With 130 years of history behind it, the Four Roses brand has persevered through many challenges to become the renowned bourbon icon it is today. Once the top-selling Bourbon in the U.S., a takeover by Seagrams in the late 1940s resulted in Four Roses Kentucky Straight Bourbon becoming an export-only product to the EU and Asia for several decades. It wasn’t until the early 2000’s that the purchase of the brand and production facilities by the Kirin Brewing Company resulted in the brand being returned to the US market as a Kentucky Straight Bourbon. Under the watchful eyes of then-Master Distiller Jim Rutledge and now Brent Elliott, the past 16 years has seen the brand become extremely popular once again in both the US and globally. The Four Roses core range consists of their Kentucky straight bourbon, their Small Batch bourbon, and their Single Barrel Bourbon. They also release much sought after limited-edition bottlings of either their Small Batch bourbon, Single Barrel bourbon, or both on an annual basis to eager fans.
The Four Roses distillery is unique in its approach to making bourbon. Unlike typical distilleries, Four Roses collectively boast 10 distinct bourbon recipes, made by combining two separate mashbills (E with a low percentage of rye, and B with a high percentage of rye) and 5 proprietary yeast strains (V, K, O, Q, F), that are then exclusively aged in single story rack-houses which face in particular directions (North, South, East, West). When it comes to giving their bourbon its unique flavour profile, Four Roses emphasizes the impact of both their two mashbills and the unique flavour characteristics imparted by their five yeast strains on the finished product. Their two mashbills (E with 20% rye, and B with 35% rye) add different levels of rye influence and spice, as well as caramel flavours due to the difference in the amount of rye used. According to their website, their five yeast strains produce flavours such as delicate fruit (V), slight spice (K), rich fruit (O), floral essence (Q), and herbal notes (F). The Four Roses core range, consisting of their Kentucky straight bourbon, their Small Batch bourbon, and their Single Barrel Bourbon, use one or more of the resulting 10 distinct bourbons, either individually or blended, to produce the desired flavour profiles. Their Kentucky Straight Bourbon uses all ten, their Small Batch uses four of the recipes, and their standard Single Barrel uses just one of the recipes. Through the process of blending their recipes together, and using single-story rack-houses, Four Roses achieve more consistency across their products by using the unique flavours of their 10 recipes.
This year Four Roses are celebrating 130 years of their iconic brand and as such have released a special commemorative bottling of their Limited Edition Small Batch during Bourbon Heritage Month. A blend of 10 year old OBSV bourbon, 13 year old OBSF bourbon, 14 year old OESV bourbon, and 16 year old OESK bourbon, Master Distiller Brent Elliot described his choice of recipes as follows: “From the beginning of the process, I focused on building around the unique fruit flavors in our F and V yeast strains, and these flavors shine through in the finished product. As a contrast, I also included a spicy, older batch. By mingling these different flavor profiles, I think we achieved a wonderfully balanced, complex and unique Bourbon. I could not be happier with the result and can’t wait for you to taste it.”
With raving reviews for this release, and many claiming this the best release of Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch in recent years, I thought I’d do something different and taste it side by side with the Limited Edition Small Batch releases from 2014 to date to see how it places in the rankings. I’ll review each release individually and then compare all six for the final ranking.
Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch 2014
13 y.o. OBSV – 12 y.o. OESV – 11 y.o. OBSF – 9 y.o. OBSK
55.9% abv – 111.8 proof
Nose: The nose opens with a mix of delicate red fruit notes, and dry peppery rye, opening further to reveal caramel, faint vanilla, herbaceous oak, cherries, and baking spices.
Palate: The palate opens buttery and light at first as red fruit mix with tart red apples, grassy rye grain, herbaceous dry oak, pepper spice, and a touch of barrel smoke.
Finish: The finish opens with a kick of spice followed by baking spices, earthy rye, and herbaceous notes with a fruity edge, leaving an aftertaste of hot cinnamon and barrel char that lingers pleasantly.
What a great bourbon to start this line-up with. It’s spicy, flavourful and well balanced with delicate fruit, plenty of spice kick, creaminess, herbaceous mint, and a rich full body. A core note throughout is a caramel-heavy grassy rye note that reminds me of rye whiskies made from 100% rye grains. This combines with sweet stewed red fruit notes and a creamy body to make a delicious whiskey that’s bursting with flavours. The exact proportion of each of the four constituent bourbons has not been released but the presence of the identifying flavours from all four recipes would make me think they’re combined in near-equal proportions.
Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch 2015
11 y.o. OBSV – 15 y.o. OESK – 14 y.o. OESK – 16 y.o. OBSK
54.3 abv – 108.6 proof
Nose: The nose opens with a delicate blend of rich caramel, floral vanilla, sweet red fruits, dry oak spice and a touch of earthiness.
Palate: The palate opens with thick caramel, a flash of stewed plums and baking spices, soft earthy rye, and a dry slightly tannic taste of smoky oak in the back.
Finish: The finish opens with a flash of spice from the palate, followed by burnt caramel, earthy herbaceous oak, and an aftertaste of molasses and tingling rye spice.
A truly spectacular bourbon that is lavish and old whilst being spicy and full of life. I can see why this is the favoured Limited Edition Small Batch for many – it really sets the bar high. The nose pulls you in and the palate follows thick, syrupy, and bursting with flavour. Chewing on it you get dark molasses and red fruit combined with a chewy, spicy oak that is old and earthy, yet bold and spicy. The finish echoes the palate and once the oak and rye spice fades you’re left with soft tingling flavours of burnt caramel and herbaceous oak that cling to the tongue and cheeks as flashes of cinnamon linger. I’m not sure if it’s the age of the bourbons used in the blend but there’s a great balance between old oak and young spice that meet in the middle to create something truly special.
Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch 2016
12 y.o. OBSV – 12 y.o. OESO – 16 y.o. OESF
55.6 abv – 111.2 proof
Nose: The nose opens with creamy caramel, deep red fruit, white pepper spice, and a kick of charred oak.
Palate: The palate opens thick and very sweet with red fruit covered in thick powdered sugar. However, as the sweetness fades slight caramel combines with the red fruit note before a kick of spice and a note of charred oak comes from the back and dominates the palate.
Finish: The finish opens with bitter burnt caramel, baking spices, dry tannic oak and has an aftertaste of barrel char, tannic oak, and spice.
As Master Distiller Brent Elliott’s first solo release this bourbon broke the mold we’ve seen with the previous two releases and gave fans a bourbon that was packed full of intense flavours. Initially it’s creamy and almost sugary sweet, before this quickly fades to more serious red fruit, rye spice, herbaceousness, and a hefty kick of earthy charred oak in a show of force unlike the previous two releases which taste more balanced and light in comparison. That being said this is a delicious bourbon. It holds its own again the previous releases with its only pitfall coming from the intensity of the herbaceous charred oak note that dominates the back of the palate.
Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch 2017
12 y.o. OESV – 15 y.o. OESK – 13 y.o. OESK
53.9 abv – 107.8 proof
Nose: The nose opens with a potent blend of light, creamy caramel, floral vanilla, and red fruit with a vegetal earthy oak spice.
Palate: The palate is quite thick opening with sweet, creamy, yet deep caramel notes, dried red fruit, maple syrup, and a very subtle rye spice as tannic oak also slightly drys out the tongue the longer you chew it.
Finish: The finish opens with a wave of herbaceous oak spice which then leads to slightly burnt caramel and an aftertaste of toffee and minty oak.
The 2017 release saw a big improvement over the bold flavours of the 2016 and reverts back to those mellow Four Roses notes we enjoy so much. The lower percentage of rye has definitely made the sweet fruity notes, syrupy caramel and complex maple syrup notes flourish. It’s very nice and well rounded with no off-putting dominant notes: the kind of bourbon you don’t have to think about, just sit back and enjoy. It brings classical Four Roses flavours but without spice to burn out the nuances at barrel proof and is quite well balanced between its sweet, spicy, and herbaceous flavours. This one is also interesting because the European release was .1% lower in proof than the US release due to evaporation whilst the bourbon was waiting to be dumped and bottled into the 700 ml bottles.
Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch 2017 Al Young
13 y.o. OESV – 23 y.o. OBSV – 12 y.o. OBSF – 15 y.o. OBSK
53.8 abv – 107.6 proof
Nose: The nose opens with deep creamy toffee, mashed up fresh black cherries, baking spices, a kick of ethanol, returning to sweet red fruit and a touch of minty and smoky oak.
Palate: The palate opens creamy and sweet before a wave of rye spice comes from the back carrying with it red fruit, grassy rye notes, and a touch of barrel smoke. As the rye spice fades you’re left with caramelized red fruit and a dash of old oak astringency.
Finish: The finish opens with the same rye kick, followed by red fruit, burnt caramel and an aftertaste of old minty oak and faint baking spices.
Another classic bourbon from Four roses, even before you’ve tasted it the nose gives big bold notes telling you that this is going to be a complex pour, and it delivers. It’s thick, complex, and has great body, with the influence from the older bourbons coming through and rounding out all the flavours by adding old, minty oak and old antique polish notes. An interesting thing about this release is that it used the exact same 4 recipes as we saw in the 2014 Small Batch, just at different ages. This would account for the grassy rye notes I got here that were similar to those I got in the 2014 Small Batch release. Like the 2014 release this also is very heavy on the rye spice but it’s important to note that the spice doesn’t dominate or overwhelm the other flavours, instead it intensifies and revitalizes them. What sets this release apart from the others is the undeniable old oak and rye notes that come through as you’re drinking this which really add a delicious mature element to this bourbon that the other releases seem to lack. It’s the perfect blend to commemorate Senior Brand Ambassador Al Young’s 50 years working for the brand.
Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch 2018
10 y.o. OBSV – 13 y.o. OBSF – 14 y.o. OESV – 16 y.o. OESK
54.2 abv – 108.4 proof
Nose: The nose opens with deep rich brown sugar, stewed plums and cherries with earthy rye spice and a dash of smoky oak.
Palate: The palate opens with a burst of flavour as plums stewed in thick brown sugar washes over the tongue fading to floral vanilla, creamy toffee, a dash of hot rye spice, and barrel smoke.
Finish: The finish opens with white pepper, dry oak, deep caramel, and slight red fruit with a smoky minty oaky aftertaste.
This 2018 release is absolutely delicious. The flavours are strong and complex but very well balanced and just flood the palate with delicious red fruit notes of plums and cherries combined with deep brown sugar caramel, a touch of rye spice, and a smoky oak note that adds depth. It’s very good and very flavourful and I’d recommend to drink it slowly and over time to fully savour the taste. It doesn’t taste particularly old but is very vibrant in its flavours. It’s been blended to perfection with plenty of red stone fruit taking the main stage here. The rye spice does a great job balancing the dry, tannic, minty oak and the red fruit caramel sweetness with each other. This is not only a strong competitor in this line-up but I’m beginning to think it’s a strong competitor against several other limited releases from this year.
The Final Showdown
Now for the part many of you are here for, an epic 6-way vertical side-by-side. This was probably the hardest part of all this as comparing 6 barrel proof blends on a like-for-like basis is complicated at best. To make it an even playing field all 6 were tasted single-blind as I knew the 6 bourbons that I would be tasting. However, they were poured into discreetly numbered Glencairn glasses and their order randomised so that I would have absolutely no idea which glass contained which year until the very end after I had ranked them in order of overall enjoyability. All samples had been given a week to oxidize (just in case this was a factor). The results were as follows:
Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch 2015 release
Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch 2018 release
Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch 2017 release
Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch Al Young’s 50th Anniversary (2017)
Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch 2014 release
Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch 2016 release
The Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch is one of the most highly anticipated limited releases every year with fans swarming for bottles, and it’s no surprise as to why. These bourbons continue to be one of the best limited edition annual releases for the quality of the bourbon that you’re getting for the price. The 2015 release taking the top spot in this vertical came as a bit of a surprise considering the competition it faced. I expected, and hoped, that one of the other popular releases such as the 2018 release or the Al Young’s 50th Anniversary release would take the top spot as they are both excellent bourbons, but alas, when tasted blind the 2015 was the deserving winner and it almost killed me to take a sip of water each time I had to compare it to another sample because I didn’t want it to end. As I tasted the samples in a 5 against 1 gauntlet-style taste-off it was the one sample that was consistently beating all others put against it. The 2015 is a complex and deeply flavourful bourbon and it truly earned the top spot in this review. I don’t know if it was the age of the whiskies used in the blend or the recipes but it really is like drinking a piece of art and Four Roses ex-Master Distiller Jim Rutledge honestly deserves every praise for blending such a spectacular pour. It was truly a bitter sweet moment when I finished the last of my two 50ml samples. On one side I had drank all the little 2015 release that I had, but on the other hand I got to drink one of the best bourbons I’ve ever tasted.
In this tasting the real winner was me, and although one of these bourbons had to take the top spot each is fantastic in their own regard and never disappoints when I reach for a pour. Four Roses really are creating some amazing whiskey and with how well the 2018 and 2017 releases did in the ranking I’m already looking forward to this year’s release and whether it will beat the 2015 release. The only logical step now is to try and source releases that date back further than 2014 to see which small batch really dominates the rest.
Finally I want to thank everyone who helped me either source a bottle of Limited Edition Small Batch at retail or provided me with a sample of those I couldn’t source. Without friends like that this review would not have been possible.