Posts from the ‘Four Roses’ Category

Staying Power: A Few Bourbon Staples

One of the unique aspects of whiskey brands is that they do change over time. When you combine that change with the change in our palates, you can get some pretty intense discrepancies regarding the quality of different bourbons, especially over time. Personally, there are several different bourbons that I have found to vary a lot from batch to batch, barrel to barrel (Booker’s, Elmer T. Lee, Rock Hill Farms), but there are also some bourbons that I have found to stay rock solid over all my years drinking the blessed spirit. Recently, I picked up two bourbons I had not had in a while to see if I liked them as much as I used to…

Ever since Heaven Hill came out with their Elijah Craig Barrel Proof releases, bourbon lovers have been clamoring to get their greasy paws on some of this juice. The first release got rave reviews, as did most of their successive releases. I recently finished a bottle of their fourth release (134.8 proof, 67.4% abv), and it was absolutely fantastic stuff. It was every bit as dark, ominous, and beautiful as its predecessors. This is a complex, sweet, woody, and intense bourbon. Judging from what I have tasted to this point, I see no reason that this bourbon is going to slow down. All three bottles of this stuff that I have grabbed have been fantastic. If you see a bottle of this stuff chilling on a shelf at your local liquor store, grab it and thank me later.

The second bottle I picked up was a bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel (Barrel 87-4I), and it also did not disappoint. With some single barrel bourbons, there is definitely a lot of variance from barrel to barrel, with some barrels being great, and others being just average. Four Roses is not in that category. Every different barrel of their beloved OBSV juice is aged to damn near perfection. This particular barrel was a little bit spicier than some previous inculcations that I have had, but Four Roses’ bourbons always tend towards some spiciness anyway. Like Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, when you see a bottle of this juice on the shelf, you are never missing the mark if you decide to walk out with a bottle or two.

Really, this is less of a bourbon review, but just a reiteration to all of my readers that there are still a lot of good bourbons out there. So many of the blogs are heralding the end of the great bourbon era with all the new craft distillers sourcing young bourbon, and the no age statement bourbons being released. To be sure, there is plenty of gimmicky bourbon out there, and even some of my old standards have let me down a bit recently (Booker’s, cough-cough), but that does not mean that all hope is lost friends. In a bourbon universe that occasionally looks bleak, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and Four Roses Single Barrel are still standing tall as testaments to making really good bourbon with time-tested precision and patience.

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Barrel Strength Bourbon Tasting: Four Roses, Booker’s, Elijah Craig, and E.H. Taylor

Last week, some of my best new and old whiskey-loving friends got together for another meeting up of the Boston Brown Water Society.  Last month, we kicked off the society in style with some full-bodied Scotches, and last week we crossed the pond for some full-bodied, barrel strength bourbons.  We tasted the four bourbons mentioned above, and we did the tasting blind so as not to allow our preconceived notions about these bourbons to influence our palates.  I have done my best to summarize everyone’s general thoughts (and some of my own) on these four wonderful bourbons from four of Kentucky’s most notable distilleries.  Bourbon Barrels Aging

The first bourbon we tried was a private barrel selection of Four Roses, bottled for Kappy’s liquor store in Medford, Massachusetts.  It was made from Four Roses’ OBSK recipe, aged 11 years and 4 months, and bottled at 109.6 proof (54.8% abv).  This bourbon got mixed reviews around the table, ranging from really good to a very solid bourbon.  This particular inculcation of Four Roses was especially spicy, with rye zip, chili peppers, and some black pepper.  Those spicy, zesty notes and some alcoholic heat continue all through the bourbon, but are tempered out nicely by  the addition of water, which calms the whiskey down and opens up more sweet flavors, such as caramel and butterscotch.  Overall, this one is quite tasty, indicative of the consistent quality of Four Roses.  My grade: B+.  Price: $45-50/750ml.

The second bourbon we tried was Booker’s.  This bottle of Booker’s was 7 years and 6 months old, from Batch 2013-6, and bottled at 125.4 proof (62.7% abv).  This bourbon was widely put at the bottom of everybody’s list for the evening.  I have been a bit proponent of Booker’s in the past, but this batch was not the best bottle to ever hit the shelves.  There was a tannic bitterness that stayed throughout the nose, palate, and finish that most of us found off-putting.  There were some sweet brown sugar and caramel notes that stayed throughout the bourbon, but this one did not bring the complexity or depth of the other bourbons of the evening.  Water did not help this one much at all, either.  My grade: B-/C+.  Price: $45-50/750ml.

The third bourbon we tried was the third release of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof from Heaven Hill distillery.  It is 12 years old and registers at a whopping 133.2 proof (66.6% abv).  For many folks around the table, this bourbon was the highlight of the evening.  The nose on this bourbon is unbelievably delicious, with all sorts of deep caramel, mocha, brown sugar, vanilla, and oak notes.  The palate is plenty drinkable at barrel strength, but if you find it a little hot, water calms it down beautifully yielding notes of barrel char, spiced nuts, vanilla, and freshly roasted coffee beans.  The finish is long, warming, and sweet.  This bourbon was my personal favorite of the night, and I loved it equally as much at barrel strength and cut with a little water, demonstrating the complexity and depth of this sexy bourbon.  My grade: A.  Price: $45-50/750ml.

The final bourbon of the evening was Buffalo Trace’s Colonel E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof.  This was the only whiskey we sampled without an age statement, but judging by its fiery 135.4 proof point (67.7% abv), I suspect this bourbon probably has at least an average of 10 years or so under its belt.  This bourbon also garnered some votes for the best bourbon of the evening, and for good reason.  The nose on this one is woody in a really good way, described as “funky in a good way” by several people at the table.  There are some citrus notes in this nose as well, along with some spicier notes and some traditional bourbon sweetness.  The palate is pretty hot, but water brings the heat into balance with the sweetness and yields a great bourbon.  It remains quite woody and citrusy, but there are also notes of orchard fruits and a spice cabinet.  The finish is long, warming, and mildly woody.  Overall, this is a rough and ready bourbon in the best possible sense.  It might not fit in at fancy dinner parties, but that’s alright with me.  My grade: A-.  Price: $60-70/750ml.

At the end of the day, these are all good bourbons, and none of them are too overpriced.  The E.H. Taylor is the most expensive of the four, but some in our society believed this was the best bourbon of the lineup as well.  The Elijah Craig packs the best value of the bunch, but it is very hard to find.  The Booker’s is the most readily available of these four bourbons, but its variance from batch to batch does not always make this a great buy.  The Four Roses was a limited edition, privately-selected bottling, but judging by what I have tried from Four Roses, if you see a bottle of Four Roses Private Selection Single Barrel available, I highly doubt you’ll be disappointed with the quality of the bourbon.  The real moral of the story is that price, popularity, and exclusivity do not determine a bourbon’s quality.  The only way to determine the quality of a bottle of bourbon is to crack the bottle, let it ride, and let the bourbon speak for itself.

Comparison Review: 2012 vs. 2013 Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbons

Four Roses Limited Edition 2013Today, I am reviewing two bourbons that I have been asked about a lot over the past year and a half – the Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batches from the last two years (2012 and 2013).  Each year, Four Roses releases two limited edition whiskeys.  Every spring just before the Kentucky Derby, Four Roses releases their Limited Edition Single Barrel.  Every fall, Four Roses releases their Limited Edition Small Batch, especially blended for the occasion by Four Roses’ Master Distiller, Jim Rutledge.  Each year, the bourbons that are blended together are different recipes and ages, meaning that each year, there is a different flavor profile.  The Limited Edition Small Batch bourbons are different from Four Roses Small Batch, which is always comprised of the same four bourbon recipes.  As you may have guessed, neither of these two Limited Edition Small Batch bourbons are particularly “bargains,” but they are both retailed at under $100 for a bottle, which puts them just within the upper limits of my price range for bourbons on the blog.

Before I get to the review of these two wonderful bourbons, I should say a few words about Four Roses’ ten bourbon recipes.  Four Roses uses two different mashbills, one with a medium rye content and one with a high rye content.  In addition, Four Roses uses five different yeast strains.  If you are statistics wizard, you have already realized that Four Roses has ten different combinations of grain and yeast at their disposal.  It is the quality and distinctive flavors of these bourbon recipes that allow Jim Rutledge to create some of the best bourbons you can buy.  If you want to know all there is to know, check out the Four Roses website.

The first bourbon I am reviewing is the 2012 Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch.  It was made from four different bourbon recipes, expertly blended together by Jim Rutledge.  The oldest bourbon in the batch was a 17 year-old “OBSV,” made from Four Roses’ high rye mashbill and their delicately fruity “V” yeast strain.  The youngest bourbon used in the batch was the same exact recipe (OBSV), just an 11 year-old version.  The final two recipes used were a 12 year-old “OBSK” (high-rye mashbill with spicier yeast strain) and a 12 year-old “OESK” (low-rye mashbill with the spicier yeast strain).  These four bourbons came together at barrel strength (111.4 proof, 55.7%abv) to create a brilliant bourbon.

On the nose, this bourbon is rich and full, with a healthy dose of cinnamon, backed up by French toast (with maple syrup), caramel, vanilla, oak, and a whiff of floral scent.  The palate is full and rich as well, with a nice bit of heat at barrel strength.  It is quite sweet, with vanilla, strawberries, black cherries, but it moves to spicy wood and hot cinnamon.  The finish is very long and very delicious, the highlight of this bourbon.  It starts spicy and woody (with a bit of cigar box), but it fades to a gentle vanilla custard with strawberries after a few seconds.  It goes on and on.  With water, the nose gets a freshly-cut cedar note, and a lot more floral.  Even with water, this whiskey is still hot and delicious.  That cinnamon spice doesn’t leave, but there is a little more caramel in the mouth and a bit of rye in the finish.  Overall, this is a phenomenal batch of bourbon.  It is delicious and incredibly balanced and complex.  Nothing is overpowering, and everything works together.  It gets even tastier as it empties in the bottle, with the sweetness coming to the fore more as the spiciness fades.  It never loses its complexity, though.  My grade: A/A+.  Price: $80-90/750ml.  Quite simply, this is my favorite bourbon that I have ever had the pleasure of enjoying.

Now, onto the long awaited 125th Anniversary bourbon that was the 2013 Limited Edition Small Batch.  After tasting the earliest blending experiments, Jim Rutledge reportedly said that this was the best bourbon he had ever made.  That, in combination with the success of the 2012 LE Small Batch, made this bourbon a very difficult one to find.  Luckily for me, I was able to snag a bottle.  This bourbon is comprised of three different bourbon recipes at three different ages.  The oldest bourbon used in this small batch was an 18 year-old OBSV, very old for a bourbon.  The other two bourbons were both 13 years old, an OBSK and an OESK.  The result is quite a unique, and very delicious bourbon bottled at barrel strength (103.2 proof, 51.6%abv).

On the nose, this bourbon is fantastic, probably the most potent nose I have ever encountered in a bourbon.  As soon as I cracked this bottle open, a sweet, vanilla, floral aroma filled the room, screaming to be poured and savored.  There are also notes of sawdust, tobacco, leather, and cherry cola.  It is a creamy nose that balances sweet notes, floral notes, and old, rustic bourbon notes almost perfectly.  The palate is full-bodied with a lot of those same cherry cola notes, rounded out by vanilla, red velvet cake, Virginia pipe tobacco, strawberries, and dark chocolate.  The finish is medium-length with oak, cedar, and vanilla.  With water, the nose evolves into some citrus notes, and some more antique notes come out (many leather-bound books and rich mahogany if you’re Ron Burgundy).  The palate gets sweeter and loses some complexity with water, bringing out a lot of cherry notes that I don’t like as much.  Nevertheless, it is still a very good bourbon however you choose to drink it.  My grade: A/A-.  Price: $90-100/750ml.  This is delicious, old, deep bourbon that just leaps out of the glass and fills the room.

Overall, I really like the 125th Anniversary bourbon, but not as much as the 2012 version of the Limited Edition Small Batch.  The 2013 bourbon is definitely older with more wood influence, and more elegance.  However, I prefer the sharper, more complex (in my opinion) profile of the 2012 edition.  That is not at all to say that the 125th Anniversary bourbon is not a great bourbon, because it is.  In fact, I suspect that many people with side with Jim Rutledge and say this is the best bourbon to come out of Four Roses because of the combination of sweet, fruity notes with old bourbon qualities.  However, if I could buy but one Four Roses bottle again, it would be the 2012 Limited Edition Small Batch bourbon, as it was my favorite bourbon to this point in my life.   Unfortunately, both of these bourbons are pretty hard to find on shelves nowadays, unless those shelves belong to a wealthy bourbon collector.  With that in mind, the 2014 Four Roses Limited Edition line figures to be just as good, so be ready to jump on the bottles as soon as you see them.

Much thanks to William at A Dram Good Time and Geno at Kappy’s for helping me get my hands on this year’s LE Small Batch!

An Evening with Four Roses

Last week, several other Boston spirits writers and I were invited to an evening with Al Young, Four Roses’ brand ambassador and historian.  It was a wonderful and informative evening, especially for me as a historian (not necessarily of bourbon).  I went from knowing very little about Four Roses distillery and just loving their bourbon as a drinker to loving their bourbon even more from knowing a lot more about the distillery.  This post is only a few highlights from the evening, and not nearly as much as I could write about the history of Four Roses.  If you are interested in learning more about the history of the distillery, I highly recommend adding Al Young’s book, Four Roses: The Return of a Whiskey Legend, to your home library.

From left to right: Yours Truly of Bargain Bourbon, Al Young of Four Roses, and William Gemmell of A Dram Good Time

From left to right: Yours Truly (Phil Conner) of Bargain Bourbon, Al Young of Four Roses, and William Gemmell of A Dram Good Time

One of the questions inevitably asked of Mr. Young was one of those questions that always seems to pop up in American whiskey circles: Why doesn’t Four Roses make a rye whiskey?  Al Young’s answer was simple; Four Roses is pretty damn good at making bourbon.  Period.  I really liked this answer because all too often distilleries are too concerned with being the hottest new thing, which would certainly involve getting in on the rye craze.  But, as Mr. Young pointed out, who knows if rye would still be popular in the next ten years?  Or, more importantly, how do we know that Four Roses would make a good rye, being that rye is a difficult and fickle grain to distill?

Under the direction of Jim Rutledge (Four Roses’ Master Distiller since 1995), Four Roses has become one of the finest distilleries in the world.  Whisky Magazine has named Four Roses their American Distillery of the Year for three years running.  Their standard bourbon releases are all very good, and their limited releases are some of the best bourbons released every year.  Last year’s Limited Edition Small Batch is still my favorite bourbon to date (named American Whiskey of the Year by Whisky Advocate Magazine).  My point (echoing Mr. Young) is that Four Roses makes great bourbon, and they are a distillery that wants to stand for quality, not trends, and I am a huge fan of that philosophy.

One of the other questions that often comes up in whiskey conversations is about sourced whiskey, and how much Four Roses is distilling for themselves and how much is being shipped out under contract to other bottlers.  I was excited to hear that Four Roses is intending to phase out their sourcing contracts.  By the end of 2014, Four Roses expects to be making exclusively Four Roses bourbon.  While it might seem like a bad thing because Four Roses would have no place to send the whiskey they did not want under their own label, I think Four Roses takes such great pride in their bourbon that they will continue to bottle the very best bourbons on the market, and hopefully the future will yield more of it for Four Roses’ consumers to enjoy.

My last two highlights of the evening both showcase one of my mottos here at Bargain Bourbon – bourbon is all in personal taste and preference.  First, I was somewhat surprised when Mr. Young enjoyed himself a Manhattan with Four Roses Small Batch.  He said it was his favorite way to drink his favorite Four Roses bourbon, which leads me to my second point.  Al Young said his favorite bourbon was Four Roses Small Batch because of the red fruit notes and subtle spiciness to the bourbon.  In his opinion, this gives Four Roses Small Batch more versatility than the other bourbons in the lineup, making it great neat, on the rocks, with a splash of water, or in a cocktail.  For the record, I like my bourbon neat, and I love Four Roses Single Barrel for its soft sweetness and balanced approach between sweet, woody, and spicy.  It just goes to show that everybody has their own opinion, and that’s what makes bourbon and Four Roses so enjoyable to drink.

Al Young drinks his Four Roses Small Batch in a Manhattan, and I drink my Four Roses Single Barrel neat.  What’s your favorite Four Roses bourbon and your favorite way to drink it?  Comment here, or hit me up at my Facebook page or on Twitter.  In the meantime, drink your bourbon and let it ride!  

Four Roses Single Barrel Review

I apologize for my brief hiatus in posts.  I was in the Outer Banks, and I just felt like enjoying the moment rather than blogging about bourbon.  However, that does not mean I love blogging about bourbon any less.  To prove it, I have decided to review one of my favorite bourbons this evening: Four Roses Single Barrel (if you must know, I am currently enjoying Barrel 4-3K).

I have reviewed several Four Roses products before, and I have concluded that they are all very good value.  The Single Barrel is the top-shelf standard offering from Four Roses, and it does not disappoint.  It is bottled at 100 proof, higher than any other Four Roses product.  However, it does not drink like 100 proof whiskey.  It is the perfect combination of gentleness and power.

On the nose, Four Roses Single Barrel is mostly sweet, but it has some balancing notes of spices and flowers.  There are notes of cinnamon, rye, vanilla, dark chocolate, and roses.  On the palate, the Single Barrel is primarily sweet and rich.  It moves from lighter sweet flavors (berries, light vanilla) to denser, heavier sweet flavors (dark chocolate, sweet oak, toffee).  The finish is long, warming, and complex.  It begins with the oak integrating well with the sweet flavors of vanilla, cinnamon, and honey.  However, the whiskey finishes strong with a powerful burst of rich, bittersweet dark chocolate and cinnamon spice.

Overall, Four Roses Single Barrel is a phenomenal bourbon whiskey.  It is robust, complex, and unique.  The sweetness makes it a perfect dessert bourbon (if you are into that sort of thing), but it is the kind of whiskey that can be enjoyed at any time of the day.  My grade:  A-.  Price: $35-40/750ml.  This is a wonderful whiskey, worth every penny (in my opinion).

Four Roses Small Batch Review

At the recommendation of a good bourbon companion of mine, I picked up a bottle of Four Roses Small Batch the other day.  As it turns out, it was the perfect time to do so.  Like its little brother, Four Roses Yellow Label, the small batch bourbon from Four Roses is a perfect bourbon for warm summer nights.  Four Roses Distillery uses ten different recipes for their bourbons, which makes it one of the most diverse bourbon distilleries around.  Four Roses Small Batch is a batching of four of these different recipes with various ages, and there is no age statement on the bottle.  It is bottled at 90 proof, but it drinks just as smooth as its 80 proof little brother.

On the nose, Four Roses is light, spicy, floral, and fruity.  It reminds a little of a Lowland Scotch.  There are notes of lemon and orange peels, cinnamon, ginger, some nutmeg, and some rye spiciness.  The palate is a very solid blend of sweet and spicy flavors.  Four Roses Small Batch has a silky texture to it, backed up by the combination of berries and citrus fruits with rye peppiness.  The finish is long and well-executed, with some rye kick followed up by oranges, sour apples, honey, and caramel.

Truthfully, Four Roses Small Batch surprised me.  It is unlike any other bourbon I have had in that it is very light and floral throughout.  However, it still has enough kick to drink like a bourbon.  My only complaint is that it can be a little rough around the edges, especially when the rye presents itself in the finish.  I think the quality of Four Roses Small Batch is something that Basil Hayden’s could achieve if it were bottled at slightly higher proof.  This is definitely a very good bourbon, especially on a warm night.  My grade: B/B-.  Price: $25-30/750ml.  This is a unique whiskey, that makes a great standard pour, especially if you are looking to introduce Scotch drinkers to bourbon.

Four Roses Yellow Label Review

My first bourbon review in the history of Bourbon for Beginners is of Four Roses Yellow from the Four Roses distillery.  The reason I am reviewing this bourbon first is because I think it is the best value bourbon that I have ever had.  It is a bourbon that is great for newcomers to whiskey because it is only 80 proof and it is very soft throughout.  It is very mellow on the palate, and the finish is smooth and subtle.  This bourbon is not aged very long, so it doesn’t have the heavy oak notes that some bourbons have.  Fruity and floral notes control the whiskey for the most part, which makes it a great bourbon for the beach, or for anyone looking to experience bourbon at its most basic level for under $20.  My grade: C+/B-.  Price: $20-25/750ml.  This is a nice standard pour, especially for price.  It does not offer a ton of complexity, but it is a great introduction to bourbon.