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An Interview With Jim Rutledge From J. W. Rutledge Distillery

An Interview With Jim Rutledge From J. W. Rutledge Distillery

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jim Rutledge regarding the announcement of the J. W. Rutledge Distillery. Jim is the former master distiller from Four Roses with nearly 50 years in the bourbon industry. If you aren't familiar with his work I suggest you grab a bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel and listen to episodes 11-12 of the Bourbon Pursuit Podcast

There has been some controversy regarding Jim's departure from Four Roses and the recent announcement of the new distillery. Bourbon Truth published an article on 4/28/16 regarding some possible controversy within Four Roses - specifically the treatment and departure of Jim. However that article has been taken down - check out the retraction page here. Later that day the J. W. Rutledge Distillery was announced with an upcoming crowdfunding campaign scheduled commence on 4/30/16.

There wasn't much concrete news available other than the details on the J. W. Rutledge Distillery website. The bourbon community was flooded with speculation regarding Jim's departure and the announcement of his new business venture. Speculation wasn't enough for me so I decided to reach out to the man himself for answers. This is that conversation.  

5/4/16 - Phone call with Jim Rutledge - 69 minutes

Mark: Why did you decide to partner with Jon Mowry and Stephen Camisa?

Jim: First of all I have know them for years. Stephen first approached me - he was legal counsel at Buffalo Trace/Sazerac when they bought Buffalo Trace. He's done a lot of work beyond the legal end of it there - introducing brands to the UK and South Africa. He's done a lot of work internally at the distillery and has a lot of expertise. Jon Mowry is one of the best known and well respected people in all the sales industry among distributors - wether it be distributors, retailers, on premise. Everyone knows Jon. They (Jon and Stephen) were a company that we hired at Four Roses to launch Four Roses beyond Kentucky. We hired them just before we started out into other states and so they helped build Four Roses. The three of us together have 120 years (experience within the distillery business) so there is every reason to go that direction. 

Mark: Its pretty obvious why the three of you chose the distillery name. Where there any other interesting names you guys were throwing back and forth?

Jim: We started talking about names some time ago and decided to capitalize on my name so people would know it and be familiar with it. Some other names were brought up casually but I can't even remember them now. We decided to capitalize on people knowing me in the industry.

Mark: Did you have the full intention of going this route (opening a new distillery) when you left Four Roses? Or did this come up after retirement?

Jim: It started in ernest after I left (Four Roses) but I knew that I would need to and want to stay in the business maybe absent of all the travel I was been doing. I thought I would be doing some emeritus work for Four Roses. We discussed that before I retired. Maybe do some consulting work. There would be numerous opportunities. The first day my retirement was announced I had two phone calls asking if I would be interested in doing some consulting. One of them actually ended up wanting to hire me full time as a distiller and be the face of a new brand. It was a midsize distillery. I said, you know I'm just now leaving after almost 49 years working for somebody else. I don't want to jump right back into that. They were actually offering me more money than I was making at Four Roses but still I didn't want to get back into that. I want to be independent. The consulting would require a lot of travel again. Just about every corner of the country now has distillery startups. So why not stay at home in my own backyard with a distillery.

We decided we need to get our name out some way. Thats when we thought what if we went through crowdfunding? We hoped to be successful raising capital. That way we get the message out across the country as to what we are doing. Am I going to get excited or upset if the Indiegogo campaign doesn't work? It doesn't appear it will but all is not lost because of that. 

Mark: Any plans to sell sourced whiskey in the beginning while you are laying down new make?

Jim: We've talked about it and there is very little available. But if we could come up with some it would have to be by approval. I would have to get samples and taste each barrel. I would say 99.9 percent certain that we wouldn't find anything that we would want to bottle as a single barrel. A lot of times I've seen through the years that you can take two barrels that aren't so good and put them together. Then its wow - this is unbelievable. If we could source some bourbon and do some blending we could make something pretty special. It wouldn't have my name on it but we have other trademark names. We would do it but it would be totally up front about the source and what is in the bottle. There would be no trying to disguise it as J. W. Rutledge Distillery which would be ridiculous because we haven't built a distillery yet. But a lot of people do that - they have no intention of putting the distillery. We want to have more integrity, credibility and be honest. If we do something like that (sourced whiskey) everyone will know what it is. 

Mark: Will you distill anything in the beginning that can be turned around quickly as a source of revenue? Vodka? Gin? You mentioned your first job in R&D involved distilling gin. 

Jim: Actually I was distilling the gin botanicals individually and that's how back in those years we approved the botanicals before we purchased them. They would send them over to R&D. I would distill them, and we would evaluate the nose, the taste and determine if they were good or not. It wasn't really a whole gin, it was the components of a gin which is what we were doing in R&D.

We have talked about putting a pot still in. I can't answer it right now - I don't know. We would consider it but there is another vodka, two, or three, or four hitting the market every day. I don't want to get into something like that. We would have to do some research before we made a commitment. We talked about an American brandy or something like that. You have some aging there but not as long as a bourbon. We may do something but we haven't made the decision to go that direction yet. 

Mark: What exactly is a midsize distillery?

Jim: We would position ourselves between most of the small boutique/craft distilleries (which have to be filling under a certain number of barrels a day) and the giants in Kentucky. Four Roses was the smallest of the large Kentucky bourbon distilleries. We ran the distillery 7 days a week. Monday thru Friday we averaged about 285 barrels a day plus or minus filling. When Jon and Steve first approached me we talked about a craft distillery and I said I just can't get excited about that. Filling 2 barrels or 5 barrels a day I just can't get excited when I came from filling 285 a day. So we decided on this midsize which is something unique. We often use the analogy of all the micro and craft breweries. The ones that have really capitalized on it like Samuel Adams or Sierra Nevada can put out hundreds of thousands of cases per year but they are perceived as craft. We're not going to be a giant but we going to give a range of 30,000 to 40,000 barrels a year. But that depends on how many days we run. Are we going to run a 5 day, 6 day, or 7 day week? Are we going to run 1, 2, or 3 shifts? So thats why I say a range of 30,000 up to 40,000 barrels. 

Mark: You have already mentioned building the distillery in a sustainable manner. Solar, biomass, geothermal. Will geothermal limit your potential locations in KY?

Jim: No, we should be alright. We would use as much of that as we can, a combination, or all. I hope we can use all of it. Where we're looking we should be fine with geothermal. 

Mark: Do you have any sites picked out yet or is that still in the works?

Jim: We've looked at several sites and we know we want to be in the southeastern corner of Jefferson County. That's where Louisville is located which would be great for tourism. But we are also looking at the adjacent counties in that area. Property in Spencer County, Shelby County, and Oldham County. All would be accessible to either I64 East/West or I71 North/South. Very accessible for tours and a lot of traffic. Thats why we are looking at these locations. 

Mark: Will sustainability continue into ingredients? Such as sourcing ingredients nearby?

Jim: Not necessarily. It would be nice but there is one thing that is extremely critical to the quality of what ends up going into the barrel. All my focus when I was working in the distillery went into the distillate that was going into the barrel. Do it right the first time with what goes into the barrel and you don't have to worry about what comes out. Critical to that is the quality of the grains. We will try to source locally but the quality of the grain has to be paramount. Thats going to drive that decision. You can focus on being the most efficient distillery but if you can't make good bourbon it's all for naught. You have got to start off with the best raw materials. 

Mark: What is your stance on GMO vs non GMO ingredients?

Jim: We will always go with non-GMO if we can source it. At Four Roses we were able to do it because we were using the same suppliers as Seagram used. When Seagram went out of business we continued to use it and going back 5-6 years ago when it became very difficult. We were actually paying farmers in those surrounding geographic areas not to produce corn or the differential between what they were producing and what they could get with corn in order to prevent cross pollination. Not only were we paying the producers and the farmers that were supplying the corn a premium to maintain non-GMO, but we were also paying famers in the surrounding areas to maintain GMO free. We don't have the money to do that and I doubt that will happen. We will look locally and if we look long enough we should be able to find a good source of grains locally. 

Mark: What makes non-GMO corn so much better than GMO corn?

Jim: For production of alcohol it's not better. GMO corns may be better but it's the perception of using GMO corns. The EU and Japanese markets won't allow the sale of any food products that use GMO grains. We are in the food category. The industry has proven over and over again that the negative properties of GMO grains does not pass through distillation point. Because the vaporization points are a lot higher than when we come off the still. But it doesn't make any difference because its the perception that its going to taint the food or taint the alcohol. Its eased off a little bit because there is so much negative publicity about GMO grains that its a little bit easier to find GMO free now. The larger distillers are the ones that just cant find enough GMO free. As small as we will be we hope to be able to find it (non-GMO grains) and if we can we will. 

Mark: I was going to ask you why crowdsource a small portion of the overall funding needed but you already answered that earlier. You were interested in creating some buzz and getting people interested in the distillery. 

Jim: Yeah and it would have been. I know there has been some negative commentary about why didn't he (Jim) put up his own money. For one thing I don't have any money. *Chuckles* One thing I don't like is donations or the philosophy behind it but a lot of people were using it. And it would have been nice to be able to go ahead and purchase the property before we had the other investors online. I liked the idea of if people wanted to join in with us thats fine. But they are showing they don't which is also fine. I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. We tried and it didn't work so lets move on. 

Mark: Is there any reason you weren’t able to include actual whiskey as an actual perk in your campaign? I think a lot of folks were expecting the possibility of future bottles or barrel picks. 

Jim: You know we originally had it in there. We had the rights to purchase a barrel in todays dollars, which would have been the best way to go. If you wanted to you come down and select a private barrel wether it be 8 years, 9 years, or 10 years old. You add a couple of years for the distillery to get up and running. So if you wanted an 8 year old barrel it would be 10 years before you would get it. And to promise that would have been a lot of money. But it would have been todays dollars rather than if you had waited for 10 years worth of inflation. Or you could have purchased at a lesser price a barrel of bourbon within the first year of distillation, paid for the right to purchase down the road at a prevailing cost of 10 years from now and deducted that amount from the purchase cost of the upfront cost. But then what if the distillery doesn't materialize? We didn't want to risk other peoples money like that. It really hurt us by not putting it in there but I'd rather not put it in there and not risk somebody else's money. Thats the reason we didn't do it. 

Mark: So you didn't want to tarnish your reputations if the distillery didn't pan out as planned? 

Jim: I don't want to , but I think mine already has been by getting into this by some degree. My integrity, our integrity, the J. W. Rutledge distillery integrity means to me more than guarding some capital to get the ball rolling here. Even if we raised the entire amount that was in there which I thought was a very very high amount. Our integrity is more important than that and I wasn't going to risk it. 

Mark: That makes sense and I think a lot of people were surprised. There was a good amount of speculation as to why these options were not included in the campaign. 

Jim: It was a struggle. We took it out at the last minute because we kept debating back and forth. Those were the best perks in there. That was the one that would have generated the most money and we pulled them out. People think we are crazy but you can't put a price tag on integrity, credibility, and respect. 

Mark: Now why do you think your reputation has already been tarnished by going down this road?

Jim: I'm not a social media person. People are just telling me some things like "he's trying to get rich on other people's money" and other things like that. Its very few. The overwhelming number of people that have said anything or commented have been overwhelmingly positive and very favorable. But sometimes people focus on the negative. Other comments such as "building a distillery on other peoples money,"  or "why wasn't he smart enough to include bourbon as a perk in the campaign". 

Mark: I want to talk a little bit about mashbills because something that I thought was really interesting was the mashbill poll that is up on the distillery website. Four different mashbills, three high rye and one wheated. So far it looks like the poll is almost split but every so slightly favoring the 30% rye over the 20% wheat mashbills. 

Jim: Up until today the wheat was leading. Everyone knows that both mashbills we made at Four Roses were high rye mashbills - 20% and 35%. 

Mark: How long do you plan to let that poll run before finally settle on the winning mashbill?

Jim: We could probably let it run a year. The main thing is to get as many votes as we can. We are interested to know what people want to see from us. We haven't even talked about the point in time when we would take it down. The more votes we get the more meaningful it is. 

Mark: Inferring a bit from your mashbill poll on the distillery website there are a couple of different high rye mashbills as well as wheated. Do you plan to distill all of these mashbills eventually or is this just for the launch?

Jim: This is for the launch and we may or may not produce all of them. Some may change. All of those are a generalization of what we will be distilling. I wanted to see if people would be interested in us doing a wheat. Because everything I've done has been a high rye. Even back in the Seagram days when I started in distillery operations back in 1969. Its always been high rye. Would people be interested in seeing a wheat? The poll is showing us they are absolutely interested. Even if the wheat doesn't win I know now that we will do a wheated bourbon. The poll (even with only 2355 votes at the time of the interview) is already telling us something. 

Mark: There is a huge demand for bourbons with wheated mashbills at the moment. 

Jim: We could end up doing more than 1 wheated mashbill. This is really to test the water to see if people want us to produce a wheated mashbill. And the answer is yes. Wether it wins or not it has already shown us that we will distill it. And that is the advantage of this - we want to listen to what people want. 

Mark: Did you ever get a chance to distill a mashbill with wheat at Seagram/Four Roses or was it always the rye mashbills?

Jim: It was always the 2 mashbills we were using when I retired that we were using when I first started distillery operations back in 1969. It was always those 2 - never did anything else. I wanted to produce a straight rye whiskey at our Kentucky distillery but was never allowed to. People just didn't want to do it for whatever reason. I pushed hard for it but now I will distill a straight rye whiskey. I made a point that once the distillery opens within the first year we will have a straight rye production. It won't be a startup for sure because rye is so much more difficult to run than bourbon. But within that first year it could be 3 months or 9 months into the operation, I don't know. But we will do a straight rye whiskey. And the reason I say those timelines is because it's easier to run straight ryes during the cold months - December, January, February, March or something like that. 

Mark: Now why does temperature play a role in the production of a straight rye whiskey?

Jim: Its the enzyme levels of the rye (un-malted). Its sticky and it foams a lot during the mashing process and fermentation. You fill a fermentor half way full and watch it bubble over if you don't handle it right. Its going to generate heat wether it be in the colder months or the hot. The ambient temperature makes a little bit of difference but not that much. It helps control those areas a little better. 

Mark: Now when you talk about producing the rye in the winter months are you citing exothermic reactions during the fermentation producing heat as a factor or something else?

Jim: Its not heat. Its the water temperature that you are using that is colder. Ambient temperature isn't going to matter so much but the water temperature that you are using in the process. You can set the fermentors colder and its a slower reaction time and you can control some things better. 

Mark: Now when you say straight rye are you going higher than the minimum 51%?

Jim: It would be higher than 51%, I don't know what but it would be higher for sure. It would also depend on the type of yeast we find. But I would rather go 80% or 90% rye if we could. 

Mark: I recently interviewed David Perkins from High West who brought some of your techniques to his distillery. He talks about the use of single story warehouses. Can you explain the use of single story rickhouses in your Four Roses days and why you are carrying that over to your new distillery?

Jim: When I started Seagram had 5 operating distilleries in Kentucky each distillery had their own multi-story warehouse. Keep in mind that Seagram back in the 1930s/40s/50s/60s the top shelf brands were blended whiskeys. Bourbon as a category was down there near the bottom. That's the reverse today. Back in those years we didn't run every distillery all year long - it depended on long range projections. You could do everything exactly the same in a distillery but every water source would generate it's own unique flavor profiles. Thats how we got 10 recipes back then. We used 2 mashbills and 1 yeast. But 2 mashbills and 5 locations would give you 10 flavors. We're getting off the subject here. The bourbon that was produced at these distilleries that was going to be used in a straight bourbon whiskey was sent to the Coxs Creek facility for aging in single story. It was built as the hub of a wheel for those 5 distilleries. The reason for the single story was to generate more consistency from barrel to barrel than the multi story. 

Mark: It sounds like you going to continue your unique style of whiskey making including multiple yeast strains, single story warehouses, high rye mashbill, etc. What else can we expect to remain the same from your Four Roses days? Any minimum/maximum ages or will it all depend on how it ages in the barrel?

Jim: Its how the whiskey ages and thats how it has always been at Four Roses. There is so much more credence given to the age - the older the better. It's just not true. We will have a target age for the youngest bourbon that comes out of the distillery of 5.5 years, minimum of 5 years. It will go up from there in age but you get more and more rejects as you get older in the barrels. *Laughs* 

JWRD will use more mashbills then Seagram but fewer yeast strains. We won't have as many variables as Four Roses. There will be similarities and differences. A wheated bourbon - Seagram never did that for example. I'm really looking forward to doing that. Seagram produced straight rye like the 95/5 from Lawrenceburg, Indiana but it was never used. Seagram was not a straight whiskey company. That was the best rye I've ever tasted and thats what I told David Perkins. He was able to source a lot of barrels because I told him you ought to get a bunch of rye from Lawrenceburg Indiana while its still available. And he did and its the best rye I've ever tasted. I've never tasted anything in a bottle in the market as good as what Lawrenceburg Indiana made. And they never put it in the bottle. It was only used as flavoring components for the blended whiskies. 

Mark: Are there any challenges with using large portions of wheat in the mashbill as there are with rye?

Jim: I suspect wheat will be the easiest thing we produce because it doesnt have the same enzyme level as un-malted rye. Its mellower and easier to handle than the rye. If anything it will be nice to run that type of bourbon. 

Mark: What are you going to do differently? We already talked about the wheated mashbill? Anything else? Different blends? Maybe even blends of rye and wheat?

Jim: We could end up with a blended bourbon using a blend of some of the rye mashbills. We might end up with more than one wheated mashbill. Whats on the website was just to determine if people wanted to see a wheat from us. We could have a bourbon that is comprised of rye as small flavoring grain plus some wheat. But you don't know until you get into mingling/blending the two together and checking the results. Everything we do will be based on taste results. I won't rule anything out but I also wont say we are going to do that. 

Mark: You had mentioned that when bourbon gets too old the flavor can become impacted. Is that because the wood sugars have been used up in the barrels and the tannins are leaching out?

Jim: Exactly. Its the sugars from the wood in the barrels. There are two things - oxidation has a lot to do with flavor profile and the natural sugars in the white oak. When those sugars have been depleted then whats left in the barrel is going to have a lot more tannins. A lot of people really like that. How in the world do you like that? I never did. I came to find out over the years asking and talking to people why they liked a 20 year old over an 8 year old or a 10 year old (bourbon). The people that might like the 20 or 22 year old are also big fans of scotch. Not that it tastes like scotch but its doesn't taste as sweet. A lot of the people that like the older bourbon are also scotch drinkers and I'm not. 

Mark: Will you be chill filtering you whiskey?

Jim: We will not chill barrel strength Bourbons and Ryes, but “IF” we bottle any at 90 proof or less we will chill filter.

Mark: You have always been pretty hardcore against flavored and finished whiskies.  

Jim: Absolutely. Absolutely. Thats my biggest pet peeve is that people will add flavors and call it a Kentucky Straight Bourbon finished with natural and/or artificial peach flavor (for example) so you got a peach flavored bourbon. And thats what people think it is - peach bourbon. Its not bourbon anymore. These companies are saying that whats in this bottle started off as bourbon and is finished by adding preach, blackberry, or whatever. They aren't saying its bourbon now but the perception is that its bourbon. I believe in the integrity, credibility, and the respect of the long time traditions/requirements to be a Kentucky Straight Bourbon. I think its a negative reflection on our industry not protecting what we have and what built this industry. We are destroying it with these flavors. 

If you have a bourbon aged 6 years and finished 3 months or 6 months in a wine barrel/brandy/whatever barrel you are doing two things. You are changing the flavor and one of the requirements for bourbon is that you may not adulterate or alter that flavor in any way. And bourbon must be aged in a brand new barrel each and every time. When you take it out of the barrel you can't put in a used barrel and age it. You are changing the flavor and violating two of the requirements. The perception is that this is bourbon but its not. If you are going to do something like that be up front about it. Don't call it what it isn't. 

Mark: So it's safe to say that you have no plans of deviating from straight bourbon whiskey or straight rye whiskey? 

Jim: You could safely say that. 

Mark: *Laughing like an idiot* Where do you see this brand and this distillery in 10 or 20 years?

Jim: Well, first of all in 20 years I hope to still see it. *Laughs* Thats why we are building for the future. We want to be as environmentally friendly as we can. We have to think of future generations right now and this is what we want to do. Its going to be around hopefully for a long time. I just hope once I'm gone and no longer around that it maintains the same level of integrity and credibility like the conversation we just had. I hope it maintains those standards, high standards that we will abide by. 

Mark: This might be trivial but is there any reason you didn't stick it out with Four Roses for 50 years?

Jim: 50 years is a number. I wasn't going to stay another year just for a number. It might have been important to some people but honestly it didn't mean that much to me. Four Roses said they wanted to have a bottle with my name on it. The limited edition program started with my 40th anniversary and they wanted to do a 50th. I said that would be nice but I wasn't going to stay around just to have my name on a bottle. If they wanted that we could have done it in other ways when I was still there. *Chuckles* The time was right and I was ready to retire. I had been thinking about it for a year and a half. It was time to go and I needed to go ahead and do it. 

Mark: I don't want to bug you too much about Four Roses because that is the past and we are looking at the future here. What happened last week? Were you forced to announce the distillery early because of the article on Bourbon Truth?

Jim: No. That was the day we had planned. I don't know how it went over but I heard about all the stuff that came out on Wednesday. We went around and announced this on Thursday. I made a comment here to a couple people - I said well I guess people know where I am now. *Laughs* 

When I retired there was no animosity and no hard feelings at all. It was very amicable and I wasn't forced out. People were saying because I wasn't visible that "did Jim do something and get fired or did he leave out of resentment of some kind?" None of that is true. When I retired the whole thing was that I thought I would be used in an emeritus positions and they decided to go in a different direction. They wanted Brent Elliot to become the face of the distillery and if I stayed on in emeritus positions then that would never happen or wouldn't happen probably as long as I was there because I have so much more time on him. He is a super, super guy and couldn't be a better replacement. Very trilled to death with him as my replacement and everything I have seen of him when I see him on TV or here him talk with people - he is wonderful. He is going to get better with time.  

I totally understand that philosophy and its perfectly OK with me because its the best thing to do for Four Roses as a future. Thats the only thing I've ever said about it - is very positive about Brent. I was all for him and thought that was good move on his behalf. I don't know how these things get started except somebody said what happened to Jim - he must have been fired. Or what happened to Jim - he must have left in a huff. And the next person doesn't read it clear and passes it on. You know how rumors build and mushroom. None of that was true at all. I just hated what happened to some of the people there. I hated that. It was totally undeserving. 

Mark: Jim, Is there anything else you want to say? 

Jim: I left Four Roses with good terms on both sides, very amenable. They had retirement lunches for me at both locations - the Four Roses Distillery and Cox's Creek. Our CEO went with me for both of them and introduced me. I mean, everything was great. And to have all of this come out - it doesn't hurt me. What bothers me is it hurts the people at Four Roses. When they changed their direction on using me in an emeritus position I totally understood. I've told everyone that is fine with me. I think its a good move, a smart move and a good business decision. 

Mark: Thanks Jim. I appreciate your time and candidness on this call. 

Jim: I appreciate your calling and taking this much time. Talk to you later. 

A few days after this interview it was announced that the Indiegogo campaign was not successful and all backers were being refunded 100%. I wouldn't expect anything less from Jim and his partners. Admitting failure on their part and refunding the money pledged was flat out the right thing to do. Honesty and transparency is paramount in this industry. It was an honor and a privilege to speak with Jim about all things whiskey. I wish him the best of luck and can't wait to see what the future holds for J. W. Rutledge Distillery. Cheers. 

- Mark Millonzi @ Entry Proof

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