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 40s resulted in Four Roses Kentucky Straight Bourbon becoming an export-only product to the EU and Asia for 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 and brands are set apart from other distilleries in a number of ways. Collectively they 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 making their bourbon Four Roses are very transparent in their approach and strongly emphasise both the contribution of their two mashbills and the unique flavour characteristics imparted by their five yeast strains on the finished product. In fact, Four Roses go so far as to educate their fans on the specific unique flavour profiles that arise from making bourbon by combining these and 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 these 10 recipes, 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. It’s through the process of blending their unique recipes together and using single-story rack-houses that Four Roses achieve consistency across their product.
Four Roses Bourbon
Kentucky Straight Bourbon
80 Proof/ 40% ABV
Nose: The nose opens inoffensive with a mix of faintly burnt caramel, vanilla, sweet red fruit notes, citrus, and some faint earthy rye and smoky oak.
Palate: The palate has a decent viscosity opening with burnt caramel again, followed by a wave of earthy chewy spice, before notes of dark chocolate, faint cherries, slight citrus peel, and smoky oak emerge.
Finish: The finish opens with a kick of spice, some minty oak, and burnt caramel with an aftertaste of faintly charred oak.
This bourbon is inoffensive and light, however, to be honest when it comes to 80 proof bourbons you’re rarely going to be blown away. Instead at this strength beginners get an easy introduction into those hallmark flavours of bourbon and Four Roses. As you warm the glass in your hand more flavours of faint dark chocolate and red fruit. There’s nothing overwhelming or particularly stand out in this whiskey but that’s the whole point in my opinion. By its very design it’s a soft introduction, easy drinker, and good mixer for cocktails that require a bit of oak-driven bourbon flavours. On the palate it actually has a good bit of push behind it flavour and spice-wise reminding you that this is a mix of bourbons with a decent amount of rye grain in the recipes.
Four Roses Small Batch
Kentucky Straight Bourbon
90 Proof/ 45% ABV
Nose: The nose opens with deep caramel, faint vanilla, sweet red fruit, earthy baking spices, hints of minty oak, toasted oak and a touch of barrel smoke.
Palate: The palate is viscous, opening with red fruit stewed in brown sugar, a dash of peppery rye spice, minty oak, slight dark chocolate, and faint citrus with a touch of toasted oak lingers in the back and adds a delicious tannic edge.
Finish: The finish opens with a flash of spice before notes of sweet caramel, red fruits, toasted oak , and peppery spice fade away to an aftertaste of tannic oak that dries the cheeks.
Wow! This is already a massive step up from the yellow label on all fronts. The nose is complex and luscious with all those classic Four Roses flavours teasing out as you sniff it. There’s also more of a balance between deep caramel and the red fruit notes in this one as the earthy rye and oak spice found in the yellow label take a back seat role and are replaced with minty and toasted oak instead. The oak influence also smells older and more well-rounded than the Yellow Label. The palate is a flavour explosion as the classic Four Roses flavour profile emerges and gives the drinker an excellent drinking experience overall. There’s also a lovely complexity and body in both the palate and the finish with this whiskey. The Yellow Label in comparison is more basic with simplistic red fruit and charred spice governing the profile.
Four Roses Single Barrel
Kentucky Straight Bourbon
100 Proof/ 50% ABV
Nose: The nose opens with deep caramel, slightly sour red fruit and cherries, dark chocolate, hints of leather, white pepper, baking spices, and smoky oak.
Palate: The palate opens viscous and creamy at first before complex notes of deep brown sugar, leather, fresh black cherries and red fruit emerge followed by a wave of dry peppery rye, warm baking spices, and a touch of barrel smoke as the notes of dark and red fruit notes continue to interact with an almost charcoal-y and herbaceous note.
Finish: The finish opens with a wave of earthy leathery spice followed by bitter barrel char, black pepper, a touch of cherries and an aftertaste of slightly tannic charred toasted oak.
This is damn fine bourbon. The palate oozes a balance of red fruit, black cherries, old leathery oak, earthy, peppery rye, herbaceous barrel char, and a dash of smoke. It’s solid, intensely flavourful, and well balanced between sweet and spicy notes with a touch of sour to top it off. The Yellow Label in comparison to this drinks almost like watered-down bottom shelf bourbon with much more muted notes and a lot more peanut butter notes and only a fraction of the spice. Compared to the Small Batch this again has more flavour intensity and also a bit more oak char and herbaceousness to compliment the increased red fruit notes. It also leaves the Small Batch tasting muted but has an almost equal amount of rye spice on the palate, and less burnt caramel and charred oak influence. The OBSV recipe used in the Single Barrel release is a fantastic ambassador for the great-tasting bourbon that Four Roses produce through their unique production methods, it’s spicy, complex, and packed full of fruit flavours that hit several sweet spots on the palate and when put into a whiskey cocktail really represent those bourbon flavours very well. Bottled at 100 proof it also gives the more proof-oriented bourbon drinker a bourbon that’s both a decent proof and doesn’t compromise on flavour. Personally, when I tasted the Single Barrel for the first time I knew there was no turning back and I straight away went out and picked up 6 more bottles to have as backups and gifts for friends and family. It continues to be one of my favourite readily-available bourbons and one I always have open on the daily sipper shelf.
Through the combination of their two mashbills and 5 unique yeast strains, Four Roses have 10 distinct bourbons available to use, thus putting themselves at a unique advantage in the industry. This advantage not only allows them to blend these together to achieve a unique flavour profile on their flagship products, but it also allows them to do interesting single barrel releases under their Private Select programme, thus protecting themselves from the need to constantly and aggressively innovate. Although 3 different offerings is not a massive range, their core range covers both a wide range of flavours and a wide proof range (from 80-100 proof/40 – 50% ABV) meaning there’s a product for every style of drinker. Another bonus to their core range is that they all fit very well into cocktails, giving 3 options for the maker to choose from when it comes to how much bourbon influence they want in the finished product.
Probably the most interesting aspect of the Four Roses core range is how Master Distiller Brent Elliot takes the base flavour profile of red fruits and earthy rye and build upon these using the different flavour profiles. Drinking the 3 offerings side by side you can also taste how from the Yellow-label to the Small Batch, and finally the Single Barrel the whiskies not only become more complex and flavourful but become less people-pleaser blends with mass appeal to bolder, more flavourful expressions for discerning drinkers. Of the three core products the Single Barrel is my absolute favourite but I’d recommend working your way up to it through the Yellow Label and Small Batch first as they do a great job of warming you up for the show-stopper that it is.