Not long ago few would have recognized the name “Brent Elliott,” but that has certainly changed. It’s been almost a year since Brent took over the role of master distiller at Four Roses from Jim Rutledge. Now that the dust has settled, Brent seems to be finding his groove balancing the wide range of duties bestowed upon a modern-day master distiller.
With a chemistry degree from the University of Kentucky, two young kids at home, and bourbon in his blood, Brent is as down to earth as they come.
His approachable demeanor is refreshing, especially considering his first limited edition, Elliott’s Select Limited Edition Single Barrel, bears both his namesake and likeness. Elliott’s Select is bottled at cask strength in proofs ranging from 100-120, made of the OESK recipe, is 14 years old, and will retail for $125. Only 10,224 bottles will be available.
Breaking Bourbon was excited to have an in-depth conversation with Brent to dig a bit deeper into who he is, his past experiences with bourbon, and his future vision for Four Roses.
Edited for brevity and clarity.
Breaking Bourbon: Can you share a bit about life before Four Roses?
Brent: Well I grew up on the western side of the state here in Owensboro, Kentucky. Left there in 1992 to go to the University of Kentucky where I studied chemistry. Graduated from there and had my first job which was in the adhesive [industry]...the adhesive that goes between the plastic and the pvc on your credit card. So it was not really a job I was super passionate about. It was a first job out of college...got my feet wet. Following that I worked on a lot of analytical chemistry between then and my moving back to Kentucky.
So went from Ohio...the credit card job...then Tennessee. Actually when I was in Tennessee I got married, bought a house...was content...thought we’d be there forever. And then came up here and took a tour of Woodford Reserve. If you’ve ever been there it’s a magical place. A wonderful, wonderful facility. And I saw that and something just clicked. I had a chemistry background, I was working in analytical chemistry and had been for quite some time. I realized that somehow there was a way that I could actually marry my education, my experience with something that I could actually be passionate about. And what better way to do that than with bourbon?
So that’s kind of a brief history of what brought me here and what my background is. The Kentucky side is where bourbon comes from. Being from Kentucky I’ve always been exposed to bourbon. It’s part of Kentucky’s heritage and it’s always been there. I never imagined that I could get involved with it or that I could take my chemistry background and apply that to it.
Breaking Bourbon: What was your very first memorable experience with bourbon?
Brent: In college there was a lot of bourbon and Coke...people ask me now if I like the idea of bourbon and Coke...not in principle just because I think I had enough in college. But if that’s how you want to drink it that’s fine with me. But personally I had my fill then.
I remember my first exposure to anything other than a mixing bourbon. I was visiting a friend out in Colorado and this was a while back...‘98, ‘99 I think. I tried some of the Beam Small Batch Collection...might have been Knob Creek or something. And at the time premium bourbon was not really a thing. I tried that and really was impressed. Still never gained a lot of traction with me...though I liked it, it was nice. But then when I was living in Tennessee a friend of mine introduced me to drinking bourbon on the rocks and neat, instead of mixing it. Being from Kentucky I should have tried that before. But in college it was more of a mixing thing. And that was really an eye-opening experience. I started drinking on the rocks and started appreciating the nuances and the character. That's when it opens up to the deeper appreciation of craftsmanship, variety, and differences from one bourbon to the other.
Breaking Bourbon: Do you remember your first experience with a Four Roses Bourbon?
Brent: Oh absolutely. My only knowledge of Four Roses in 2005 when I applied for this position...a few years prior to that...I was driving to my wife's grandfather's brother's house outside Bardstown...it was the first time we went out there...when I drove by the warehouse and bottling facility. And having grown up in Kentucky and being familiar with bourbon, I was shocked to see these huge warehouses with a big Four Roses sign out front. And when I saw that my reaction was how bad must this bourbon be? Here I am, I’m living in Kentucky, grew up here, and I’ve never heard of this brand.
In retrospect it’s understandable because at the time Four Roses was just then coming back into the United States, so there was no reason I could have known it. So I just drew the conclusion that Four Roses was probably a bottom shelf brand.
So when I actually applied for the interview I still had not tried Four Roses. But on the way up to the interview I stopped in Bowling Green, Kentucky...because at the time you could only get Four Roses in Kentucky. So even though I was living in Nashville, Tennessee, I couldn't go out and buy a bottle just to taste it prior to the interview. So I actually had to buy a bottle on my way to Kentucky to the interview. And I tried it while I was in the hotel room that very night before the interview and I immediately fell in love with it. It was the Single Barrel. And it was so mellow...smooth...easy to drink.
Breaking Bourbon: Well that sounds like love at first sight!
Brent: Absolutely. And I think that quality and the flavors...that went a long way for me convincing me to make the move up here. Like I said I just bought a house, just got married, had a good job, my wife had a job. But we didn't have kids, so we could do something kind of crazy and just kind of follow our hearts...which is what we did.
And at the time we [Four Roses] were in the United States...you know...Four Roses was barely back in the United States. They had a plan. They explained to me that [they] hoped to grow in the United States and there were no guarantees. So I was like...well...if the product, the quality is there...we’re thinking if I don't like the bourbon there's no way we’re going to do this because I'd done the research on the brand and what their plan was. And after I tasted the bourbon I realized there probably was a bright future for this company. And at the time I had no idea because the surge in bourbon popularity had not really taken hold yet. It was a little bit of a leap of faith.
Breaking Bourbon: So your first position at Four Roses was in quality control and your background is in chemistry...how much of your role as master distiller is scientific versus taste, touch, and feel?
Brent: I'm still kind of getting a baseline for that, because there can be one week I'm doing nothing but working with formulas and liquids...and might not touch it for another week because I might be on the road for a couple days. I would say the core function that I...maybe not so much on a time scale...but as far as where I really try to manage my time and make room for is the mingling and working with the liquids, that sort of thing. Whether it's Single Barrel, formulating or reworking barrels for Small Batch, Yellow Label, whatever it might be...that's still a good portion of my time. And if I'm out too much and neglect what I'm doing here what's the point of even doing the other side of the master distiller stuff? Going out and preaching quality if I’m letting things slip here in the distillery, or in the warehouses, or bottling.
Breaking Bourbon: Speaking of quality, the last time we spoke you talked about some back and forth between you and Jim Rutledge with one of the past limited edition releases. Our takeaway: You were each dead set on making sure it was perfect. Can you remind us which release that was and can you expand on that back and forth with Jim?
Brent: That was the 2014 Limited Edition Small Batch.
What happened was I had gotten it down to three test blends that I was very happy with. And one in particular I had as the top pick in my mind. So Jim came to the lab [and] we sat down and went through the three test blends together. And [in the past] nine times out of ten he would point to the same one that I was thinking. [But] this time, however, not only did he not select the same blend that I liked, but he liked none of them. And I was like “Are you sure Jim? I think this one is fantastic...this one I was hoping you would like.” And he said “No I'm getting some kind of burn..there's something about that I don't like.”
I didn't know what to do. We weren't running out of time yet. We still had some time before the release so we had time to go back and work on it. But I wasn't seeing it. First he said “Well I'll come back tomorrow and look at it,” you know, spend some time with it. It's really hard to...as you know as a reviewer...you can’t just draw a conclusion on one taste. You’ve got to try different times of the day, different days, multiple tastings. And so he came back and he was like “No, I'm [still] getting it.” And it was the same one that I had set aside as my top pick and he just wasn't happy with it. So we did it blind a few times and he was picking it out every time. He was definitely seeing something.
So then to be fair and to test more, he said let's invite some people from marketing because [it had] already gone through the tasting panel and everyone seemed pretty content. It was really favorable to everyone...except Jim. So we did a blind tasting. And what I always try to do every year we do these Small Batches...I always set it up blindly with some of those ones from the past...‘13, ‘12, ‘10, and some of the other ones...and I'm not really satisfied until it consistently, in my opinion, is as good or better than previous releases. I always try to raise the bar a little bit. So I set that one up blindly with 2012, 2013...I think the 2010...and then maybe I think I threw in one of the Limited Edition Single Barrels. And the people from sales and marketing came in...I think there were five or six of them...and every one of those people except one selected the same blend that I had chosen as the top pick...which really didn't mean anything because Jim had the ultimate say. All that was...oh well, still back to the drawing board! It wasn't like he was going to surrender and say if they like it that's good. So we kind of wasted our time on that.
The next thing was I went back and revisited some of the original test blends that had done pretty well and tried to fine-tune those, and then presented those and still we weren't getting anywhere. So what I did was deconstructed...this is what I should have done from the very start...deconstructed the batch or the blend that was in question to all its different recipes and batches. And Jim was
pretty sure there was one that was contributing to the character he didn't like. Then I tried to swap that out with another OBSK which was 10 years plus. The problem was there was no other batch that had those same characteristics. We had other OBSVs that were 10 years or older but none had that profile.
So I was about to bang my head against the wall. We were about to miss the deadline to even release the thing and it came down to the last minute. [I thought] let me check some of the younger stuff. So I went back and found an OBSK batch that was 9 years old that had very similar characteristics as the one that Jim was getting the harshness from. I swapped the two out and that was it. It worked. Finally. That was about 70 or 80 test blends in.
Breaking Bourbon: So now that you’re in charge as master distiller what, if anything, might you do differently than Jim Rutledge?
Brent: Really at this point I haven't worked it too long...we've kind of got the culture here...I don't really feel a need to change anything. It sounds kind of boring, but it ain't broke and I don't plan to fix anything. I think we might have slightly different palates, but even so we worked together on every limited edition and I think we both saw eye-to-eye on those dating all the way back to 2009 when I started working on those.
Breaking Bourbon: Speaking in terms of the process and keeping things the same, do you ever envision a time when you might want to create a new Four Roses product such as a rye, wheated bourbon, or maybe something else?
Brent: I've always thought that we would make a very good rye, and I like rye whiskey. And as you know, we've got high rye in both our mash bills, so our bourbons are kind of based around rye. It wouldn't be much of a stretch for us to produce a rye whiskey, especially 51 - 60% rye. One of our mash bills already has 35% [rye] in it. So there's nothing planned, and I don't want to make any promises, but I think once we have the capacity...right now everything we make is just trying to keep up with demand in the U.S., the growth. I think once that capacity is satisfied with our expansion, then the idea of a rye could come to fruition.
I doubt we would ever want to do a wheat. I like wheated bourbons. I can really appreciate them. But they're kind of out outside our range, our identity as a bourbon. Rye is kind of the cornerstone of our identity...the spice, the backbone, the structure
Breaking Bourbon: Speaking of future releases, the last time we spoke we discussed the Al Young 50th Anniversary potentially coming in 2017. Can you share yet if that will be a small batch or single barrel? Or might that even be comprised of the alternative group of barrels that was in the running for Elliott’s Select this year?
Brent: There's been some discussion, again no promises...I hope it happens. I think it will, but we haven't even gotten so far as to decide much more beyond the concept or the liquid or anything beyond the fact that we want to commemorate Al in some way next year. Speculative time would probably be the spring, unless we did it in the fall in conjunction with our regular Small Batch or as our Small Batch Limited Edition commemorating Al. Hopefully it will happen and most likely it will, but we don't have any concrete plans yet for that.
Breaking Bourbon: How about life outside of Four Roses? What are you doing when you’re not master distillering?
Brent: I have two children, an 8 year old son and 6 year old daughter, so that answer is pretty simple. I try to spend time with them...catch up...they keep us plenty busy at home. And I've got some family in Frankfort so I do a lot of traveling. I have one sister in Owensboro [and] one in southern Indiana, so a lot of traveling around Kentucky. My wife's family is from western Kentucky...so mostly it's family time. I have some hobbies that I still try to fit in a couple times a year. I like to take the family camping, I like fishing, trying to bike some, try to run some.
Breaking Bourbon: Hypothetical kind of make believe scenario...you get to share a dram with anyone: past, present, even future. Who is it and why?
Brent: Probably my grandfather who has long since passed. He was a wonderful man...full stories...personality. Something my aunt said to me when I became master distiller...she called me to congratulate me and she told me he'd be so proud of you, but he didn't drink whisky, he didn't like it. And I thought I wonder if he didn't like it, or he just did didn't get a chance to try any good whiskey. And so that might be...maybe share one with him just to maybe see if I could change his mind. Turn him onto Four Roses.