Like Bluegrass and basketball, bourbon has long been synonymous with Kentucky. And in recent years, the bourbon industry has seen a resurgence in demand for its product. According to the Kentucky Distiller’s Association, the Commonwealth produces and ages approximately 95 percent of the world’s bourbon whiskey. As a result, many consumers around the globe are familiar with Owensboro’s Brent Elliott, Master Distiller at Four Roses, whose likeness appears on bottles of the distillery’s Elliott’s Select.
But Brent’s duties extend far beyond being the face of the brand. In fact, it was his background in science and analysis that led him into the spirits industry. After graduating from Daviess County High School in 1992, Brent attended the University of Kentucky, where he earned his degree in chemistry. Even then, he couldn’t have imagined where his education would take him. When asked about whether he anticipated working in the world of bourbon, Brent replied, “It had never occurred to me that it was even a possibility. Had I known that, I probably would’ve been a little more excited about my chemistry degree.”
From UK, Brent took jobs in Ohio and Nashville, all of which involved analytical chemistry, but none of which involved bourbon. It wasn’t until 2005, when Four Roses came calling, that Brent made his first foray into the world of distilled spirits. Like his previous jobs, his first role at Four Roses involved analytical chemistry. For Brent, the work presented a chance to return home. “This opportunity opened up in 2005, and it was an opportunity for me to get back to Kentucky, and to do something that I could really be passionate about,” Brent recalled.
Working as an analyst at Four Roses, Brent monitored fermentation, examined the product coming off the still, and analyzed the barrel-matured bourbon. As for how he moved up from working in the lab to putting his name on the bottles, Brent says he simply went all in, volunteering to work in different areas of the distillery. “When I started it was a very small crew, so I just volunteered and tried to pitch in everywhere that I could, whether that was production or promotions and marketing, anywhere that I could pitch in and be involved. And by working across department lines, and being willing to try out different things, I just grew with the company.”
Brent continued, “I was hired mainly for the analysis of it, but I really started getting involved in all aspects of quality control shortly after starting, and a big part of that, probably the most fun part of that, and interesting part, is dealing with the quality of the maturing bourbon. So I started having a lot of hands-on experience with sampling various barrels and batches, and working to mingle them together to create our different products, and create the best quality products that we had to offer.” After gaining invaluable on-the-job training and three promotions later, Brent was elevated by Four Roses to Master Distiller in 2015.
So what does a master distiller do? According to Brent, every day is different. He answered, “A good portion of my time is spent deciding what goes into the bottle – selecting barrels, selecting batches, for consistency, to maintain the highest quality, and if we’re creating new products, or anything limited, it’s about creating something unique and exciting for the consumer.”
Brent also spends a significant amount of time engaged in public relations. That includes educating the public, as well as retailers and restaurants, about Four Roses bourbon. “Education” can range from events such as dinners and tastings to seminars about bourbon. Brent has even spoken twice to the Owensboro Bourbon Society, in 2016 and 2017.
As a native of Owensboro, Brent appreciates working for a company whose product is both unique to, and synonymous with, Kentucky. “Two things that being from Kentucky, and in particular Owensboro that I’m very proud of – I love introducing people to Owensboro barbeque – the mutton and burgoo are fantastic – and I feel the same way about those as bourbon – they’re indigenous to where I’m from, they’re very unique, they speak loudly of the region, and represent the people of the region very well,” Brent says proudly. Then he adds, “From the taste bud aspect to the heritage aspect, they pair well.”
In addition to returning to Owensboro for seminars, Brent also makes it back home to visit family. When he’s in town, he makes sure to visit his favorite barbeque spots, as well as Briarpatch, where he worked in high school. And though he may not have foreseen that his days as a busboy, or his chemistry degree, would lead to a career in tasting bourbon, I think it’s safe to say he’s found his niche.