Al Young: A bourbon legend, an industry champion and my friend

Al Young
Al loved to ham it up when events got a little stagnant. | Photo by Sara Havens

“Brent (Elliott) said, ‘We’re coming out with a limited-edition release for your anniversary, and I need to know what you want it to be. I was honored they even decided to do it. So I thought for a while, and then I set the perimeters of what I was looking for.” —Al Young, on his 50th Anniversary Four Roses Small Batch

This morning as I scrolled through my Facebook feed, I expected to see photos of unwrapped presents, of families gathering around the tree, of special bourbon bottles being open and shared. But what I didn’t expect to read was the gut-punching news that the bourbon industry had lost a legend on Christmas Day: Al Young, brand ambassador extraordinaire of Four Roses Bourbon.

As confirmed by his daughter on his personal Facebook page, Young was 77 and is survived by his lovely wife Gretchen and three children.

Al Young
Al and me at the Nov. 9 Barrel Through Hunger event.

I had just run into Al on Nov. 9 at the Barrel Through Hunger event, and I actually sat right next to him and his wife Gretchen for the dinner portion of the evening. He was as lively as ever and was looking forward to some time off for the holidays.

In recent years, Al has traveled far and wide touting Four Roses — a role he was destined for and that brought him back to his love of theater.

In 2017, when Four Roses released the Al Young Limited Edition 50th Anniversary Small Batch Bourbon, I met up with Al for a feature story on his career, his new bourbon and his thoughts on the booming industry.

We chatted for over an hour — and sampled his delicious bourbon — about everything from his first internship at Actors Theatre to his rise through the distillery and his recent role of ambassador and storyteller.

You can read that story here, if you’re interested. Gretchen told me that night in November that she often pulls up my story to show friends and family — a compliment that means so much more than any Facebook “like” ever could.

No matter where I ran into Al — whether it was at Churchill Downs during Thanksgiving or an official Four Roses event — he always seemed genuinely happy to see me, to talk bourbon with strangers and to champion for the industry that defined his career. It’s cliche, but I don’t think Al ever met a stranger.

Al will be missed by so many. I know he had a million stories left to tell, and no doubt those stories he did share will continue to be passed on through everyone he spent five or 105 minutes with.

I had Al sign my bottle that night, even though I have several signed by the legend. Since he was sitting next to me, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for another autograph. Most distillers simply scribble their names, but Al paused a moment and wrote, “For Sara: Be mellow! Al Young 2019.”

Sure, “Be mellow” is a brand saying, but I was impressed he knew the correct spelling of my name and left that pesky “h” off. Attention to detail was one of his assets for sure.

It’s a gift I will forever cherish, although I can hear Al telling me that bourbon should be drank and I should open the damn bottle!

Cheers, Al. You will be forever remembered in my heart and the hearts of millions.

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