Podcast Episode: The Rise and Fall and Rising Again of Four Roses (with Al Young)
At the peak of its popularity Four Roses was inexplicably removed from American shelves and remained a distant memory for almost 50 years.
The following episode is dedicated to the memory of Al Young of Four Roses.
Imagine your favorite drink, one that you’ve grown accustomed to enjoying every day, one that you prefer over the competition because of its uniqueness of flavor, just decided without notice, to reformulate itself overnight to compete on the same level with the competition. Well, that was a real scenario for Coca-Cola drinkers, back in 1985.
For 10 years, a very successful advertising campaign by long time rival Pepsi-Cola called the Pepsi Challenge appeared to not only be convincing consumers of Pepsi’s superior taste, it also was convincing the leadership at Coke.
In their own taste tests, they always find people picking the sweeter option. And the sales numbers weren’t lying, Coca-Cola’s dominance was shrinking away and sales across the board were sagging, Desperate times call for desperate measures. The plan? Ditch their 94 year old secret formula and come up with something sweeter.
A lot of people thought the executives were off their rocker, but they weren’t taking this lightly at all. Dubbed Project Kansas, it was deemed too important to fail. Coke did their research and did taste testing, and the new product was winning blind taste tests.
They were so convinced by the results, they went all in, and started shipping out only the new formula and none of the old.
The first few days actually went well, people seemed to like the new product. But then, the press caught wind of some angry consumers who were angry their favorite drink had been tampered with.
Soon publicity was going all wrong for the cola giant. Grassroots campaigns continued to grow. People stopped buying the product - and even Pepsi jumped into the fray, with an ad showing people asking“why did Coke change?”
Within 77 days of this incredible nightmare, Coca-Cola released a commercial with the president of the company saying, “We're bringing it back, the original taste of Coca-Cola returns as Coca-Cola Classic and soon America will have a real choice.”
Remarkably, the introduction of Coca-Cola Classic not only brought sales back and curved the huge backlash from their customers, it actually created a loyalty that would make Coca-Cola the ultimate winner of the 1980s cola wars.
Maybe it was dumb luck, but one of the biggest product blunders in history, actually helped a sliding beverage company stay on top.
So what did we learn from Coca-Cola? Well, obviously changing your secret formula overnight can have an immediate impact on the brand’s sales and reputation. But in Coca-Cola’s case, they were able to quickly reverse the damage by simply returning to their old formula.
But what if a product made changes that were much slower and less publicized? And what if that product was purchased by an outside company that ripped the quality product from the shelves only to leave a less than bottom shelf replacement in its wake for nearly 50 years? Could it ever return to its former glory?
Well, this is the story of the rise and fall and rising again of Four Roses.
The Four Roses Story
It was 1883 and Paul Jones, Jr. had a decision to make. His home state of Georgia had just passed statewide prohibition and selling whiskey in his little shop in Atlanta wasn’t going to be a possibility anymore.
Meanwhile the state of Kentucky was making a concerted effort to bring businesses into the bluegrass state. And whether it was the favorable business climate, Paul’s love of horses, or perhaps just having easier access to Kentucky whiskey for his rectifying business, Paul decided to move his family north.
By 1888, the Paul Jones Company had firmly established itself in Louisville and was building its reputation as a top-flight whiskey, It was at this time that Paul trademarked the name Four Roses, taken from a family legend featuring a Southern Belle, a marriage proposal, and corsage of four roses.
In 1895, the company passed on to Paul’s nephews Lawrence and Saunders. And between 1906 and 1909, they would find themselves in a dog fight with the government’s newly released Pure Food and Drug Act. The well meaning law was supposed to settle the question of what constituted pure whiskey, but instead it cast shadows on all rectifiers.
According to Al Young, the long time Brand Ambassador for Four Roses, the company returned to the power of advertising to overcome this potential stigma. (Al Young)
It would take a decision by the President of the United States to finally create today’s definition of straight whiskey, imitation whiskey, and blended whiskey - thus unclouding Four Roses’ reputation.
But, just ten years after the Taft Decision, Four Roses would find an even tougher obstacle.
Wartime prohibition quickly turned to national Prohibition and by law, distilleries could no longer manufacture alcohol. However there were six companies that held a license to sell government approved medicinal alcohol.
When Frankfort Distilling Company, one of the holders of this valuable license, was put up for sale in 1922, Lawrence saw an amazing opportunity to revive his brand and purchased the company. Four Roses was now a medicinal whiskey.
But having a country devoid of licenses to manufacture new whiskey, and prescriptions being filled at breakneck speed, the government found itself in a precarious position, and Lawrence saw another opportunity. (Al Young)
And pick them up, they did. Frankfort’s acquisition of A. Ph. Stitzel at the close of Prohibition helped Four Roses quickly jump back into the whiskey market. And just like at the turn of the century, Lawrence leaned heavily on advertising as a means of enhancing the Four Roses brand.
If you were in Times Square in 1938, you couldn’t miss Four Roses well illuminated sign, sitting at 47th and Broadway. It had a time-released mechanism that would cause the spirals on the side of the sign to light up from the bottom to top. Below the brand name Four Roses, the tag line “A Truly Great Whiskey!” would appear and then go dark and reappear. The sign was so bright that during World War II, they had to turn it off at night, just so as not to draw any unwanted German U-Boat attention.
And it was in such a prominent position, that if you look at the famous V-J Day photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt of the sailor dipping his girlfriend and planting the big kiss on her, you’ll see that very Four Roses sign at the top of the building behind them.
The future was looking bright. But on Oct 21, 1941, Lawrence passed away, and so did the family-ownership of Frankfort Distilling and the Four Roses brand.
To save the family from a huge tax bill, Canadian conglomerate, Joseph E. Seagrams & Sons, Inc., purchased the distilleries, company, and brand for $42 million. To Seagrams, the real value of the deal would be getting their hands on all of that aging whiskey for use its blends.
Initially things went well. Seagrams picked up on the strong advertising tradition of the Paul Jones era.
As for the whiskey, by 1948 Four Roses Straight Bourbon was one of 3 brands owned by Seagrams that sat in the top 10 of whiskey sold in the United States.
And in 1952, Spirits Magazine called the Four Roses brand “one of the best around. A great name.”
But something changed at Seagrams. (Al Young).
In its 55 years of existence, the Four Roses brand had survived the era of unscrupulous rectifiers, the temperance movement, Prohibition, and the loss of its family foundation, but what it couldn’t survive - was the boardroom.
In 1958, behind closed doors, Seagrams management* made the command decision to focus 100% on the export market and to entirely remove Four Roses bourbon from whiskey shelves in the United States. Just like with Coca-Cola, an American icon was taken away in an instant.
It would be 14 years before a form of Four Roses whiskey would return. But rather than putting out something that lived up to the name, they delivered Four Roses Premium American Light Whiskey. Distilled at a higher proof than regular whiskey, Light Whiskey was lighter in color and lighter in flavor. It could be best described as a hybrid between bourbon and vodka. So, why release this less than bottom shelf whiskey?
With the bourbon industry going through a depression and Four Roses experiencing its darkest hours as a brand, rays of hope began to appear - first with the hiring of Jim Rutledge in 1967 and then with Al Young in 1968. Jim would become the brand’s greatest champion… (Al Young)
1994 would end up being a critical year in the life of Four Roses. After 27 years with the company, the brand’s champion was now the master distiller, and the beautiful Spanish Mission style distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY was under the management of Al Young. And after years of other names, it would now be referred to as The Four Roses Distillery.
The path to bringing Four Roses back to the United States seemed to be clearing. The first hurdle was to crack the Kentucky market with the straight bourbon. (Al Young)
Soon, Four Roses Yellow Label was not only on the shelves in Europe and Japan, it could also be found in Kentucky.
But as the millennium came to a close, fate thrust another major hurdle in the brand’s way. Seagrams Corporation was in disarray. New management was seeing music and entertainment as the future and in 1999, Seagrams merged with Vivendi. (Al Young)
Almost immediately, the Four Roses brand was up for sale and it would create wild uncertainty for everyone who had so passionately backed the brand. (Al Young).
What makes this story of an American brand’s banishment from the American market so interesting, is that it took a Japanese company to say, we only want this brand if we can bring it back to the American market. (Al Young)
And now, the hard work of restoring the brand nationwide began. Jim Rutledge started by putting his stamp on the brand in 2002 with two new products - Four Roses Single Barrel and Four Roses Small Batch. As for getting the word out... Al relates the long hard journey to reigniting a brand. (Al Young)
By 2009, Four Roses had made its triumphant return to all 50 states.
A truly amazing success story. Truly a phoenix rising from the ashes. After a recent $55 million expansion, they are now having to double their production capacity from 4 million to 8 million gallons of whiskey per year. And since their purchase by Kirin in 2002, they have experienced growth at a massive 212%.
It would be easy to look back on the Seagrams era of Four Roses and paint it all in a bad light.
But in reality, what Four Roses is today would not be possible without having gone through that dark period.
You see, when Four Roses became part of Seagrams, they would acquire 5 different yeast strains from those 5 Seagrams-owned distilleries - including Calvert Distillery, Old Lewis Hunter Distillery, Athertonville Distillery, Henry McKenna Distillery, and The Old Prentice Distillery outside of Lawrenceburg, the place Four Roses currently calls home.
Combined with their 2 mash bills, it gives Four Roses 10 unique whiskey recipes that make up their current product range.
Just as Coca-Cola saw an unexpected benefit from radically changing their product, Four Roses reemerged from the Seagrams years a more unique and well-positioned company.
I guess it’s true what they say, behind every dark cloud there is a silver lining.
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