According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker currently holds ten different jobs before age 40, and this number is projected to grow. When you hear about someone holding a job for 40+ years, it’s more and more rare. This is the case with John Rhea, retiring Chief Operating Officer of Four Roses Distillery who started his career at the company just three days after graduating from college never left the distillery.
Rhea, 63, stepped down last week after 40 years of respected and tireless service to the industry, including the last 17 years on the Kentucky Distillers’ Association Board of Directors. He leaves as the current longest-serving Director of the non-profit trade group founded in 1880.
Lifetime Honorary Member
The Kentucky Distillers’ Association Board of Directors have honored Rhea with its rare “Lifetime Honorary Member” award and announced a new endowed scholarship in his name. He is only the seventh person to ever receive the prestigious “Lifetime Honorary Member” title.
“John’s quiet leadership often goes unnoticed, but he has been one of the most important and influential figures behind our timeless craft for decades,” KDA President Eric Gregory said. “His institutional knowledge of the industry and its engineering processes is second to none.
“While he never sought the spotlight, his fingerprints are all over the monumental growth and success of Kentucky Bourbon, from the historic resurgence of Four Roses to advocacy on public policy issues and transformation of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to a major tourism attraction.”
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John Rhea Engineering Excellence Scholarship
KDA Board Chairman Chris Morris of Brown-Forman declared that the “KDA John Rhea Engineering Excellence” Scholarship will be given every year to an eligible incoming freshman at the University of Kentucky who plans to major in mechanical or chemical engineering.
Mr. Rhea, was a May 1976 graduate of the University of Kentucky with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering. He started work at Four Roses just three days later as a maintenance supervisor and never left.
“John has long recognized the need for the professional development of the next generation of Kentucky’s distillers,” said Morris, who is the renowned Master Distiller at Brown-Forman Corp. “This scholarship honors his championship of this noteworthy goal.”
Satoko Yoshida, Four Roses President and CEO, said, “We all thank John for his outstanding 40 years of service to Four Roses and the Kentucky Bourbon industry. His untiring dedication has helped establish the foundation of our company that we know today. His passion and firm belief in the potential of Four Roses and Bourbon enable our further growth for many years to come.”
Mr. Rhea joined the KDA Board on April 27, 1999, as an Alternate Director for Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, Inc., which owned Four Roses at the time, and has served as Chairman, Vice-Chairman, Treasurer and Director over the last two decades.
He has represented the KDA at numerous functions, including a trade mission to Taiwan and major events with the Kentucky Tourism Cabinet. He often could be found walking the halls of the Capitol to discuss industry modernization and responsibility issues with lawmakers.
The Board Resolution also noted that it was during his tenure as Chairman in 2011 that led the Association to strengthen its intellectual property and trademark assets that have secured the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® as a unique destination with international fame and recognition.
Rhea Joins Exclusive Club of Industry Titans
- Frank Kraus was the first KDA Board member from Barton Distilling Company when it joined in 1963. Later an executive with Jim Beam Distillery, Dr. Kraus was named an honorary member in 1979. He died in 2004.
- Charles King McClure of Stitzel-Weller Distillery, who led the successful repeal of Kentucky’s production tax on spirits in 1966 as KDA Chairman. He served on the Board more than 25 years and was named a “Lifetime” member in 1968. He died in 1977.
- James Bigstaff O’Rear of Schenley Distilleries, who served on the KDA Board for 30 years, was hailed for his “untiring efforts” to benefit the industry upon his honorary recognition in 1965. He died in 1975.
- William Samuels, Sr., who founded the Maker’s Mark Distillery in 1953 and served on the KDA Board for 28 years. He was installed in 1982 upon his retirement and passed away 10 years later.
- Bill Samuels, Jr., whose marketing genius and innovative leadership propelled Maker’s Mark to one of the world’s most recognizable brands. He served on the KDA Board for 43 years until his retirement in 2011, when he was named a Lifetime Director.
- Jimmy Russell, famed Master Distiller at Wild Turkey Distillery who has created a host of celebrated Bourbon brands and served as an industry ambassador for more than 60 years. He was named a Lifetime Director in 2014 and continues to serve as an Alternate.
KDA President Gregory said Mr. Rhea’s thoughtful and visionary guidance will be missed.
“Through his many efforts, Mr. Rhea has demonstrated class, integrity and unwavering dedication to Kentucky Bourbon that has inspired its current status as a true signature industry and a major economic engine for the Commonwealth,” Gregory said.
“On behalf of all our members, we deeply admire and appreciate Mr. Rhea’s service and outstanding contributions to our beloved Commonwealth, and wish him and his family many years of good health and happiness.”