Longtime Four Roses brand ambassador Al Young died on Christmas 2019. He was 77.
I was about to stick my hand in a bag of 99-cent corn tortilla chips when a man walked over, his glasses at the bridge of his nose, reached out his hand and said, “I’m Al Young,” and proceeded toward a row of barrels. I was selecting a private Four Roses single barrel and Young carried this long-and-slender beautiful copper instrument to draw whiskey samples for us to taste.
As he poured whiskey into my glass, I wondered who this man was. He kept asking questions about my career, my life and what I thought about the whiskey. Up until this 2008 tasting, most brand-related personnel tried to tell me what to think about the whiskey vs. asking what I tasted. His kindness and revealing gentleness in that moment remains one of the most influential conversations of my career.
Al was like an instant drinking buddy, somebody you could solve the world’s problems with over a good bourbon.
When I learned of Young’s passing this morning—he died on Christmas—I went back to that barrel pick and how great of a friend he became to all of us, to anybody who dared to call themselves a bourbon fan. He was 77.
As the longtime Four Roses brand ambassador, Al extended his hand to anybody, even if they didn’t like bourbon.
His passing leaves a hole the size of Texas in the bourbon world. He wasn’t just Four Roses’ ambassador; he was the Kentucky bourbon ambassador.
“Al was an ambassador for Kentucky Bourbon long before the job was even invented,” said Eric Gregory, executive director for the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. “The thing I’ll remember most is that Al was always smiling. Always. You just knew he loved his job, his family and his life. We were lucky to share in his spirit.”
Young wrote the Four Roses book and became an indispensable face of the brand. He started in plant operations for Four Roses’ former parent company, Seagram, in 1967 and had worked with Four Roses since 1990. He was inducted into the Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2011 and was in the inaugural class of the Order of the Writ.
With bourbon’s growth, a lot has been made about master distillers becoming rockstars. Young certainly was a rockstar, but his business card didn’t say “master distiller,” albeit he was the former plant manager, which, some would argue, is more important than master distiller.
Furthermore, rockstars evoke a certain envy that Young shunned. The moment you tried to make something about him, he’d quickly turn you back onto a Four Roses story or would somehow get you to talking about your kids.
One of Young’s favorite stories was pointing out the advertisement in the iconic World War II photo, where the sailor is kissing a young woman in Times Square. “That’s a Four Roses ad,” I heard him say to crowds multiple times and then heard the crowd, “ohhhhh.” (If you look closely at the iconic photo, you’ll see a Four Roses advertisement over the sailor’s shoulder.)
A visitor takes a snapshot of “VJ Day a Times Square, New York, NY, 1945” by Alfred Eisenstaedt … [+]
AFP via Getty Images
While Young’s career put him in multiple distillery positions, he found true happiness in the field, with people.
I never attended an event with Young that he didn’t find a moment to disburse into the crowd and introduce himself to as many people as he could. He carried his bourbon knowledge like a torch and shared his light with as many people who’d have him.
He wanted to meet you, to have a drink with you and learn about you. Because that’s who he was: The gift of conversation, stories and always with bourbon to pour.
Al Young will be missed.