quite a few years—that our industry hasn't really changed that much relative to the distillery process, but with the introduction of premium Bourbons, single barrel, and small batch Bourbons, people really began to take note of Kentucky Bourbon—namely how good it is. Then with social media and the internet, people could find out more information about new Bourbons, find a blog, and get the word out around the world by tomorrow. There are no secrets anymore. It’s not challenging to spread information in this market. I think the consumers—both domestically and globally—have begun to realize there’s another whiskey out there besides Scotch, and it's Kentucky Bourbon. I think we’re just scratching the surface. We’ve got years of growth ahead of us before we begin to level off.

David: Do you mean years of growth before production catches up with demand?

Jim: No, years and years before the growth of Bourbon around the world—as in the addition of new consumers and new customers—will be begin to level off. It’s still so new to so many people, and when people try it, they like it. It might not compare to anything that they’re used to, and they get hooked right away. I might be a tad biased, but I think Bourbon is absolutely fantastic. People like it, it’s great for mixed drinks, and it has a long, long way to go in terms of reaching new consumers before that demand levels off.

David: How do you contrast reaching new consumers with finding the supply necessary to reach them? Isn’t there a point where you can’t grow anymore simply because you don’t have enough to sell? Or maybe that will fix itself later?

Jim: It seems like everyone is expanding—increasing their distillation capacity, increasing their storage warehouse capacities—and eventually that will catch up with demand. Right now demand is greater than supply, but I still hear people debate this point and ask, “Is it really true, this whole Bourbon shortage?” Some people say yes, some people say no. I read something a few weeks ago about how Kentucky whiskey distilleries are increasing their capacity for production, and there was a comment that said, “See? There is no shortage.” But I still haven’t learned how to make a six year old Bourbon in a day, and until I do we're going to be short. We’re increasing production, but we’ve got a long way to go before we catch up. Eventually it will happen, and there will be peaks and valleys after that, but I think it will continue to grow. 

David: When I was talking to you earlier, you said you were lowering the minimum age requirements of the private barrel selections. Obviously in response to greater demand.

Jim: Yes, our minimum age for private barrel selections used to be nine years of age. We’ve reduced that to eight years, but even now we have two of our ten recipes where there aren’t even enough eight year old barrels. So it didn’t really even make a dent. We’ll probably have more OBSK available in December. A couple Fridays ago we used the last OBSO barrel. We’re trying to find out when we’ll have more barrels coming online, but I’m not sure when that will happen.

David: And when those formulae do come back online, they’ll be only eight years of age right?

Jim: That’s right. That’s the case for all ten recipes now. The demand is so great that it’s stretching our inventory thin. And now we’re struggling just to keep up with eight years! And that will continue over the next few years until our inventory grows and we can start working our way back toward nine years of age. We’ll get there eventually, but it’s a ways down the road.

David: What do you think the best strategy is in terms of managing supply? Some distilleries are choosing to remove age statements—which isn’t really an issue for you because none of the three main Four Roses selections have age statements. Others are choosing to just remain out of stock with nothing available in the market until those products can come back online at their required age statement maturity. What would you do if you had to make that decision?

Jim: I actually don’t know which is better. I’ve never been a fan of age statements. I wouldn’t ever want to get to a point where we were waiting on birthdays for barrels—that could possibly have a negative impact on quality. It sometimes happens that you wait for a specific date to arrive and the Bourbon has become too woody; then we can’t hit our target flavor profile because the whiskey doesn’t match what we’re looking for. My preference if I were in this situation—and remember I’m a distiller, not a marketing person—would be to remove the age statements and instead allocate volumes. If you don’t have enough barrels to produce a specific age, then remove the statement, give me younger barrels, and let me see if I can match the flavor profile with the younger Bourbons. As long as we can maintain the quality—that’s key in my book. An age statement is a marketing tool. What’s most important to me is what goes into the bottle, not what the number says on the label.

David: I haven’t noticed a dip in quality in the three standard Four Roses expressions—the Yellow Label, Small Batch, and Single Barrel—since the boom hit.

Jim: We’ve worked hard at it. But—I’ll tell you what—it has become a challenge, and I believe it’s going to become even more of a challenge over the next few years. We’ve always tried to mature the barrels to the peak of their maturity. That’s how we survey which casks will become part of which expression—we start at three and a half years and keep going from there. As our inventory continues becoming younger, it’s a challenge to maintain the same exact level of quality. It’s going to have to change some. The goal for us is to make sure it’s not a perceptible change by the vast majority of consumers. 

David: You think the next two years will be the middle of the crunch, and that things will start to even out towards the end of the decade?

Jim: For us, yes. I think by the middle of 2017 we’ll start to catch up and then we can start adding more aged stock to the supply. But to do that we have to make sure we keep growth in check over the next couple of years. We can’t let our growth at Four Roses go unchecked and outgrow our barrel pacing.

David: Hence why you’re requiring retailers and restaurants to actually come out to the distillery if they want to pick out a cask.

Jim: Exactly. That’s the only reason. We just don’t have enough inventory with Mandy sending out samples to keep up with demand. It locks up our available stock when samples are out in the field.

We continued to talk after I turned off the recorder, and Jim mentioned that he'll still make himself available to Four Roses for special events and consultation should they need him. So rest easy knowing that you still may see Jim around the industry after September 1st. He also mentioned that he now needed to buy a car, a phone, and a computer because he's always used company equipment during his tenure. "My son-in-law is going to order me a PC," he said with a laugh. It's clear that Jim Rutledge truly lived his work. It's a side of Jim we Bourbon drinkers should all be thankful for. What's more important, however, is that you take a moment the next you pour yourself a glass of that delicious Four Roses Bourbon you have at home, and give thanks to the man who spent the last forty-nine years of his life working to make that moment just a bit more enjoyable.

Thank you, Jim. On behalf of K&L, our customers, and myself—we're really going to miss you.

-David Driscoll


Danger Zone

It's 10 PM. You're four drinks into the evening. Your wife has gone upstairs to read. You consider a fifth drink, but you're not sure how far you want to take things. You scan the Netflix selection. There it is. Top Gun. Tom Cruise's impeccable countenance dead center, with a frosted-blond Kelly McGillis flanking his rear. Do you dare select it? Because if you do, you know what's going to happen. You're going there. You're going to take a ride into the danger zone. Once Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards, and Tim Robbins show themselves tens of thousands of feet above sea level, you're going to want a drink. Once Val Kilmer enters into the picture, you're most definitely going back for a vodka on the rocks—Iceman style. 

How do I know this? Because I'm knee-deep in it. I'm ensconced, entrenched, and unequivocally buried in the twilight. I've spread out my wings tonight. Nothing in my bar is off limits at this point.

I'm dangerous.

-David Driscoll