The brilliant people at London Cocktail Society organised a special night out for the gang at Hide & Speak, a pop up Speakeasy nestled in the basement at Shaker & Company. Here we got a veritable history lesson – far more interesting than any I had at school where we got to learn a little more about Prohibition America, how Four Roses came back from the brink of almost disappearing to become the fastest growing whisky in the US – while sipping on a few Four Roses cocktails, which of course we never had in class.
I find the tales of Prohibition America fascinating and historical context of alcohol being cited as the root cause of all of society’s ills – depressingly familiar.
The introduction of Prohibition
For 60 years, there was a strong movement in the US lobbying for prohibition. Indeed, a long before the bill was enacted certain States had toyed with the idea of Prohibition as a legitimate solution. In 1884, Georgia was the second US state to outlaw the manufacture, sale and distribution of alcohol, relevant as Four Roses was originally based in Georgia before having to move to Kentucky.
Prohibition was an interesting experiment in American history and from 1920 to 1933 it was illegal to manufacture, sell or distribute alcohol in the US. They didn’t make it illegal to have alcohol or to drink it – and don’t for a minute think that Prohibition meant people weren’t drinking. The politicians who had known about this bill for years and the wealthy, who had at around seven months between the law being announced and enacted, had long since stocked up. The super-rich flew to Europe or Cuba rather more often and the masses flooded into Speakeasies.
Bizarrely, there were more bars operating in the US during Prohibition than before it – they were all just hidden away. These ‘speakeasies’ were places where you could be away from the eyes of the law and speak freely.
Speakeasies and cocktail’s golden era
Prohibition-era America rather counter intuitively created the conditions for a golden age of cocktails. A lot of the classic cocktails we drink today were developed during Prohibition. Partly due to the fact that the kind of alcohol you could get hold of in America during prohibition was pretty bad, if you wanted to drink alcohol – you’d want to mix it with fruit juice, sugar syrups, spices and other liqueurs/spirits to make it more palatable which is why drinks like Whisky Sours became more popular again.
Another reason for this golden age was that many US bartenders had moved to Europe during Prohibition and brought the American style of cocktail making to fashionable London and Paris, where it spread through Europe. These US bartenders were exposed to a whole new collection of ingredients not so common in the US. That’s why Absinthe was all of a sudden being used quite widely through the 1920s and 1930s.
Europe watched what was happening in the States very closely. A scathing article appeared in the US press denouncing those flouting the law and indulging in speakeasies and announcing a competition to create a term to describe them. Two people on opposite sides of the US came up with the same winning name ‘Scofflaws’ those that scoff at the law. Within 48 hours a bartender at Harry’s Bar in Paris designed ‘The Scofflaw’ which is served up at Shaker & Company (Four Roses Bourbon, Dry Vermouth, Lemon Juice and Grenadine, shaken with a couple of dashes of orange bitters).
The longer Prohibition continued the more problems that became apparent with it. The gangsters had moved in very quickly and profited from running gambling dens, brothels and speakeasy bars – the more they profited the more powerful they became. Now an inititaive that was intended to get rid of crime had seen it escalate to epic proportions.
We were told, that Four Roses was in conversations with the government for four years before Prohibition actually ended. Everyone knew the experiment had failed and Prohibition would end, it was just a matter of when.
During Prohibition there was still one way to get alcohol legally in the US – via a doctor. You see alcohol had long been prescribed as medicine by doctors as it was believed if one had a chesty cold or fever the remedy was to drink whisky three times a day to get better – God love American doctors.
When Prohibition was enacted they still needed medicine, so they granted six licences for companies to continue selling medicinal whisky. Four Roses was one of these companies granted a licence, they weren’t allowed to produce any whisky – the distilleries remained closed during prohibition. But it was able to stockpile as much bourbon as it wanted during the 7 months before Prohibition came into force.
We were shown a prescription for whisky from 1st September 1932 and a historic old bottle – amazing pieces of history. Apparently patients were entitled to one pint of whisky every 10 days until they were better. We were also told stories of some prescriptions having a note to the pharmacist which read ‘give him the good stuff’ – love it!
The long road to recovery for Bourbon and Four Roses
Before prohibition American whisky was huge. In the State of Kentucky alone there were 263 distilleries.
Only around 10% of these opened after Prohibition which coincided with the Great Depression. It takes time to make good bourbon as it needs to age for around three years. So while Canadian whisky brands knew Prohibition was coming to an end and were able to flood the market the moment it was legal, bourbon brands would have to produce the liquid, age it for a few years before they could sell it. But there was no guarantee, even if they had the funds to wait for a few years for their casks to mature, that they could get a decent price for their Bourbon at the end. It was quite a risky business.
Illegal distilleries that produced bourbon during Prohibition produced some truly God awful spirit, absolute rot gut – which consequently ruined the reputation of bourbon, while Canadian whisky was seen as superior and could command a premium.
Almost overnight a company called Seagrams one of the biggest producers of Canadian whisky grew from a small Canadian company to an international drinks giant. They grew so powerful and so rich on the back of Canadian whisky they started buying out other distilleries all over the world and at the height of their empire they owned 261 brands. At one time, one in every three drinks consumed in America, be it wine, beer or spirit, was owned by Seagrams.
Diageo is the closest thing we have to a drinks giant today and is half the size Seagram’s were – but arguable has twice as much nouse.
Now follows some of the most shocking behaviour in drinks marketing and it is so refreshing to be told this from the perspective of the brand at the centre of it.
Four Roses was bought by Seagrams. At the time, it was one of the few bourbon brands to do well post Prohibition – as during Prohibition one in four bottles of medicinal whisky had the Four Roses name on it. Consumers recognised the label and when they managed to get a prescription for it – it was actually pretty good whisky, so Four Roses was a trusted name.
Four Roses quickly grew to be the no 1 selling and largest bourbon company in the US – it also helped that it still had a few warehouses full of bourbon so could start selling on day one.
If you look very closely at the iconic picture of a sailor kissing his girl in Times Square you can see the Four Roses ad in the background. That bill board in Times Square was the most expensive ad spot in the world and throughout the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s was regularly taken by Four Roses. Four Roses was the alcohol equivalent of Coca-Cola in that it was a big American company that could afford to advertise.
Seagrams saw the success and wanted a slice. They didn’t buy Four Roses because they loved the whisky, they made cheap whisky all over the US and Canada – they bought Four Roses because they realised the power of the Four Roses name to sell whisky.
Originally they continued to make Four Roses in Kentucky and launched a cheaper blended whisky in a very similar bottle alongside it. It looked very much the same but instead of Kentucky Straight Bourbon whisky it said ‘blend of whiskies’. It started off okay, it tasted cheaper but designed to be sold cheaper. If you had the money you’d buy Four Roses Bourbon and if you didn’t you’d could still get an okay whisky but made by Four Roses so you trusted it.
As the years went by though, Seagrams let the quality drop and drop. It went from being a Class A blended whisky – which has to be made only of whisky to being a Class B blended whisky, which only has to be 37% whisky the rest can be made of whatever you want – generally a neutral grain spirit mixed with a bit of whisky. None of it was made at the Four Roses distillery, but it was sold under its name.
By the 1950s Seagrams realised the plan wasn’t working, consumers were still paying that little bit more to buy the Four Roses Bourbon not the more profitable blended whisky.
They then decided to take the, quite frankly insane, decision to take the good Four Roses Bourbon off the market. What surprised me most is they stood by this bonkers decision for decades, through the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s almost killing the brand.
Four Roses was still produced for export to France, Spain and Japan but elsewhere including on home soil, the only Four Roses available was the cheap blended whisky made in a different distillery.
Where consumers could get the good stuff, the brand did really well. Four Roses is still the no 1 American whisky in Spain (where it is in every bar), France and Japan – where it outsells Jack Daniels by a long shot.
Everywhere else couldn’t get the real Four Roses Bourbon only the cheap blended stuff until the grandchild of the founder of Seagrams sold off the drinks arms of the family company.
The sale was awesome news for Four Roses as it meant they were finally free of an owner who wouldn’t let them sell their bourbon in the country where it was made. A Japanese company bought them and immediately reintroduced the brand to the US, where it is now the fastest growing bourbon.
It is going great guns too in the UK and Europe and its success over the past five years has coincided with a massive resurgence in American whisky.
It wasn’t until the 1980s, the industry realised it was going to go out of business unless they did something about improving the quality of bourbon and competing on something other than price. Maker’s Mark had for years been trying to do things differently, producing quality liquid in a quality packaging, but it was on a small scale and didn’t have the support of the rest of the bourbon industry.
By the early 1990s there were a handful of small batch single barrel bourbons being produced which were very expensive and aimed at whisky connoisseurs. The world was starting to wake up to the quality of bourbon and it was receiving recognition in whisky magazines and competitions globally.
This move towards quality coincided with cocktail bar tenders starting to look back to historical cocktail books like Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail book and experiment with recreating the cocktails with the good whiskies that were starting to become available.
Today, American whisky is growing faster than any other spirit category in the UK – up 14% year on year. Bourbon is increasingly gaining recognition for producing some damn fine whiskies which can be used in a wide array of classic cocktails.
After a turbulent history, Four Roses is now the fastest growing whisky in America, the UK and Japan – impressive considering Prohibition and unfortunate owners conspired to make it almost disappear off the face of the map. I, for one, am glad it has survived. Big thanks for Four Roses brand ambassador and walking bourbon encyclopedia, Dan Priseman, for sharing his stories.