It’s not very often you get to meet an icon, let alone sit down with that person for a one-on-one interview. Our bourbon-icon experience just happened to be with Al Young, on his birthday, to help launch his namesake Four Roses Limited Edition. I had the pleasure to sit down with Al, Senior Brand Ambassador for Four Roses before his 50th Anniversary Four Roses release pop-up event at OBC Kitchen on June 20. Jenny Duggan, from our Marketing team, joined us to record the interview, and as a newcomer to the bourbon world she was excited to be along for the ride.
For the full recorded interview click play!
Bourbon Mayor (BM): So we’re sitting here with The Bourbon Mayor Blog and Al Young from Four Roses. Al, Jenny and I brainstormed together this morning and we just wanted to figure out what’s the best quick blog questions and answers and insightful information that we could portray to our readers and our subscribers. So I’ve got a few of them for you. Six of them to be precise. The first one was the very first one that popped in my head. Al, what was your first job at the distillery?
Al Young (AY): You know, my first job was with Seagrams in Louisville, and I worked in a quality control lab, so quality has been engrained in me since the very first day. I was the set up guy, so I had to set up I believe about 60 to 70 samples every morning before the people that really thought they knew something came around to smell and evaluate them. And they did!
BM: Another question I had, one of my first ones was “What is your favorite cocktail?” If Al Young walks into OBC Kitchen, what does he order?
AY: I will order a Manhattan, with small batch.
BM: Small batch? Okay!
AY: I love it.
BM: Do you have a preference on vermouth or anything, or bitters or…
AY: Bartender’s choice.
BM: Bartender’s choice, I love that.
AY: In fact, if I come into the OBC and I ask for a Manhattan and somebody says “Well do you want this kind of vermouth or do you want this” I’d say “Make it the way you’d like to have it.”
BM: I love it, I do. And that’s what it is, as a bartender for so long I want to express my passion and my cocktail experience to my guest. I’m the tour guy and I want my guest to be just on the ride for the roller coaster. So we’re gonna dig a little bit deeper now, okay? Al you are a bourbon icon. And I don’t know if you admit it or not, I see you laughing. I mean, you know, how many times have you been inducted to the bourbon hall of fame? Twice?
AY: I’ve been inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame once…the Whiskey Magazine Hall of Fame once…and that’s enough. [laughing]
BM: [laughing] Well that’s twice more than anyone in this room!
AY: Oh my goodness!
BM: My question for you is, who is your bourbon hall of fame icon? Who do you look up to – past, present, future? I want to know who Al Young admires.
AY: Well I have to tell ya, without even thinking about it, Jimmy Russell with Wild Turkey is a real close friend of mine. In fact we just did the Bourbon Affair together, we were supposed to be the people talking about history. The night we showed up, we were both in the same colored shirts, slacks, all the way down to the socks! [laughing]. So you could say that we’re sorta like bourbon brothers.
BM: If you don’t mind me to break away from the questions a little, what is your past go with Jimmy? Can you give me a little insight on your friendship?
AY: Well, both have our distilleries in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky so basically the friendship evolved around the warehouses that they had there on the property were once ours to begin with. And every time there was a fire alarm over there, Jimmy came. It wasn’t like they sent somebody. This was a long time ago. HE came to check out the warehouses, so I sorta liked that. You know, when the head duck comes over, that’s very important. Then we started seeing each other at shows, and then our wives got to know each other a little bit. We’re business friends, you know, to the point where we can kid and laugh with each other when we’re around each other, but of course it gets serious when you get into the business a little bit. But to my way of thinking, he’s the kinda guy I’d like to be when I grow up.
BM: [laughing] Well, I’ve seen Jimmy a couple times and you’ve gotta long way to go.
BM: No, I love Jimmy, I love Eddie. Eddie has made me cry in a rick warehouse talking about his dad and Elmer and Parker and Booker, the legends. And I consider you one of those legends.
AY: Well, thank you very much. Sometimes I wonder about that. The best way to probably sum up that part of it, is I think when I celebrated 40 years in the business, Jimmy let me know I was just a baby.
BM: [laughing]Well even Eddie, he was like “Ya know I finally get to be a master distiller after 37 years!”
BM: Next up is kind of a historical question in bourbon. Unbeknownst to the bourbon industry, you came on board when the bourbon decline came about. I mean you started your job and then three years later everybody’s drinking vodka, you know. Everybody was making a lot of bourbon, but the decline happened. You were able to weather the storm and then in the 80’s you could maybe see the bourbon boom come back around. But your first five years was the decline, the last five years to ten years has been the boom. What was the first signs of the decline?
AY: Well we were fortunate enough that we always made bourbon for export with Seagrams so we were making Four Roses bourbon export there in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. The decline came about when Seagrams decided not run some of those small distilleries every year, and the warehouses started to back up and you couldn’t give it away, and our future was in doubt, not necessarily to be sold but whether you were gonna run or not. So that happened as you described it, you know in the 70’s, and then in 1982 we were told in Lawrenceburg that we were gonna shut down and we wouldn’t run for two years. And then all of a sudden somebody changed their mind, but the harm was done then because we were all shipped out. I went to Lawrenceburg, Indiana for seven years to work at MGP. So then in 1990 a position opened up back at Lawrenceburg, Kentucky and I was fortunate enough to get the nod to go back. And people said “Aw you’re throwing away your career, you don’t know what you’re doing” and I went “Uh, yeah, well maybe” but I had hoped it would come back. Jim Rutledge kinda lead the charge on that from about 1994 on and then getting it recognized by first Seagrams and then by Kirin, and did a lot of running with the brand to try and get it established in the United States. I mean we’d been out of the market for 60 years. And then I got swept up into it when I tried to retire, they said ‘Why don’t you stay on and be the brand ambassador?’ and that was Teruyuki Daino who was President of the company at the time.
BM: How many years ago was that?
AY: Oh gosh, a good ten. He said “I want you to stay around, I’d like for you to write the book about Four Roses, go out and greet the people, do everything that you would do to promote the brand,” and so I’ve been doing that ever since.
BM: Al, I think as the Bourbon Mayor, that we could not be in the bourbon world that we are in right now without your help. This is not on the questions but thank you.
AY: You know there are a lot of good people that are caught up in this thing. You know, the other day somebody said “Well, this is your bourbon, this 50th Anniversary bourbon” and I said “I’m just gonna let you know, no.” There are a lot of good people that were working in the distillery at that time. That all I did was make sure they got there every morning and went home at night, and made sure that the train was on the track. They’re the ones that deserve the credit for making really good whiskey.
BM: And they have done a swell job of it. And thank you for also showing gratitude. We at OBC and in the industry, I make sure every time we go to a distillery, I shake everybody’s hand on the line, say hello to them and thank them for what they do for us, ’cause we wouldn’t be there without them.
AY: And we wouldn’t be either. I mean it would be hard to promote a product that didn’t have everybody’s quality consciousness in it.
BM: And they all greet us back with the same smile! And that’s what I love.
BM: So okay, here’s a question. It’s an open ended question that, you know, we could talk about for hours, but is there anything in the bourbon industry right now that you see could improve?
AY: Oh, well, we could always hope the state would improve taxation for us. You know, we are undergoing expansion now to win this rate at our distillery. It’s certainly not a new story for anybody. But it speaks well of the fact that the bourbon industry is growing, we think it’s gonna be around for a while. So what we need is to make sure that fair trade laws are in place…
BM: I couldn’t agree more with that.
AY: Yeah, and that we don’t isolate ourselves and stick our heads in the ground when these other issues come into play.
BM: And we won’t get into politics but…
AY: No, no no
BM: …I agree ’cause bourbon will be around. You put a bourbon in a barrel, you’re gonna have a different governor when it comes out of the barrel.
AY: In most cases [laughing]
BM: Yeah, it’s a fun world to be in.
AY: It is.
BM: One final question, what do you think is gonna be the next big thing in bourbon? I mean we’ve seen everybody is trying to come up with the next hot ticket item. Al Young, you’ve been around for 50 years. What’s the next 50 gonna bring us.
AY: I don’t know to be honest with you. I’m amazed, first of all, that we finally went to barrel strength, unfiltered, and then the fact that we’re using older whiskeys now as premium items. I mean my gosh, when I started in the business if you were getting $15 a bottle it better be something super special. Whereas now you’re getting $150 for a bottle and people are saying “I’ll take two.”
BM: I see, one of my early bottles on my shelf was always bottled in bond Very Old Barton that I could buy for $8 or $7.50 on the shelf at Rite Aid and I could sell it on the secondary market right now for $50 to $80 a pop, and it’s insane!
AY: I’ll tell ya what drives the industry and drives the creativity in the industry are the consumers and the education they get from bartenders who are more informed, from educational dinners and stuff that are held by different restaurants. Today the public is more informed than they ever were. And the odd thing about it is that we’re getting questions from emails, we’re getting questions on the phone that we only asked ourselves 30 years ago. Like, you know, you’d find out that the pH of a perimeter is that important, you’d think that the final proof after the second distillation is where you want it to be. How about the atmosphere inside your distillery, is that important? And we’re sitting there thinking well back in February of a certain year, we all sat down on a Friday afternoon and talked about that.
BM: So back to that, what’s big in the bourbon industry, would you say education might be the next big thing? I mean it already is, we’ve seen that. People educate themselves more so and more so every single day, on the week, so it’s keeping up with the consumer, maybe? Or am I….
AY: It’s keeping up with the consumer is a very important part of it. The other side of it is the storefront bourbons that really are bought bourbons, that don’t have a distillery, that don’t have a marketing team per se, are gonna be in hard straits if this thing really balloons and there’s no whiskey to sell. I mean, we don’t make whiskey for anybody, and we don’t sell anything to anybody except the customers.
BM: I love that, “We don’t make whiskey for anybody, and we don’t sell just to anybody”? Is that right?
AY: For anybody, really. I mean we sell to customers of course. But we don’t…I mean, you know it’s all over the internet so it’s no secret, but in the early days we made some whiskey for Diageo, and there was no secret about that…but we stopped doing that a number of years ago because we began to see that they were gonna need it.
BM: And anybody who reads our blog, most of them know that if you want a good bottle of Four Roses you buy a bottle of Bulleit.
AY: Yeah you can buy some “Bou-lay” [laughing]
BM: [laughing] Ha ha ha, love it! Al thank you. Is there anything, any parting words that you want to finish out our fun interview with the Bourbon Mayor to all of our OBC blog subscribers?
AY: Well, let me turn it around on you, is there anything else you want? Is there anything else you’d like to know?
BM: You know what, I want to hang out with you one night by myself and just share a bottle of whiskey with you.
AY: I love it. I’d like to do that.
BM: I don’t drink a whole bottle but I drink a couple sips. You know if you drink too much and you might be drooling the answers.
AY: [laughing] Everything in moderation.
BM: Yes. Everything in moderation.
AY: Yeah, be socially responsible. That’s an important part of it too.
BM: It definitely is, and that’s what we like to pass on to all of our people.
AY: “Be mellow, be responsible.” That’s our tagline with Four Roses, to be mellow and be responsible, and it makes a lot of sense. I mean we try to make quality…Brown-Forman does a good job of preaching this…but we try to make quality adult beverages and when they’re handled right they can make a great evening out of an ordinary meeting really quick, but if it’s abused, it’s like anything else. I think Lincoln said it best. He said that the abuse of a good thing reaps its own rewards, or words to that effect [Original quote: “It has long been recognized that problems with alcohol relate not to the use of a bad thing, but the abuse of a good thing.”]. You gotta do what you gotta do.
BM: And you do, and yet every once in a while you run into an icon like Al Young. Sir thank you so much for your words, for your time.
AY: Thank you. No worries.
BM: Jenny, do you have anything for Mr. Young?
Jenny Duggan (JD): I think honestly, I mean I’ll admit I’m still pretty young, pretty new to bourbon. I’m still trying to develop a palate for it so I’m still kind of in the baby stages but this is one thing I’m kind of really excited about.
AY: The last thing you need to do is for somebody to tell you what to see in a bourbon. I mean, we have descriptors all over the place about our yeast and about our mash bills and what the combinations do. But the way we handle it let you decide. I mean, if you’re trying something and we tell you that we’re seeing oranges or seeing some exotic citrus flavor and all you’re seeing is wild cherry…
JD: That’s it, that’s part of the profile.
AY: That’s what you saw. You need to go along with that and when your palate gets a little bit developed, then you can go look at the other teams and say you know “such and such saw this, I wonder how he saw that? Because I didn’t see it. I missed it. I was looking at maybe the sweetness or I was looking at the spice. How did he see that?” The finish, is it long? If you get a whiskey that’s hot when you first start, chances are you’re not gonna drink it. You’re gonna swallow it begrudgingly…
JD: [laughing] Which I have done before. I have had some bad bourbons in my time.
BM: Bourbons you didn’t like.
JD: Well yes, that’s what I’m saying bourbons I was just not a fan of.
AY: …you’re gonna be thinking about do you wanna mix it into a cocktail or a cola or something to kill the taste? Is this something you want to drink straight? What’s it doing to you, but you have to decide yourself.
JD: Alright. Well I guess I gotta go shopping.
AY: Yeah! And we thank you ahead of time for spending all that money [laughing]
JD: Well thank you so much for taking the time to meet with us and answer questions. And like I said where I’m still young to the bourbon industry and to the bourbon world in general, this is an exciting moment for me because this is kinda like the springboard, so I’m super excited and thanks for being a part of it.
AY: Well, I’ll tell ya there are a lot more exciting people out there than me.
BM: Not many…
BM: I can only name like six or seven! [laughing]
AY: That’s good! That’s good.
JD: Awesome, well thank you so much.
BM: Al, thank you so much.
AY: I appreciate the honor.
CLICK HERE to download the full interview transcript