Remembering New York
Four Roses master distiller Jim Rutledge was in town a couple of weeks ago for Whiskey Fest. I caught up with him so he could tell me about the 15 years he spent working in New York for Seagram (the owner of Four Roses until 2001) before moving back to Kentucky and becoming the master distiller at Four Roses. Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Jim was transferred to Seagram's New York office in 1977, and stayed until 1992. Below are some of the memories of New York that Jim shared:
"I started in Seagram’s R&D headquarters, which at that time was located in Louisville, Kentucky… I didn’t stay in R&D very long. I moved out into operations and worked just about every production area, focusing in areas like case shipping, warehouse, bottling department, and distillation.
After 11 years I was transferred to New York, against my better wishes, and I was devastated...I said, ‘Gosh, I’ll probably never see another tree again in my life.’ I ended up living in Westchester County, and I think there’s probably more trees in Westchester County than in all of Kentucky. But I was thinking asphalt and concrete and tall buildings, that’s it. But fortunately it worked out and I had a lot of good years in New York.
I worked in Manhattan at 800 3rd Avenue…then [after 11 years] the production division offices transferred up to offices right outside of White Plains, New York, and shoot, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven because I could drive to work again. I didn’t have to drive to a train, catch a train, and commute that long commute. I could drive to work in about 25 minutes. So that was really nice.
Christmas, it was fun, my wife would come in, ride the train in and meet me after work and we would go down to the lighting of the Christmas tree, for example, at Rockefeller Plaza, and go out and have something to eat and catch the train back home. We loved to come in at Christmas. When I first moved up here I was living in an apartment right across from work for a month and a half, or two months, I guess. And at Christmas time I was walking around and said ‘What is this stench?’ It was chestnuts, roasting on an open fire [laughs]. And then you learn to love that aroma and identify that aroma with Christmas. I’d love to come in and walk around smelling all of the chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Christmas in New York City, it was fabulous.
Back in Westchester County—I’ve always been an avid motorcycle rider — I’d ride year round if there wasn’t snow or ice in the roads, and just get on my bike and maybe take off up through the Taconic parkway up through Albany, cut over east, go through Massachusetts, little towns in Massachusetts, ride back down through Connecticut and end up back home. But I’d never go the same way twice. I’d always find some road and figure well, some road goes somewhere, I’ll figure out where I am later on. That was part of learning the area and learning to appreciate and love the area.
I lived on a lake, and I enjoyed fishing and had a canoe. I’d go canoeing on the lake in spring and fall, and then when that lake would freeze over in the winter, go ice-skating. I mean, there are so many things to do up here that you can’t do in Kentucky. And I loved it all. There was more to miss going back to Kentucky, because we don’t have the ice. I’d get out on the lake at night, especially with a bright cloudless sky, in the moonlight, and just skate up and down that lake. Shoot, it was amazing. There’s just nothing like it. It was beautiful.
We had a close group of friends, we were all close to the same age, and we’d usually have lunch at 800 3rd Avenue—the cafeteria was on the seventh floor—and we’d all eat together, and I remember this guy one time said ‘Jim, why don’t we go ice fishing on your lake?’ and I said ‘You’ve got to be crazy. The closest I ever want to come to ice fishing is sitting in my bay window, and I may watch you idiots with the binoculars.’ So it was a couple of weeks later he talked me into it and we go out ice fishing on the lake. We caught something, like, more than 50 fish. It was just my friend, his son, and myself. And boy, I was hooked. And we would go every weekend. For the next four or five years, we were going out from the first ice, when the ice was two or three inches thick, we’d be out every weekend, never missing a weekend. Cold, bitterly cold, wind, snow, it didn’t make any difference. It became a social event during the winter. We’d go out and all the other ice fisherman walk around, ‘Hello, how you doing? You need a cup of coffee?’ or ‘We’re with Seagram, you want some spirits in your coffee?’ You know, you just meet so many people like that and may never see them again, but we were all doing something fun we enjoyed.
When I came up I was worried because I grew up playing sports, and I said ‘I’ll never be able to play, whether it was softball, volleyball, whatever, again.’ Well, I played in the city. I played in—well, like today coming over the city, we flew over Central Park, and I was looking down at the ball diamonds and trying to figure out if some of them were some of the ones I used to play on. I moved to White Plains and then we continued to form softball teams up there. And I was the old guy back then, this was 22 years ago and I was still the old guy. I was in my early forties while most the guys I was playing with were in their early 20s. And then I started coaching the women’s softball team and we ended up winning the city championship my last year. And when I was transferred back to KY—I’m the kind of person, I don’t like a lot of fanfare, parties, going away parties and things—I said, ‘well, if people want to do it, I’ll go to lunch with a few people at a time before I head back to Kentucky.’ But then I was called down to a meeting and the women’s softball team had arranged in this conference room a going away party, which meant a lot to me.
And I told them—it was spontaneous—the hardest thing I’d ever had to do in my life was pick up, leave Kentucky, the only place I’d ever really lived, and move to New York and work in New York City, you know, half scared to death, and it didn’t take me long to learn to enjoy the city, love where we lived, the people where we lived, and I said ‘the second hardest thing now in my life is leaving New York and going back to Kentucky because this has become my home and friends have become family.’ And moving from New York back to Kentucky, culturally, it was more of a challenge. There was so much to do up here, and just a different way of life. But you know, I love both areas.
But through all those years, the people I got to meet and work with, the experiences I had…and the friends you make. I didn’t know what to expect, but I made friends back then that I still keep in touch with today. And…I don’t think I’ve ever flown into New York and not had that feeling that I’m coming home."