Malt and Oak will have a double celebration today, as we’ll celebrate July 4th with an uncommon occurrence here, a Bourbon review, and a toast to Jim Rutledge, who will be retiring from Four Roses in less than two months. Jim has been at the helm for 20 years, and is single handily responsible for the brand’s comeback, basically from the dead, in the United States.
Four roses was founded in 1888 by Dr. Rufus M. Rose, and was probably named for him, his son, his brother and nephew (thus the four Roses….), I say probably, because there are other stories including one that puts Dr. Rose as the proud father of four lovely daughters, and please don’t mention the fact that historically there was only one daughter and one son. Facts might usually only interfere with the creation of legends! 🙂
History of Four Roses in the early 20th century is a bit murky, as it’s unclear whether Seagram’s (the original company, not Bronfman’s empire who adopted the name after buying the company in 1928) bought Four Roses in 1913 and then sold the brand to the Frankfort Distillery or not, but after prohibition was lifted, Frankfort began distilling and the brand was sold to Seagram’s in 1941.
For a great many years under Seagram’s, Four Roses was but a mere shadow of itself, selling blended whisky under its label with no real Four Roses bourbon in it in the US, with the real stuff being shipped abroad. Then, in 2001 Vivendi bought Seagram’s and sold off the alcohol producing parts of the company to Diageo, who kept only part of the operation and sold off the rest. Four Roses ended up being bought by its Japanese distributor Kirin, and that opens up a whole new chapter in the story.
Jim Rutledge approached Kirin to bring Four Roses back to the US. Kirin picked up the gauntlet, recalled all the blended bottom shelf whiskey in the US and began producing and distributing the bourbon in the US. Now Four Roses is a geek’s haven. They have ten different recipes, and you can know exactly what whisky recipes make up your drink using four letter codes explained in the following infographic:
Ten distinct recipes gives a lot of variation and this is obviously not the easiest way to achieve that. Most American distilleries use their warehouses to produce variation by taking advantage of the temperature and humidity differences in different parts of their very high warehouses, sometimes eight stories high. Jack Daniel’s, for instance, uses barrels matured in the cooler heart of the warehouse near the ground for the soft and gentle Gentleman Jack, and barrels in the high and hot altitudes for the bold flavored Single Barrel. Four Roses, on the other hand, seeks consistency in maturation, and strives to keep warehouse conditions consistent across the board, matures the barrels in single story warehouses, some 50 miles from the distillery, in Bullitt county. You can get single barrels of Four Roses in each of the recipes and taste the differences for yourself. This bourbon is a true whisk(e)y geek’s wonderland.
The Four Roses Small Batch, our review de jour, is made of a combination of four of the ten recipes, using both mashbills (mashbill E: 75% corn, 20% rye and 5% malted barley and mashbill B: 60% corn, 35% rye and 5% barley) each with the same two of the five yeast strands: Strand K, imparting a light spiciness, light caramel and a full body, and strand O, imparting rich fruitiness, caramel and light vanilla in a full body.
Thus, in tasting the Small Batch we’d expect a full bodied fruity whiskey with a light spiciness with caramel and vanilla.
Let’s see how that plays out in the bottle:
Four Roses Small Batch Straight Bourbon Whiskey (45% ABV, Chill Filtered)
Appearance: Copper, thick and quick legs with some slower residue going down glass.
Nose: Sweet confectionery with marshmallow and cotton candy, vanilla and fresh ground white pepper. There’s a hint of corned beef on rye bread, and distant cooking corn on the cob. After a while, a mild and rather pleasant sourness develops in the glass.
Palate: First corn sweetness and spice, green apple in caramel, some paint thinner over honey, and a candy like quality in a light body. There are some fresh apples in there and faint notes of cinnamon. Overall the palate is sweet, but well balanced with the spiciness. This made me curious to get hold of a OBSK (35% rye in the mash and K strand yeast which tends toward spiciness) to sample.
Linger: Sweet in the mouth with a light peppery spice down the gullet. The linger stays for a while, somewhat drying on the tongue and upper palate. Nice stuff!
For a bourbon, the corn here is pretty mellow. This is a nice tipple, and my only beef with this fine and gentle bourbon is the chill filtration it undergoes. This is hand crafted whiskey that is for drinkers past their basic bourbon stage, and there’s really no reason to subject this whiskey to chill filtration. Incidentally, this is Jim Rutledge’s view as well. In a Q&A with the Bourbon Dork back in 2011 he said: “Four Roses Distillery chill filters Yellow Label and both Small Batch and Single Barrel, and I’ve tried to explain the NON-necessity to chill filter both higher strength labels. We don’t chill filter any of our Limited Edition offerings or barrel strength private barrel selections”.
Jim, thank you for being such a talented whiskey geek! Enjoy your well earned retirement. Cheers!