Four Roses Bourbon: Investigating An Atlanta Whiskey Legend

When you think about American whiskey, the center of bourbon production, Kentucky, is likely the first place to come to mind. After that, you might consider a state like Tennessee. Almost certainly, you wouldn’t think of Atlanta as a city with much of a whiskey legacy. 

But according to one legend, Atlanta might actually deserve a more prominent place in distilling history. The legend connects a pre-Prohibition-era whiskey seller named Rufus Rose to Four Roses Bourbon, an iconic whiskey that is made in Kentucky and is often celebrated today.

Rufus M. Rose, originally from Connecticut, lived in Atlanta until his death in 1910. (CREDIT GEORGIA ARCHIVES, VANISHING GEORGIA COLLECTION)

It’s a legend that’s shared in whiskey collector blogs. It’s also written in the city’s listing for the historic Victorian-era home still standing on Peachtree Street that Rose built near the end of his life.

“I remember we tried to find out about that,” said Boyd Coons, the executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center. The center once had its offices in the Rufus Rose home and it has a file on him.

According to the file, Rose was a Connecticut-born doctor who moved to the South, fought in the Civil War and started a distillery. In the decades that followed, Rose produced rye and corn whiskey for Atlanta drinkers. Women were welcome at his distillery because no one was allowed to consume his whiskey on site.

“So they won’t be sullied by seeing men falling about in the street and all,” Coons said.

Instead, you had to buy Rose’s whiskey in clay jugs that featured his distillery’s logo. But however people purchased Rose’s whiskey, they seemed to like it. His distilling business ended up being pretty successful, according to a newspaper story at the end of Rose’s career.

“Rose retired after almost 40 years in the business as the oldest and widest-known wholesale liquor house in the South,” said Coons, reading a quote from the article.

But then, Prohibition started to take hold and Georgia went dry. Rose’s distillery had to leave if his family wanted to keep making whiskey. So his son took the distillery and moved it across the border to Tennessee.

This is where things get a little foggy. According to one account, around this time the Rose family creates Four Roses and they sell it to a man named Paul Jones Jr.

But then, there’s another account, one in which Jones actually starts Four Roses himself in Kentucky and Rufus Rose has nothing to do with it.

Two jugs sold by Rufus Rose’s distilling company are in the Atlanta Preservation Center’s collection. In the corner of the jug, it’s written, “Ask the Revenue Officer,” suggesting that the revenue officer could attest to the popularity and quality of the whiskey. (STEPHANNIE STOKES / WABE)

“So for all kinds of bourbon brands, you have a lot of conflicting stories about their origins,” said bourbon expert Reid Mitenbuler.

The confusion over how Four Roses Bourbon came to be — whether it was Rose or Jones – is not uncommon. In fact, Mitenbuler just published a book called Bourbon Empire that reveals how the American whiskey industry is built on legends.

“Heritage and the idea of authenticity, these things are very important for branding,” Mitenbuler said.

Distilling companies promote and sometimes even create stories about their whiskey’s beginnings because, Mitenbuler says, that’s what consumers want. People like the idea that there’s a long legacy behind the whiskey they’re drinking.

The trouble is, it can be hard to tell which stories actually have their roots in reality.

“Records back then are so murky. It gets messy tracing back this stuff sometimes,” Mitenbuler said. “I think you can make the case either way in a lot of these cases.”

An ad for Rufus Rose’s distillery, R. M. Rose Co. Distillers. (COURTESY OF KEN THOMAS.)

Though, that might not be true of these two different origin stories for Four Roses.

Ken Thomas, once a historian in the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said he has a reputation for punching holes into folktales. And back in the ’90s, when he researched the connection between Rufus Rose and Four Roses, holes are what he found.

“The facts are the Rose family in Atlanta never advertised Four Roses as something they created,” Thomas said.

What’s more, there is a trademark for Four Roses registered in the name of not Rufus Rose, but Paul Jones Jr. And it dates back to 1892, years before the Rose family could have sold their distillery.

So, Thomas said, the evidence really points to this other man Jones as being the founder.

“A lot of people, I think, they connected the story of Four Roses to the Rose family just because the Rose family did run a distillery and they just conveniently merged all these ideas,” Thomas said.

Four Roses, the company in Kentucky that’s around today, was contacted for the official version of the bourbon’s history, and it does match what Thomas said: It seems Jones did start the bourbon brand.

So does this mean Atlanta doesn’t deserve any whiskey cred after all? Well, it still might actually. According to Four Roses, Paul Jones Jr. had something in common with Rufus Rose: Before moving to Kentucky, he got his start in distilling right here in Atlanta.