Behind the Scenes at the Four Roses Distillery

Four Roses' single-story rack warehouse

Four Roses Bourbon is in the middle of an expansion that will eventually double production. A tour of the still-growing distillery shows a company keeping up with increased demand for bourbon while holding on to the craftsmanship that created the demand in the first place.

Master distiller offering tastings of bourbon Master distiller Brent Elliott offers up tastes of Japan-only releases and the discontinued blended whiskey. Photos courtesy of Marcia Simmons and Four Roses Bourbon.

There was a period when Four Roses wasn't available in the United States. No, it wasn't during Prohibition — Four Roses was one of the only six distilleries with a license for "medicinal" whiskey. In the 1950s, then-owner Seagrams shut down domestic operations to focus on Asian and European markets. A (vastly inferior) blended whiskey was the only Four Roses available in the states. When Kirin took ownership in 2002, the blended whiskey was scrapped and it was back to high-quality bourbon for all.

Tasting lab in Four Roses bourbon distillery

Samples in the tasting lab are rated by Elliott and eight others.

Jim Rutledge, who was instrumental in bringing Four Roses bourbon back home, retired in September after nearly 50 years. But the new guy is hardly new. Master distiller Brent Elliott was Four Roses' director of quality for 10 years, working closely with Rutledge in the tasting lab evaluating bourbon and selecting barrels for special bottlings.

Hand-numbered bottle of limited edition bourbon One of about 8,000 hand-numbered bottles of Elliott's Select.

Elliott's first limited-edition release as master distiller hits the shelves this month. Called Elliot's Select, it's a barrel-strength, 14-year-old bourbon that has notes of allspice, vanilla and ripe peach with a mellow honey finish.

Mash bubbling in one of Four Roses' 23 fermenters.

Mash bubbling in one of Four Roses' 23 fermenters.

Four Roses is the only distillery that uses 10 different recipes. Each recipe combines one of two mash bills with one of five proprietary yeast strains. Four Roses Yellow Label uses all 10 recipes, while Small Batch uses four recipes. Single-barrel releases use only one.

Four Roses bourbon distillery rack warehouse Four Roses' single-story rack warehouse in Cox's Creek, Kentucky.

Another unique thing about Four Roses is that it's the only distillery with a single-story rack warehouse. Brand ambassador Al Young says this makes for a more gentle and consistent maturation process. A single-story warehouse has fewer variations in temperature.

Tanks in Four Roses Bourbon Distillery

Part of Four Roses' expansion is an upgrade to larger tanks.

In the future, a lot more Four Roses will be coming our way. While old tanks held 8,000 wine gallons, these new ones hold 28,000 wine gallons each.

Barrels of bourbon being emptied About 300 barrels are emptied at the warehouse each day, and cut with water and filtered.

Barrels can't be used to make bourbon again and are usually sold to scotch or beer makers. Young jokes that beermakers are free to get "imaginary flavors" from these barrels, since all the flavor has actually been extracted for the bourbon.

Small tasting glass of bourbon

A taste from one of Four Roses' private barrels — complete with char.

Young, who is in his 50th year with Four Roses, led a straight-from-the-barrel tasting in the private barrel room. Elliott sets aside select barrels for the private barrel program. No more than 200 bottles of non-chill filtered, single-barrel bourbon are private labeled for certain bars, restaurants and retailers at barrel strength. Members of a "secret bourbon society" that visits regularly can identify in a single taste which of Four Roses' 10 bourbon recipe was used for a particular barrel.

Sampling from a barrel in bourbon distillery

Pulling samples, or "thieving," from a barrel in the warehouse.

If there's an arms race to see which brand can grab a bigger piece of the market, you won't hear about it from any Kentucky distiller. Bourbon people will never say anything negative about another distillery's bourbon. One distillery's success is a win for the bourbon industry as a whole.

"We won't dog other bourbon. We're family," Elliott says. "We save that for Jack Daniels. They're big. They can take it."