Former Four Roses distiller Jim Rutledge resurrects an old brand, prepares to break ground on new distillery
When the master distiller Jim Rutledge retired from Four Roses in 2015, it lasted about seven days. “It took me about a week of retirement to figure out it wasn’t my cup of tea,” he tells Insider. “There is nothing I enjoy more than working in a distillery.”
Just this week, Rutledge and his team of investors announced that they’re eyeing property in Oldham County for the J.W. Rutledge Distillery. The 69,000-square-foot facility will likely be located near La Grange, which makes it easily accessible from both I-71 and I-64.
Rutledge, a Louisville resident with five decades of distilling under his belt, wanted to stay close to his city but also take advantage of wide open spaces.
“It’s an ideal location for its proximity to Louisville and its access from two interstates,” he says. “Everything about that area, to me, is perfect.”
Until the actual deal has been signed, sealed and delivered to Rutledge and his partners Stephen Camisa, Jon Mowry and Will Conniff, he’s not going to disclose the details, but a news release that went out Tuesday showed renderings of the distillery by Louisville’s Luckett & Farley and North Carolina’s pod architecture + design, the same engineering team behind Rabbit Hole Distillery.
Rutledge and his partners also are working with Venture First to find and secure more investors, but it’s important that the four maintain more than 50 percent ownership in the company, he said. Last year, a deal fell through at the last minute when a large investment firm backed out because it wanted more control over the project.
“It probably worked out best for us, but everything came to a screeching halt after that,” admitted Rutledge. But then after partnering with Luckett & Farley and working with Venture First earlier this year, he says, they were able to get back on their feet and continue moving forward.
The team already has raised at least $10 million for the distillery, and more will be coming from loans. It’s enough to start the process, says Rutledge, and he “hopes to get a shovel in the ground before spring.”
To help with initial costs, the distillery will offer contract distilling as well as rick-house space for craft distillers to age their barrels. And — if you know Rutledge, then you won’t be surprised — there are a few more things up his sleeve …
Cream of Kentucky
Rutledge and his team have bought the rights to the old bourbon brand Cream of Kentucky, which was first put out in 1888 by I. Trager & Co. of Cincinnati. After Prohibition, it was reintroduced by the Schenley Company in 1934. It was a fairly successful brand throughout the ’30s and ’40s, and the legendary artist Norman Rockwell often provided artwork for the brand’s advertisements.
Rutledge, who says his company will be as transparent as the bottle his bourbon is sold in, says his team sourced bourbon for this release, which he hopes to have out by the end of the year — yes, that means in a few weeks. Legally, he does not know if he’s allowed to say where he purchased the bourbon from, but as soon as he gets the green light — if he gets the green light — he will certainly spill the corn.
“I’ve always been honest, and I’ll answer any question if I know the answer. We will be transparent, but we have to know we’re legally allowed to say it,” he says.
He admits he was hesitant at first when sampling some of the limited surplus bourbon that was for sale. And in fact, there was one batch he turned down immediately because it wasn’t up to his standards.
“You work a lifetime to build a reputation, but you can lose it in a heartbeat. I said we cannot destroy our future for short-term gain,” says Rutledge.
His team finally came across some nice bourbon and decided it fit the profile of what he envisions Cream of Kentucky to be. They bought 150 barrels and plan to bottle the product next week at the distillery’s future Oldham County neighbor, the Kentucky Artisan Distillery in Crestwood.
Rutledge hopes to release about 4,500 six-bottle cases in a handful of states, including, obviously, Kentucky.
For the other products the distillery will release, including rye whiskeys and straight bourbons, Rutledge hopes to get a jump on the process by distilling his mash bill at other distilleries and getting it into the barrel as soon as possible. The first order of business will be building one-story rick houses, which can be done in six months. So if it takes two years to complete the entire distillery, the bourbon and whiskey will already be two years old when it’s ready to open.
And then Rutledge will be back home, his hands in every step of the process from grain to glass. Because, he believes, it can always be better.
“I drive myself crazy — and probably others around me — but I’m a perfectionist,” he says. “I don’t care how good we get today, what can we do this afternoon to be better tomorrow? That’s just the way I am. I love the process, and I really love working with our operators and teaching everything I know.”
The Cream of Kentucky isn’t the only Rutledge release we can expect soon. For the last two years, he has been contract distilling for the newly opened Castle & Key Distillery on a project led by the C&K investor and Louisville businessman Brook Smith. The products will be called Reclamation Rye and Reclamation Bourbon, and 100 percent of the profits will go into the struggling communities of eastern Kentucky for training and educational purposes.
“Brook is a good guy, and he’s been doing fundraisers for years to help put money back in that area,” says Rutledge. “His heart wouldn’t fit in my truck. For him, it’s all about reclaiming the land for the people who live there, so he wanted these products to give back to those communities.”
Rutledge says the whiskey will be about two years old this spring, so it’ll be another handful of years before it’s ready.
“It’s critical for a new brand to be good,” he says. “All the marketing in the world might sell your first bottle. But it’s what’s in the bottle that’ll sell the 10th and 20th.”