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Getting to Know Whisky Magazine’s Master Distiller/Blender of the Year


Written by Brian G. Miller,  Founder of The Bourbon Tutor. Story originally published on The Bourbon Tutor. All views expressed herein belong to Brian G. Miller and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Moonshine University or its affiliates.

Last fall I was fortunate enough to meet and visit with Brent Elliott, Four Roses Bourbon’s Master Distiller, at two different events. In an earlier draft of this story, before I put it aside and got distracted, I referred to Brent as one of the young guns in the world of Kentucky bourbon master distillers. I planned to talk about how he was part of a new generation of bourbon makers you might not know much about, but that you need to keep your eyes on. But some editing is in order – now he’s the top gun. Whisky Magazine just named Brent the Master Distiller/Blender of the Year at the Icons of Whisky America ceremony last week in New York City.

The Owensboro, Kentucky native came to Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceberg in 2005 with a degree in chemistry from the University of Kentucky. Brent was named master distiller and director of quality ten years later, after Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame master distiller Jim Rutledge retired.

There’s a remarkable story in the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer newspaper about hometown-boy Brent’s new award that says he became interested in Four Roses after taking a distillery tour 16 years ago. He already had a job with a tobacco company in Nashville. But when Brent got home, he looked online for job openings at Four Roses, applied, and got an interview. On the way there he realized he’d never had Four Roses (I guess other than the samples during the tour) so he stopped and bought a bottle. Brent says it was the best bourbon he’d ever tasted. He got the job as assistant manager of quality. The lesson here? Drink Four Roses Bourbon before your next job interview.

“I look at some of the superb professionals across our industry, and to be recognized like this is just a tremendous honor and something I never would have imagined,” Brent said. “Our team at Four Roses is so dedicated to what we do. We’ve had the good fortune of releasing a lot of great bottlings over the last few years, including Small Batch Select, and I am proud of what we’ve been able to achieve together.” – Brent Elliott, Four Roses’ Master Distiller

Working the Crowd like a Politician for the Whiskey Party

Brent was the speaker at a gathering of the Bourbon Brotherhood at Eddie Merlot’s restaurant in downtown Louisville last November the first time we met. He made a very polished presentation on the fact that Four Roses is the only bourbon distillery that combines two mashbills with “five proprietary yeast strains to distill and age 10 distinct Bourbon recipes, each with its own unique flavor profile.”  As Brent explained the unique combinations he creates, he led the group through a tasting.

Brent graciously stayed around after the meeting to talk with me and a table of people full of questions. The subject of signing bottles came up. One man, who obviously knew Brent, said that although he was a die-hard Michigan fan, he has a special place in his bar for a bottle signed by Brent that reads, “Go Big Blue — the REAL Big Blue.” In his bio on the Four Roses website, there’s a question: UK or UofL? Brent’s answer: “I graduated from UK. That’s all I should say.”

Another guy asked about getting some bottles signed in the future. Brent said, “Do you have the bottles with you? Let’s do it right now. I’ve got pens.” Brent pulled several specialty markers out of his pocket and signed the 4 bottles the bourbon collector brought with him to the program. Another apology for the imposition earned this gracious response from Brent, “No bother at all. That’s why I brought the pens. Wow, you’ve got some good ones here.”

I watched Brent work the crowd like a politician for the whiskey party (which by the way, I stand ready to get behind during this election year.) Brent’s humble nature makes people comfortable as he invites them to share his passion for bourbon in general and Four Roses in particular. I asked Brent how many public events like this one he does. He didn’t know (or maybe doesn’t want to know) but said it could vary from four in one day for several days in a row, to just one event several times a week. Brent said he loves the travel and meeting people that come with being a master distiller. But the work of actually making bourbon, along with his family and two small children, keeps him from being on the road all the time.

Juggling Chemistry and Public Relations

Here’s a bit of our conversation:

The Bourbon Tutor (TBT): You wouldn’t have your job if you weren’t a brilliant chemist and scientist. But watching you here tonight, you’ve got a public relations job. You’re the brand ambassador, the face of Four Roses.  Several years into it now, how do you juggle both those worlds?

Brent Elliott (BE): “I went into chemistry and science for a reason. I’m not really that guy that likes to be out front talking. If you had told me, even six years ago, that I’d be a master distiller and talking in front of people, I’d say no way.  But then, little by little, I started hosting folks in the lab, then I started doing two or three groups a week. And before I knew it I was like, ‘I can talk to people.’ Because it’s about something that I love; it comes naturally. Even when I was asked…I wasn’t even asked, I was told I was going to be master distiller…I thought, ‘Oh, I hope I can do this. That is going to be a challenge to stand up and talk in front of people.’ Now I still get a little bit nervous, but as soon as I start talking, I draw energy from people. People are so enthusiastic and ask great questions.  I love it when people ask questions. Then it’s just like a conversation. I’ve stood up in front of a crowd and talked straight for two hours. I never thought I’d say that.”

TBT: So there are many parts of your day where you’re more of a brand ambassador than a master distiller?

BE: “Certainly. I think that’s true for all master distillers. There are times when juggling those two is the hardest part of my job. I think it’s been a hard transition for a lot of the guys who didn’t see that coming. Fortunately, everyone in that situation loves their brand so much and has so much knowledge, they’re happy to do it.”

TBTHow does it feel to be in your job, working with and learning from people like Jim Rutledge who have been making bourbon longer than you’ve been alive?

BE: “I was one of the only people there early on, so I was kind of in the right place at the right time. Most people are in the industry 20-30 years before they’re a master distiller. Me, I just happened to be sitting here like, ‘Well, you’ve only been here 10 years, but you’re the best we’ve got.’ Fortunately, because we were such a small company, I had been working in all aspects, working with everybody: production, blending, quality, even marketing. That’s still true today. We’re bigger and a getting little more specialized. But still, there are a handful of people who are involved in quite a few different areas.”

TBT: Obviously this Bourbon Brotherhood group tonight is pretty hardcore. They walk through the door knowing what they’re talking about when it comes to whiskey. But you have to find yourself in rooms full of bourbon “civilians.” What is it you want them to know about bourbon?

BE: “That’s getting more and more rare to find a group like that: a group that is shocked to know that bourbon doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky. Now everyone’s like, ‘yeah, yeah, what else?’ I really love being challenged. In the last year, more and more, people ask me questions that I don’t know the answer to. But it’s kind of refreshing to see people who are just getting into bourbon.”

TBT: What do you tell those folks just getting into bourbon about what makes Four Roses special?

BE: “Our history always plays well. The production process and our uniqueness. As far as the flavors go, you’ve got a big spectrum in bourbon and there’s a flavor for everybody. The major distilleries are all around for a reason. They’ve been making their profile of whiskey well for 50, 100, 150 years. Even with our different products, there’s a distinct Four Roses flavor. I describe our flavor as crisp, clean, elegant, and approachable. It’s not technical or in-depth, but it’s a pretty helpful description. Smooth and mellow, put that in there too. That’s our tagline!”

Mixing Bourbon and Beer

I met Brent a second time a month later in December at the Four Roses Distillery party to launch the limited-release Black Ops beer that the distillery teamed with Brooklyn Beer to make. The debut of the beer, aged in Four Roses Small Batch barrels, drew a big crowd. At a private tasting event beforehand, Brent and New York-based brewmaster Garrett Oliver walked the small group through the process that brought these two men and their companies together to collaborate on a bourbon-infused beer. Then the private party moved into the Four Roses visitors center for the public celebration and launch party.

As I’ve said before, this is exactly the kind of special event you need to seek out and attend at a bourbon distillery. For a minimal price, you get to meet and talk to the people making today’s bourbon renaissance possible, along with a great evening of food, entertainment, and lots of bourbon tastings.

Maybe it was being on his home turf or the impending holidays, but Brent was even more animated, engaging, and willing to answer every question, and spend time with anyone who wanted to talk, get a photo, or have their bottles signed by the master distiller. He instantly recognized me with a big smile (I’ve noticed that people who make bourbon for a living tend to smile a lot) and shook my hand, despite me being just one of the hundreds of people he had met in the intervening month.

I think Brent has the brand ambassador thing down. His recent award tells you he’s got the master distiller/blender thing down. Four Roses Bourbon should be well represented for years to come.

The Icons of Whisky America winners go on to compete with winners from around the world. For more information about the World Whiskies Awards, visit www.worldwhiskiesawards.com.

Written by Brian G. Miller,  Founder of The Bourbon Tutor. Story originally published on The Bourbon Tutor. All views expressed herein belong to Brian G. Miller and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Moonshine University or its affiliates.

Photo credits: Four Roses Bourbon, Bruce Corwin, Yeno Photographer, and The Bourbon Tutor.

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