Class: Kentucky Straight Bourbon
The Four Roses Distillery, built in 1910 in Lawrenceburg, KY, is a bit of a peculiarity in the modern bourbon scene. The history of its origins are murky, so I won't attempt to paste them together here, but despite coming of age right as Prohibition was shutting down most of the American whiskey industry, Four Roses persevered through the period and became the top selling bourbon brand in America through the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. In 1943, Seagrams purchased the brand and distillery, and in the potentially most boneheaded move of the century, decided to stop all sales of Four Roses straight bourbon in America, and instead export the brand overseas as a blended whiskey. Seagrams still sold Four Roses whiskey in the US during this period, but rather than straight bourbon, it became a cheap rotgut blended whiskey comprised mostly of neutral grain spirit.
Thus, the Four Roses name was tarnished across the states for over four decades until the old Seagrams passed away at the turn of the 21st century and its portfolio of brands were dispersed to other owners. In an ironic twist, Four Roses ended up in the hands of Kirin Brewing, a Japanese beverage company, who stopped the sale of Four Roses as a blended whiskey, and returned it to a Kentucky Straight Bourbon produced solely at the Lawrenceburg distillery, which is a sight to behold nestled into the Kentucky countryside, as it is composed of Spanish mission-style architecture.
So what makes modern day Four Roses a unique operation? Lets hit the simplest point first: They age all of their barrels onsite in single story rickhouses, ala the dunnage style warehouses commonly used in Scotland. In theory, this means individual barrels will have much less variation, as temperature and humidity fluctuations due to differences in elevation become a non-factor.
Next, the big differentiator: while Four Roses only produces straight bourbon, they produce 10 different variations through utilization of 2 different mashbills combined with 5 different yeast strains. Rather than try to explain these, let me show you the diagrams Four Roses provides us, straight from their website:
First, the mash bills (the proportion of grains the whiskey is distilled from): The low rye "E" mash contains 75% corn, 20% rye, and 5% barley, while the high rye "B" mash contains 60% corn, 35% rye, and 5% barley. Note that across the Kentucky bourbon landscape, both of the mashes are higher in rye than the typical bourbon.
Next, the yeast strains used to ferment the wort:
These different combinations of mash and yeast are put together into 10 possible four letter codes that always begin with "O" and have the third letter "S". The second letter denotes the mash, and the fourth letter the yeast strain. If your brains haven't turned to mush from all of this information yet, lets get onto the review of Four Roses Small Batch bourbon, the $30 middle child in FR's continuous release core range which also included a bottom shelf "yellow label" and a more premium single barrel bottling.
- Blend of OESO, OBSO, OESK, and OBSK barrels
- No age statement
- Bottled at 45% ABV (90 proof)
Nose: Rye spice – namely cinnamon and black pepper initially dominate. Underneath are silky sweet wafts of vanilla and caramel. Great balance between the dry rye and sweet corn notes makes this a superb bourbon to nose.
Palate: Some initial heat carries pepper and cinnamon red hots upon entry. There’s a saline backdrop to the dram oddly enough. Once the heat dissipates, vanilla and nougat come through. The sweet notes are on the thin side, rather than full and pronounced. Faint hints of leather and oak in the background, along with some slightly buttery notes that creep in late.
Finish: Oak and watery caramel. The oak is non-astringent and slightly vegetal, like fresh green wood under the bark. Medium length.
Overall: Worth trying a pour. Four Roses Small Batch admirably fills its shelf slot as a middle range straight bourbon. It's solid and tasty, but comes across a bit thin and watery, which will keep it from truly "wow"ing anybody. This bottle commonly finds itself in my whiskey cabinet in rotation with Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare for that easy sipping $25-30 bourbon. Give it a try to see if its worth a spot in your cabinet as well!
The Rating Scale
At WBSE we use a true 100 point scale for scoring to allow whiskeys to further differentiate themselves (as opposed to a letter grade scale where 90% of whiskeys fall between 78-92). This allows you to more easily compare scores between different whiskeys. Here is how the scale breaks down:
1-49: Varying degrees of bad
60-69: Better than average
90+: truly exceptional
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