Retirement for Jim Rutledge Means Two Distilleries Instead of One

Jim Rutledge at Castle & Key Distillery
Jim Rutledge at Castle & Key Distillery. Credit Maggie Kimberl.

Former Four Roses Master Distiller Jim Rutledge’s retirement has doubled the amount of work he’s doing in the whiskey world these days, or at least the number of distilleries where his talents are finding a home. In addition to the ongoing plans to open a J.W. Rutledge Distillery, he’s also contract distilling at a reopened Castle & Key.

Rutledge, who retired from Four Roses in 2015, spoke with us about his quick pivot away from taking it easy.

“It took me about a week of retirement to realize a retirement week consisted of six Saturdays and one Sunday,” he chuckled on a recent phone call.

He’s still working on launching the J.W. Rutledge Distillery with his business partners, Jon Mowry, Will Conniff, and Stephen Camisa. Together the four have a combined 170 years of experience in the beverage alcohol industry ranging from distillery operations, to marketing, to sales, and more.

But that’s not all Rutledge has been up to since retiring from Four Roses in 2015.

Rutledge has also been working with Castle & Key Partner Brook Smith, who approached him with an idea too good to pass up.

“Brook contacted me earlier last year and told me about his ideas for Reclamation Rye. The idea was reclaiming the lands of Eastern Kentucky for the people, which was so desolate after the coal mines had left the area,” says Rutledge.

The partnership has had Rutledge making whiskey at Castle & Key, which will eventually become a new brand called Reclamation, owned and managed by Smith. A portion of the proceeds will go to various charities in Eastern Kentucky, wherever the need is greatest.

Smith’s plan also included growing rye and other grains for the project in the Appalachian area, but according to Rutledge much of the farmable land has yet to recover from the desolation of strip mining.

A Project Aimed At Helping Others

Smith lived and worked in Appalachia for decades, and he says the lifestyle has changed dramatically there in the last few years since the coal mines pulled out.

“My wife and I created a fund down there a few years ago to really get support, funding, and strategy in conjunction with Lora Smith at the Appalachian Impact Fund to support development in Appalachia,” says Smith. “The purpose of what we are creating is to fund those hundred different pipelines that need support, from childcare to food.”

Already they have barrels of bourbon that are over a year old, and they are doing their first run of rye this month. The plan is to produce 4,500 barrels: 4,000 barrels of bourbon and 500 barrels of rye.

“I had wanted to run a straight rye at Four Roses for years and they were never interested in anything other than the bourbon,” says Rutledge. “Rye is great and I think it’s going to perhaps even get better than it is now, but bourbon is the hottest spirit in the industry right now. To be really successful,” he explains, “you really have to have both.”

“We did run a rye whiskey back in the Seagram’s years 1997 or 1998 in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, which is MGP now. We did make one run in the heat of summer,” Rutledge recalls. “We ran three days, 21 15,000 gallon fermenters. We had a problem at first with the enzyme activity with the rye because rye foams a lot and we added the anti-foam too late. But we learned really quick how to handle that. The folks at Castle & Key have run rye before and know what to do already.”

“We’re getting ready to do our first major rye run over at Castle & Key and we’re going to let mother nature do what she needs to do to make that incredible bourbon and incredible rye, says Smith. “Jim is a man of discipline and detail and it’s great to learn from him the different components that go into the barrel.”

“I told Brook to start with a minimum of five years, longer if possible,” Rutledge says. “You can find some very good bourbons or ryes at five years of age. If you go back many years ago the optimum age for bourbon was 6 years. For me the optimum age is between 6 and 9 years old. The perception is that age is good. But to me it depends on when the barrel is ready and when it has reached the peak of maturity.”

A Hands-On Operations Guy At Heart

Rutledge had hoped to make his rye run in the winter, but he’s thrilled to be back in the distillery where he feels he belongs.

“That’s what makes me happy is the prospect of getting back in the distillery. To me it’s not work,” Rutledge says.

“Just before I retired Steven approached me about starting our own distillery,” he recalls. “We went out to visit Smooth Ambler and some small distilleries in Kentucky. After visiting the small distilleries I realized I’d go crazy trying to sit around all day just to get two or three barrels a day. I knew we needed to go with a mid-sized distillery at least. So our plan was to do a distillery at least half the size of Four Roses.”

Jim Rutledge at Castle & Key Distillery
Jim Rutledge at Castle & Key Distillery. Credit Maggie Kimberl.

The road from concept to reality has been bumpy, however. Though the team already has commitments for contract distillations and barrel storage that has necessitated an upgrade in their plans from a 36” column still to a 48” column still and the land has already been found, procuring financing has been somewhat of a challenge. After a crowdfunding attempt, a major single investor pulled out over concerns he was too new to the industry to fully understand his investment.

“Along the way we found out we may know the distillery business but that doesn’t mean we know how to raise money,” says Rutledge.

The partners are now working with Venture First in Louisville for funding opportunities. They have already talked with Luckett and Farley, whose distillery team has designed Rabbit Hole and the restoration of Woodford Reserve among others, about the design of the distillery. And they are wholly committed to using Vendome Copper & Brass Works for their distillation equipment.

Parlaying Decades Of Experience Into A New Venture

Rutledge has been reluctant to take on the spotlight, even as the venture has been crafted with him as the centerpiece.

“I remember when we hired Bandy Carroll Hellige and there was a young girl who had the account and she told me, “We’re going to make a rock star out of you!” and I said, “No you’re not!” That’s not me, I don’t want that. It’s about the whole team. But the more I resisted the more it happened anyway. I did not choose the name of the distillery but we realized that I had name recognition.”

“I love talking to people and meeting people and promoting the brand,” Rutledge continues. “But as much as I love that I love working in the distillery even more. This is going to give me the opportunity to get back into the distillery. I want to stay and operate the distillery and send the brand ambassadors to talk to the people.”

Until his new distillery is ready to roll he’s happy to have the opportunity to work on Smith’s Reclamation concept. “As soon as he told me the profits would be used to help the people of Eastern Kentucky I was on board,” he says. “They could have done it without me but they could not have done this without Brook Smith.”