A Living Legend at Four Roses

Photos by Hunter Zieske

By Mariah Kline

Few people can say that after five decades in the same business, they still love going to work every day. Al Young is one of those select few. This month, the bourbon legend celebrates his 50th anniversary with Four Roses, where he has served a number of roles and watched the renowned brand evolve with time.

Over the years, Young has worked in the quality control department, as a shift supervisor and as a distillery manager. In 2007, he considered retiring but instead took on a new role as senior brand ambassador. He also acts as the brand’s historian and has even written a book about the company’s extensive history. To celebrate his achievements and loyalty to the business, the Louisville native is now being honored with his own commemorative bottle.

I recently had the privilege of meeting Young at the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, where he has worked since 1990. I was warmly greeted and then invited by Young to sample his 50th anniversary bourbon.

“This whiskey is quite unique,” he explains. “I wanted to take a more Southern approach to the flavors and also incorporate a recipe that was available at the time when I was the distillery manager.”

The bourbon itself is a unique blend of a 23-year-old recipe as well as other recipes ranging from 12- to 15-years-old. The Southern flavors he blended include honey, spice and spearmint with a magnolia aroma and a pecan finish. The proof is 107.6, making it a quite strong bourbon but with a smooth finish.

The bottle that contains this special blend has a significance of its own. It is modeled after a bottle distributed by Four Roses in 1967, the year Young began working in the industry. The label includes a classic font, a large picture of the iconic four roses and Young’s signature. The most unique part of this bottle, however, is its rarity. Only 10,000 bottles of the special blend are available for purchase for this occasion and will not be released ever again.

Celebrating his 50th year with Four Roses, Young has seen the company change and grow in countless ways. He’s studied the history of the brand and uncovered hundreds of facts dating back to its inception in 1888. As he regaled me with anecdotes, I could tell that Young was equally passionate about the history of the bourbon as he was the taste of it. In our short time together, he told me a number of stories, including the legend of how the company received its name – in case you’ve never heard it, the tale involves a Southern belle, a marriage proposal and a corsage of four roses – and how the brand survived through prohibition.

The Four Roses coffee table book, “Four Roses: The Return of a Whiskey Legend,” was authored by Young, and it chronicles the history of Four Roses, including information on the family that started the brand, how the ownership has passed through the years and how it became prominent again after a time when its future was uncertain. It was first published in 2010 and has been through three revisions since then as new information and relevant photographs are discovered.

Young’s role as ambassador involves not only documenting the history of the brand but also furthering its influence in Kentucky and beyond. Young spends much of his time doing tastings and barrel selections for customers to help them find what will suit their tastes.

“My palate has become more mature over the years,” he says. “Spicier tastes in a bourbon pique my interest now, but I try to be objective so I can evaluate what the customer will want. Fortunately for them, there’s not a bad barrel ever put out and it’s just a question of aroma and taste.”

Young also speaks with great passion when it comes to his colleagues, including former master distiller Jim Rutledge, with whom he worked for a number of years. Young says the fellow Louisville native is largely responsible for carrying the brand through times of transition and making it the success that it is today. He’s also worked alongside Brent Elliott, the current master distiller, who Young affirms is now a perfect fit for the job.

“Both men are very knowledgeable and personable,” he explains. “It was a smooth transition from one to the next.”

As for what he has learned from his work in the last 50 years, Young has this advice to offer: “Don’t jump to conclusions,” he says. “When you make a snap judgment, you may not be taking in the whole picture. And when things look their darkest, try to find out what caused it to be that way. Rather than just live through it, try to fix it.”

While it is evident that Young’s career has brought him joy, he also makes it known that it is not his only love. He speaks with great fondness about his wife Gretchen, who coincidentally served as The Voice-Tribune’s circulation manager when it was known as The Voice of St. Matthews.

“Her love for me has not changed,” he says. “It was almost love at first sight when we met, and over all these years, we still have that same affection for each other.”

The couple has three children and four grandchildren together. This month marks not only his work anniversary but other reasons to celebrate in their family: Young shares a birthday with one of his grandchildren on June 20, and he and Gretchen will celebrate their wedding anniversary on June 24.

Al Young’s illustrious career with Four Roses and the resulting commemorative bottle in his honor are without a doubt impressive. But what stands out most about him is his character, charisma, humility and passion for his craft. He told me that what he enjoys most about the Kentucky Bourbon Affair is listening to master distillers converse about the ins and outs of the bourbon making process. Even after 50 years, this legend still looks forward to learning something new. VT