To kickoff Maggi’s and my Great Cross-Country Barcrawl, we took a guided tour of the Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Four Roses is a small major bourbon maker of whom I’d never heard until about a year ago, when I spied a bottle of their Small Batch product on a shelf and brought it home. I’ve already written whimsically of the story of the brand, and how a product this good, which for about a decade sported a Coca Cola-sized neon billboard in the heart of Time Square, could be so obscure. This post is about the product as it is today.
Four Roses markets seven different products. Two are available only in Japan, and for an explanation of that, see my previous post referenced above. The rather unique thing about Four Roses’ production is that while they make seven products, they actually produce ten different bourbons. They then combine these bourbons in differing degrees to produce the products.
Each of the bourbons produced has a flavor profile distinct from the others. To get ten different bases, Four Roses uses two distinct mash bills, one which contains 20% rye, and the other which has an exceptionally high 35% rye content. In combination with each of these mash bills, they maintain 5 completely separate yeast strains which originated in five different distilleries with historical connections to the brand. Each strain confers a unique character to the resulting product.
Brent Elliot, Four Roses quality control manager, took us through an incredible tasting experience. We had a chance to taste several of the individual bourbons to compare the differences the distinct yeast strains make in the same mash bill and the difference the mash bills make with the same yeast. Also, we had the rare chance to taste side by side the same recipe as both a white whiskey and aged. And throughout the tasting, we had a long discussion of the laboratory techniques used to control the quality and consistency of a product that is essentially alive for a good portion of its manufacture. It was interesting and somewhat comforting to see that, while laborious work with pipette and test tube has been replaced with pushing buttons on machines made by the Perkin Elmers of the world, the real decisions still rest with a group of well trained noses and mouths.
The resulting ten bourbons make for a tremendous pallet of flavors which Four Roses uses to blend some delicious products.
At one end of the spectrum, the main commercial product, Yellow Label, uses all ten whiskeys in varying percentages. At around $17-$18 and 80 proof, this is a very good everyday bourbon for a host of simpler drinks. If you do happen to have any residual memory of the Four Roses brand before its American resurrection, it is important to note that today’s Yellow Label is not your father’s Four Roses… it’s your grandfather’s. During the decades that Four Roses offered no straight bourbon in the US, Yellow Label was a perennial best-selling premium in Japan.
Four Roses’ Brand Ambassador, Al Young (more on him below) says that the distillery’s aim is to produce “Bourbons that don’t bite”, and they succeed. But it is not so smooth or sweet as to sacrifice character. It’s worthy call-brand competitor with the similarly priced Beams, Makers’, and Wild Turkeys.
The Small Batch was the first of their products that I personally had tried, and was the reason that I really wanted to tour their distillery. This big, delicious bourbon is a blend of four whiskeys from their pallet. Two use the high-rye mash bill, and two the low. They also use only two yeasts, the one that produces a berry-like overtone and the one that is the most spicy. Two mashes, two yeasts, means four components. Small Batch is a great craft cocktail bourbon, the Four Roses product that I’d most recommend the mixilogically inclined give a whirl.
The flavors are big and rich enough to stand out with and up to pretty much whatever you want to mix with it. I found it very nice for the fairly few whiskey-based Tiki drinks I like to make, such as the Port Light. The high rye content makes it worthwhile to experiment with for drinks that usually call for straight ryes. But don’t worry, this is still clearly a bourbon and not a rye. The round, cork-stoppered bottle with raised glass roses is lovely both to hold and behold.
This $30 bourbon has earned a permanent place in my inventory.
The top end Four Roses is their Single Barrel. This is, frankly, a monster bourbon. It is not a blend, but a bottling of one of their high-rye recipes. The whiskey has a powerful, rich, sweet, and deep flavor and aroma. Taking a good slug of it compels me to use a word I ordinarily hate, “mouthfeel”. Single Barrel has it in spades. It flows over your mouth and coats it. This means a very long and extremely comfortable finish. Nothing nasty shows up at the end here, unlike many other big and bold spirits.
Of course, at 100 proof, this Bourbon may not bite, but it will gum you pretty strongly. I think the Single Barrel is a bit too big for most mixing tasks, and I suspect the ghost of Paul Jones, Jr. would hunt you down if you wasted this in a glass with Coke…. It makes a fine Old-Fashioned, of course, and also works awesomely in a well-made Mint Julep, even without my usual addition of dark rum. Of course, at nearly $40, most people will reserve the Single Barrel for a sipping bourbon, in which field it is a formidable competitor.
Four Roses also offers private casks for sale, as well as Limited Editions of both the Small Batch and the Single Barrel, aged much longer and sold at barrel proof. I haven’t tried either of these. If you have, let me know what kind of an improvement they are over the regular equivalents.
Our tour was a private one, and bit more extensive than the usual excellent one they offer. But even if you can’t con them into thinking you deserve press treatment like I did, I recommend making a tour at Four Roses a priority if you make a visit to Kentucky and/or the Bourbon Trail. The distillery and the grounds are gorgeous. The somewhat anachrogeographic (is that a word?) Spanish Mission-style distillery building is on the National Register of Historic Places.
I’d like to end with a brief comment on our guide, Four Roses’ Brand Ambassador, Al Young. As brand ambassadors go, Al may not quite be Champagne Charlie, but he’s on a different planet from the more, um, common variety. Al has been in the distilling business for more than 40 years, working his way up through the ranks. He was the Four Roses distillery manager for about 17 years before becoming the brand manager. In short, he’s likely forgotten more about making whiskey than a lot of pros now know. He’s the first distiller who (with the aid of this cutaway segment of de-commissioned “beer still”) managed to make me really understand how a column still actually works. We learned a lot more about how bourbon in general and Four Roses in particular are made, but this post is long enough. I’ll simply wrap up by saying that he also has been a very active historian of the Four Roses brand, as you can see for yourself in his interesting and lavishly illustrated coffee-table book: Four Roses: The Return of a Whiskey Legend.
Four Roses has a good story and a better product. You should look into both. You’ll be glad you did.
The following products, a bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel Straight Kentucky Bourbon and a copy of Four Roses: The Return of a Whiskey Legend, were recently provided to me as promotional consideration to encourage me to discuss them.
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