I recently spent several days in Louisville Kentucky as the guest of Four Roses Bourbon. In addition to visiting their warehouse and distillery I ate at several terrific restaurants, imbibed at a couple of killer cocktail bars and generally soaked in all things Louisville. It was a memorable time, punctuated by lots of tasty Bourbon in a variety of different settings.
Four Roses Bourbon has a long and winding history that starts with being bonded all the way back in 1888. Over the years they’ve been owned by several larger companies and managed in a variety of styles. One of those owners made them an export-only producer. For that reason, over a period of many years, Four Roses was only available internationally. Japan has for decades been their largest export market and Four Roses produces several selections exclusively for release there. Therefore it’s no surprise then when their previous owner went belly up, and Four Roses was for sale, a Japanese firm purchased them. In addition to simply acquiring them they also set out to return Four Roses to their glorious past when they were the most popular Bourbon in the US.
Spending a couple of days thinking about and sipping Bourbon is bound to be a pleasurable time studded with highlights, and it was. My personal high point came during our tour of the warehouse facility. We had already spent time with Master Distiller Jim Rutledge, but finally we got to see him work. One of the regular releases in their line is a Single Barrel Bourbon. They select an individual barrel that meets a particular taste criteria and quality and bottle it individually. Some retailers choose to select their own barrel and buy the entire thing. The day we were going through this process was going to take place and we had the good fortune to take part in it. Five barrels had been pulled for Baker Dillihay from Liquor Barn. Baker prides himself on the Bourbon selection in his store and several times a year he chooses and purchases an entire barrel from Four Roses. Every member in our group tasted through the 5 barrels several times and it was a fascinating and enlightening exercise. Each time through there were differences and favorites changed. The 3rd and 5th barrels were immediate hits and remained that way through the process. The first barrel which I wasn’t personally very fond of the first two times I sampled it, morphed remarkably with the addition of a tiny bit of water. It actually went from being my least favorite of the batch to one of the 3 best to my palate. Ultimately barrel 5 was selected and will be bottled for Baker’s store. Committing to the entire barrel gives him the opportunity to sell something distinct that no one else has.
In addition to the warehouse and bottling facility our group visited the distillery where we watched the action in the fermentation and distillation areas. Tasting the pure distillate was a real treat and I know several members of our traveling party would have loved a bottle of that pure spirit to go. Eventually we settled in and tasted through the main releases in the Four Roses portfolio.
Several things make Four Roses Bourbon inherently unique. One is the variety of mash bills (recipes) they use. Some distillers stick to the same one or two for just about everything lending to a real sameness to their portfolio. Four Roses has 10 different variations. Even more importantly they have five proprietary yeast strains they use. In Bourbon, much like with wine the choice to use native or wild yeast can be a game changer. The use of Native yeasts as Four Roses does, assures that their flavor profile is distinct to their house. The fact that they use 5 distinct yeasts further differentiates them and assures that their house style isn’t indistinguishable from one Bourbon to the next. It’s a large part of the reason that if you tasted their Bourbons side by side blindly it would be incredibly hard to say they all came from the same producer.
Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbon ($20)
The entry level Bourbon in their collection is aged in barrel for 6 years prior to release. It contains Bourbon that uses all 10 recipes in their repertoire. Hints of toast, orchard fruit and a host of spices dominate the inviting nose. The palate is mellow and balanced with Anjou pear, nectarine and toffee notes standing out. The above average finish shows off lots of fruitcake spices and hints of brown sugar.
Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon ($35)
This Bourbon is put together using a small selection of barrels and creating a limited cuvee style offering from them. Four of their recipes are utilized. The barrels selected are aged between seven and seven and a half years. The rich golden hue sparkles in the glass. Toasted barely, peach and spice aromas fill the deep and rich nose. Apricot spices and more peach characteristics light up the full flavored palate along with a touch of crème fraiche. Cinnamon, cloves, toasty oak and continued fruit elements are present on the long, persistent finish. Small Batch is great in cocktails and just tremendously appealing all by itself.
Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon ($45)
As the same indicates each run of Single Barrel Bourbon comes from one selected Barrel. After selecting it and prior to bottling they clean out the lines and make sure nothing is getting in the bottle but Bourbon from the Barrel in question. The barrels considered for this designation have 8 plus years of age on them. Hints of cocoa and leather show up on the opulent nose of this Bourbon. The mouthfeel on this offering has a nice brambly edge to it. Marzipan, caramel and red berry fruits dominate the deep and intense palate. The densely layered palate is long, prodigious and spice laden. Single Barrel from Four Roses represents both a terrific value and a truly singular artisanal spirit.
Bourbon as a category is on fire and when that occurs, prices soar. Considering the quality, eminent drinkability and distinct character in each bottle of their Small Batch and Single Barrel Bourbon they’re remarkably good values that Bourbon lovers should be seeking out. At around $20 Yellow label is a tremendously good value. It’s their cuvee style offering which aims for a specific flavor profile and it hits the mark. It’s more than refined and interesting enough to sip on its own and it excels in cocktails as I learned first-hand while in Louisville. All their releases are well made and delicious, but achieving such quality at a price-point that is affordable for every day drinking is a major feather in Master Distiller Jim Rutledge’s cap. If you’re a Bourbon drinker already, you need to check out Four Roses. If on the other hand you’re new to Bourbon, there are a lot of reasons Four Roses is a great and delicious place to start.