One of the more fascinating aspects of whiskey production is the spirit of experimentation. Even among the oldest whiskey brands in Scotland, blending different strains together to create a finished product that was greater than the sum of its parts is a time-tested art. Today, we’re testing out a product that brings that same spirit of blended whiskey innovation to small batch American bourbon: Four Roses Small Batch.
While the whiskey that was to eventually become Four Roses may have been bottled and sold in the United States as early as 1860, the business itself dates to 1888 when Paul Jones Jr. trademarked the brand.
In 1910, the Frankfort Distilling Co. built and opened the Old Prentice distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. The company was sold to Paul Jones’ whiskey company in 1922, who assumed the Frankfort Distilling Co. name and started producing their Four Roses whiskey in the newly acquired distillery. Throughout prohibition, the company continued to operate and was one of only six distilleries granted a permit to make and sell medicinal alcohol. As a historical side note, the Frankfort Distilling Co picked a rather unfortunate trademark for their prohibition era whiskey: a swastika (prior to the Nazi usage of the image, but still… historically unfortunate). When prohibition ended in 1933, they would build yet another brand new distillery and move Four Roses production there.
In 1943, the Seagram company would come in and purchase the Four Roses brand. Started as a Canadian distillery in 1857, Seagrams has grown to become one of the biggest spirits companies in Canada. During prohibition in the United States, the owners of the company reportedly participated in bootlegging operations to bring their product into the US, and as a result paid $1.5 million in fines in 1930 (significantly less than the $60 million the US government asked for).
Despite being the top selling brand of whiskey in the United States, Seagram’s discontinued distribution of Four Roses in the United States at the end of the 1950’s and shifted the brand’s focus overseas. For the American market, they instead chose to focus on their Benchmark and Eagle Rare brands.
Four Roses was one of the first brands to be carved out and sold during Seagram’s long and drawn out divestiture of brands in their fight to stay alive. Oddly, the brand was first purchased by the French media company Vivendi Universal in 1989, who then sold it in 2001 to the massive French alcoholic beverage company Pernod Ricard, and then to their British counterpart Diageo.
In 2002, the Kirin Brewery Company based in Japan purchased the Four Roses brand, and once again started distributing it for sale domestically in the United States.
The Four Roses production process is different from the way other distilleries do things (in a good way). Technically it’s a blended whiskey, but the blending process is more transparent than usual.
Four Roses makes 10 distinct recipes of whiskey. They start with two different mash bills: either 60% corn, 35% rye, and 5% malted barley, or 75% corn, 20% rye, and 5% malted barley. Once the mash is cooked, the mixture is fermented using one of five different distinct strains of yeast. Each of these distinct concoctions is then distilled and barreled separately in charred new oak barrels (charred somewhere between a #3 and a #4 char).
After enough time to satisfy the “Straight bourbon whiskey” appellation (roughly 6 to 8 years according to some sources), the barrels are blended together in batches of approximately 250 barrels to create the “small batch” production run that’s put in the bottle and shipped out.
For this version of Four Roses, the batch includes two barrels from each grain bill, one using the “K” yeast that seems to make things spicy, and one using the “O” yeast that adds some fruit flavoring.
There are a couple different versions of the Four Roses bottles depending on the size and the variety you get, but in this case the bottle is a rounded and curvaceous affair. It starts off with a thick glass bottom (which works well to reflect the light on bars where the liquor shelves are lit from below) that curves around gently to a larger shoulder which quickly tapers to a short neck. The whole thing is topped off with an oversized cork and wood stopper.
The whiskey bottle doesn’t really look like a whiskey bottle, and I think that plays to its advantage. It’s something different and interesting on the shelf, something that takes care and craftsmanship to produce, something immediately eye catching in its unconventional design.
What I like best, though, is that the whiskey is the star of the show. The label has just enough information to be useful, but even then the whiskey shines through the middle of the label and makes its presence known. That beautiful clear amber color comes through in an embossed four rose pattern that’s in the glass itself, a perfect touch that shows off the skill of the craftsmen to mass produce such a bottle as well as the beauty of the whiskey itself.
There’s a sweet caramel aroma coming off the glass that’s obviously appealing, and that’s the first impression you get of the spirit. I’m also getting a bit of fruit, specifically some apple and orange zest notes mixed in for good measure. A little more sniffing and I think I get some peppery spice as well… but it’s deep in the background.
The flavor itself starts slowly, first with a buttery caramel flavor that quickly develops some notes much like the oak present in a white wine. As soon as you get that oak note, the pepper flavors kick in from the rye content and provides a punch of spice that lasts well after the liquid is gone. As the flavor finishes off, I can taste some other items mixing in — specifically a dash of cherries that’s clear and present in the aftertaste.
Throughout the whole experience, it’s a smooth and delicious bourbon. Just the right weight given the alcohol content, not too viscous and not too light. It finishes nicely as well — momentary threat of the cherry note overpower the other flavors aside, I find that it tails off to a smooth finish.
With the addition of some ice, you’d usually expect the more delicate flavors to drop out of the mix, and in this case it follows that standard expectation. Those fruity notes have disappeared, and what’s left in the glass are the bolder oak flavors combined with the caramel and vanilla that’s standard for a bourbon.
In general, this tastes like a slightly more oak-y Evan Williams, albeit with a much bigger pepper kick at the end. It’s still smooth and delicious with that enjoyable spicy flavor, but just not as complex as the neat version.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
What I really like about this version of the cocktail is that the oak flavors that are present in the base whiskey balance really nicely with the brighter and crisper bitters and orange zest. It’s more of an earthy take on the Old Fashioned, but just as delicious and enjoyable.
As for the other flavors, the caramel and vanilla also stay present and make for a particularly sweet drink when combined with the sugar cube. It’s one where you can probably get away with skimping on the added sweetness, but it does need a little bit to be perfect. And, of course, that peppery spice is still there making itself known.
It’s downright delicious and there’s no two ways about it.
What I’m looking for here is something that’s able to balance out the bright and bitter ginger beer, while also adding some distinctive flavor of its own. In this case, that rich oak flavor is primarily what’s mixing so well and toning down the K-Pop level of brightness in the ginger beer; simultaneously, the peppery spice is doing a great job of coming through near the end of the experience and adding a bit of a kick to an otherwise sweet cocktail.
In my opinion, this edges out Buffalo Trace (which is my benchmark for a good $30 bourbon). There’s just more flavors going on here, and it makes for an overall better experience. It’s not a single barrel or even a single strand of whiskey, it is indeed a blend of different variations… but that blend is damn good.
|Four Roses Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey|
Kentucky, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 45% ABV
Price: $28.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
Four roses, but a hair more than four stars.