Today, Four Roses consistently produces some of the most high-quality Bourbon on the market. I’d argue it is among the best, if not the best.
But it hasn’t always been that way. At least not in the United States.
Prohibition, Prominence, and Seagrams
After surviving prohibition through being one of the few distilleries allowed to produce medicinal whiskey, and later reigning for decades as the top-selling bourbon in the United States (Frankfort Distillers was the nation’s 5th largest liquor business between Four Roses and Paul Jones), Seagrams purchased the brand in 1943 for $42m.
Despite its history, Seagrams had different plans for Four Roses. Being the blended whiskey giant they were, they acquired many distilleries to produce whiskey for their blends. Four Roses didn’t escape this fate. By the 1950s, it had become a blended whiskey and was only producing bourbon for export markets. In America, the product slipped into a decades-long dark age that over time saw it fall from the spotlight on the top shelf to the dark and dusty crevices of the bottom.
Fortunately, after changing hands multiple times, Four Roses was eventually purchased by Kirin Brewery Company in 2002. Under new ownership who understood the quality and potential of their newly acquired Bourbon, the brand eventually returned to the level of prominence it experiences today.
This renaissance was of course in large part due to the vision and dedication of Master Distiller Jim Rutledge, who had worked with the brand in various capacities since beginning his tenure with Seagrams in 1966.
Starting in research and development, Jim moved to work out of Seagram’s corporate office in New York City in 1975. He returned to Kentucky in 1992 after 17 years in New York and became Master Distiller in 1994 with the goal of bringing Four Roses Bourbon back to the United States. That same year, Four Roses Yellow Label was introduced into the domestic market, beginning with extremely limited quantities only available in Kentucky.
Since returning to Kentucky, Jim and his team have incrementally brought back the respect the Four Roses brand deserves by focusing more on what’s inside the bottle than what’s on the outside. The result of that focus has been nothing short of spectacular.
I’m still reeling a bit from all the recognition of my 40th anniversary last year – especially Malt Advocates’ Life Time Achievement Award – and it keeps going. After all these years doing something I absolutely love it keeps getting better and better. For so many years while with Seagram I tried and tried to get them to discontinue production and sale of that *#*&*^ blended whiskey, with our name on it, let it die away and ultimately bring our Four Roses Bourbon back to the U.S. I reminded Seagram marketing people over and over that we were the number one selling Bourbon in the U.S. for a period of time prior to Prohibition and for three decades after Prohibition for a Good Reason – we have a Great Bourbon. Even if I didn’t agree, I honestly understood their logic. They all reminded me that their predecessors – begining in the 40’s ruined the renowned name for Four Roses Bourbon when they introduced a blended whiskey (made mostly in Indiana and Maryland) with our name on the label. It still devastates me that an industry giant, like Seagram, could go out of business primarily because of one person. I have so many Seagram friends and many have struggled since December 2001. However, for me personally, I’m continuing to live a dream come true. Not a lot of people gave us much of a chance, but I believed in our Bourbon and I felt over time that we could shed the image of the blended whiskey and people would once again come to respect and love Four Roses Bourbon for what it is – a Great Premium Bourbon.
I look around at the people at Four Roses and see the pride in their faces now that Four Roses is on its way back “home.” We’re relatively small in numbers but our hearts are huge and our energy seems to be endless. I hope I can somehow slow the Clock of Life down and stay on for years to come. I now have over 41 years in the business, but I feel like I’m still a Kid in a Candy shop, and I want to be around when Four Roses Bourbon is truly a global brand – including all of the USA. We’re on our way….
When the transition to Kirin took place I was only 19, but by the time the single barrel product hit shelves I was 21 and enjoying it. Not much has changed since then.
And I’m not the only one who shares the sentiment. You don’t have to try hard in the Bourbon world to find a fan of Four Roses, but you will have a hard time finding someone with bad things to say. Because of this, the demand has grown exponentially over the past few years, with sales figures increasing by more than 350% from 2011 to 2014.
The vision and passion has payed off, and on that note Jim Rutledge recently announced his retirement effective September 1 of this year (2015), but not before announcing a $55 million expansion that will double the Lawrenceburg distillery’s capacity.
Hats off to you, Jim!
10 Distinct Recipes
The main unique aspect of Four Roses is their 10 different recipes they produce to supply their core Bourbon lineup.
Here are the basics:
Two different Mash Bills:
- E Mash Bill “High-Corn”: 20% Rye, 75% Corn, 5% Malted Barley
- B Mash Bill “High-Rye”: 35% Rye, 60% Corn, 5% Malted Barley
5 Yeast Strains:
- V – Light fruitiness, light vanilla, caramel & creamy
- K – Light spiciness, light caramel & full-bodied
- O – Rich fruitiness, light vanilla, caramel & full-bodied
- Q – Essences of floral aromas
- F – Essences of herbal aromas
The combination of each Mash Bill with each yeast strain produces 10 recipes:
- OBSV – B Mash Bill, V yeast.
- OESV - E Mash Bill, V yeast.
- OBSK - B Mash Bill, K yeast.
- OESK - E Mash Bill, K yeast.
- OBSO - B Mash Bill, O yeast.
- OESO - E Mash Bill, O yeast.
- OBSQ - B Mash Bill, Q yeast.
- OESQ - E Mash Bill, Q yeast.
- OBSF - B Mash Bill, F yeast.
- OESF - E Mash Bill, F yeast.
The “O” in each recipe means the whiskey was distilled at the Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.
The “S” in each recipe designates Straight Whiskey.
These recipes, or most importantly the individual yeast strains, originate from the Kentucky distillery network previously operated by Seagrams. This network consisted of:
- Calvert in Louisville
- The Old Louis Hunter Distillery in Cynthiana
- The Athertonville Distillery in LaRue County
- The Henry Mckenna Distillery in Nelson County
- The Old Prentice Distillery (Four Roses) in Lawrenceburg
The other unique aspect of Four Roses is that they age their distillate in single-story warehouses.
The barrel house complex at Cox’s Creek, which is about 50 miles from the distillery in Lawrenceburg and about 30 miles south of Louisville, was built in 1960 and encompasses 298 acres with warehouses alphabetically labeled from A to U.
An individual warehouse occupies approximately one acre of land but is only a single story high. Compared to the 35 degree temperature variance between the top and bottom levels of the average rick-house used in Kentucky, Four Roses’ warehouses have a comparatively small variance from top to bottom of only about 8 degrees.
All of this means the barrels stored inside Four Roses’ warehouses tend to age more evenly than they would in a standard warehouse.
Four Roses Core Products
Having so many recipe options is a luxury, and as a result every one of Four Roses’ flagship products is different. Their Yellow Label uses all 10 recipes, but you will not find the same recipe used for their Single Barrel in the Small Batch, unless it’s a special or private release bottle.
- Four Roses Yellow Label – introduced in 1994 and is a blend of all 10 recipes
- Four Roses Small Batch – introduced in 2006 and is a blend of OBSK, OESK, OBSO, and OESO
- Four Roses Single Barrel - introduced in 2004 and is always OBSV
Now that we’ve covered the technicalities, let’s see how each recipe stacks up…
Lineup & Tasting Results
All recipes tasted and ranked in this post are private selections purchased in April 2014 from Liquor Barn Hamburg (Lexington, KY) and Liquor Barn Richmond Rd (Lexington, KY).
Here are the details for the individual bottles:
|OESK||10 yr, 3 mo||55.7%||KW||85-1C|
|OBSV||11 yr, 3 mo||54.2%||ME||2-1G|
|OBSO||10 yr, 4 mo||55.3%||US||55-1A|
|OESO||11 yr, 5 mo||56.0%||BN||30-3B|
|OBSQ||10 yr, 4 mo||58.8%||JE||42-2I|
|OESQ||10 yr, 1 mo||59.0%||RN||85-3H|
|OBSF||11 yr, 8 mo||59.1%||HW||29-3Q|
|OESF||10 yr 6 mo||56.6%||GE||5-2C|
Tasting Sessions and Results:
Though not impossible, objectively tasting 10 whiskeys in one session is a bit much so I decided to break the tasting into two sessions: the first for Mash Bill E, and another for Mash Bill B.
To help with the ranking, I invited two friends who have decent experience and knowledge but who had not previously tasted all 10 recipes.
We tasted everything blind, or at least as blind as possible considering we knew which mash bill was represented in the first session.
First Session: E Mash Bills, April 21 2015
The first session was relatively straight-forward with almost completely consistent results between myself and the other two tasters.
OESO and OESK we’re the strong favorites of the lineup. In my opinion comparing O to K, the O was lightyears ahead of the runner-up with an immediate presence of earthy and intriguingly vegetal notes that settled into a beautiful, thick and creamy palate that sweetened into caramelized sugar over time. With an exceptional finish, it was an easy pick for #1.
K was a bit darker with some fig and hints of licorice and honestly I was surprised to learn after the reveal that it was K. A high quality pour but less elegant than the OESO, it had a very well-rounded nose-to-palate-to-finish sequence that landed it in the #2 spot.
Interestingly, the single barrel standard V yeast was ranked right in the middle. It’s certainly a crowd pleaser so this result seemed appropriate.
OESF and OESQ we’re enjoyable, but not solid enough on all parts too make the cut. The F had some dry wood notes that weren’t fantastic and the Q was musty and for that it landed in last place.
|E-Mash Bill Rankings|
|Rank||My Rank||Taster #1||Taster #2|
Four Roses B Mash Bill + Top 2 of E Mash Bill, July 23 2015
For the second session, we took the top two picks from the E Mash Bill session (OESO & OESK) and placed them among all of the B Mash Bills. We also took ample time off between sessions to make sure we were coming in fresh and without any lingering palate memory. This would prove an important and interesting move as the results will show.
Almost immediately I honed in on a pleasant consistency between the OBSO and the OESO, but attempting to identify them blind proved difficult. I correctly identified the OBSO yeast, but incorrectly guessed that it was an E mash bill because I thought it was “too soft”. It was exceptionally well-rounded with baking spices hanging out alongside creamy vanilla cake icing. It had a cool, herbal note on the palate that led to a finish that was just spectacular.
The OESO followed closely. It lacked a sharp spiciness in comparison to the B Mash Bills, but more than made up for it with a thick buttery deliciousness that allowed the beautiful oak notes to shine through. I didn’t remember the wood being so prominent in the OESO tasted among the E Mash Bills.
Again, V yeast was ranked right in the middle of the spread but bumped up a few notches comparatively as OBSV. This seems uncanny but it honestly can’t be. In my notes I lead with “…has the most distinct Four Roses character” as I personally associate Four Roses mostly with the single barrel flagship, but overall it lacked a strong-enough finish to compete with OBSO and OESO.
The OBSK initially came off as over-oaked, but developed nicely into sweet chocolate and spices. It wasn’t strong on the palate but had a decent finish. Enjoyable but with quirks.
OBSQ had nice notes of sweet gum on the nose that led to a hot palate and a hot finish. I guessed this was F, but was wrong. I tend to often mix up F & Q when tasting blind. OBSF was more cinnamon-forward and just didn’t do it for me.
As for the OESK, it was overpowered by the B Mash Bills which muted its delicateness and brought out a metallic note that led me to reject it almost immediately. I want to revisit this one individually in the near future to get to the bottom of that.
|B Mash Bill + Top 2 of E Mash Bill Ranking|
|Rank||My Rank||Taster #1||Taster #2|
First things first, I’m both happy and surprised with my personal results. I was surprised that I leaned so heavily towards both O yeast recipes, but I welcome it with open arms as I’ve often overlooked OBSO and OESO private picks. Shame on me.
In this lineup there wasn’t a particular recipe in all 10 that I didn’t enjoy, it’s just that I enjoyed some more than others. And some preferences changed drastically in different contexts.
I’ve learned (again) that tasting is very subjective and comparison matters. Add to that the fact that the second round of results were very different between three tasters and it’s hard to come to a solid “this is the best” or “this is the overall favorite” recipe.
I also can’t help but wonder if any of the rejected E Mash Bills would have fared better overall had they been given the chance. With different company than what led me to really enjoy the OESK, it failed miserably. Maybe I wasn’t looking for the flaw the first time, or maybe the initial comparative sensory exercise wasn’t drastic enough for it to become a nuisance? Or, if I picked that one above 3 other E picks maybe the others completely suck?
I could do this all over again in 6 months and probably come to different results.
What I think is most important here is the understanding that–although highly influential–producing variety in Bourbon is well beyond a simple combination of grains and yeast. There are so many intricate variables I’ve not discussed in enough detail that create variety (barrels, weather, warehouse location, age, proof, etc.) that just looking at a recipe on a label and expecting it to be the best of the best by title alone is just dumb.
In other blind tastings similar to this one I’ve ranked OBSK, OESK, and even OBSQ on top. I’ve been completely repulsed by an OBSF in the past whereas I somewhat enjoyed both the F yeasts in this session.
The bottom line is that all of these are pretty damn good, but more importantly they’re consistent, as most Four Roses private selections tend to be. It’s a rare thing to get a bad one. If I were served any of these recipes individually, I’d find much about each of them to enjoy.
What do YOU think about these results?
Have you tasted all 10 Four Roses Recipes? Are you still trying to make your way through them?
I’m conducting a survey to see how the community’s preference at large stacks up against these results. If you have 5 minutes to answer 3 easy questions, it would be much appreciated!
I’ll be publishing the survey results and other interesting information very soon in Part 2!
*Much of the information presented in this post is referenced from Al Young’s book, Four Roses The Return of a Whiskey Legend. It is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in more detail on the subject.
If you’re looking for more information about recipes, I highly recommend covering the basics from the source, then reading what Sippn’ Corn has to say. And of course, questions are always encouraged in the comments below.