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 its 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, their Single Barrel Bourbon, and their newest addition Small Batch Select. They also release much sought after limited-edition barrel-proof 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). Four Roses Master Distiller Brent Elliot then uses these 10 distinct recipes, either individually or blended, to produce the entire Four Roses product range. Their Kentucky Straight Bourbon uses all ten, their Small Batch and Small Batch select uses four of the recipes, and their standard Single Barrel uses just one. 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.
Released on an annual basis during Bourbon Heritage Month (September) since 2008, Four Roses’ Limited Edition Small Batch is a barrel proof blend of bourbon that’s crafted by Four Rose’s Master Distiller Brent Elliott using up to 4 of their 10 distinct recipes. With each year’s release featuring either a unique blend of Four Roses’ recipes, or the same blend of recipes but at different ages, a very strong following has evolved around these bottlings with fans eager to rank previous releases against the newest release. This year’s release features a blend of 3 bourbon recipes all aged into the double digits and consists of:
8% 21 y.o. OBSV – 25% 15 y.o. OESK – 40% 15 y.o. OESV – 27% 11 y.o. OESV
The final product was then let mingle for a few months before being bottled at 112.6 proof (56.3% ABV) without any filtration other than a mesh to remove barrel char. This release also marked the first global release to featured a 21 year old bourbon (2017’s Al Young’s 50th Anniversary Small Batch included 23 y.o. bourbon but was a US-only release).
Name: Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch
Age: 11 y.o.
Proof: 112.6 proof (56.3% ABV)
Type: Kentucky straight bourbon
Mashbill: OE mashbill = 75% corn, 20% rye, 5% malted barley | OB mashbill = 60% corn, 35% rye, 5% malted barley
Producer: Four Roses Distillery, Lawrenceburg, KY
Nose: The nose opens thick and complex with deep brown sugar syrup and sour cherries before notes of sweet red fruit dusted in powdered sugar and floral vanilla emerge. These eventually fade to reveal notes of earthy baking spices, old leather, ground cloves, unsweetened cacao powder, and charred oak. The longer you spend nosing this bourbon the more the brown sugar syrup notes develop and compliment the existing notes of crushed strawberries and barrel spice, adding to the complexity and enjoyment of the nose.
Palate: The palate greets you with a viscous mouthfeel that carries notes of brown sugar syrup, bourbon-soaked cherries, and crushed red fruit before a kick of earthy rye spice, tannic old oak, dusty cacao, leather, and faintly bitter char emerges from the back.
Finish: The finish opens with a lick of spice before further notes of cacao and bitter charred oak resurface, leaving and aftertaste of old tannic oak, subtle vegetal notes, and unsweetened dark chocolate.
Sipping this whiskey is like drinking a story. It begins viscous, sweet, and complex before developing like a well-paced tale towards darker and earthier territories. Despite boasting a broad range of flavours it never falters on delivering complexity or balance and none of the flavours are overpowering or dominant. Instead the intensity is kept in check, the flavours peel away in layers, and everything works together like a well-greased machine. The older stock adds a dustier, more dark chocolate oak-driven spectrum of flavours whilst the rye adds a subtle warming spice, and the fruity notes both bolster and balance the flavour profile without overpowering or diminishing the overall drinking experience. This year Master Distiller Brent Elliott has outdone himself by producing a whiskey that ticks all the boxes of what makes a great Four Roses bourbon and sipping this I’m sure it can rival any previous release. However, there’s only one way to test this hypothesis for sure and that’s a half-blind taste off!
Last year I did a massive review covering all the Four Roses Limited Edition Small batch bottlings released since 2014. After I reviewed them, I then tasted all 6 blind and ranked them in order of preference. From this taste-off, the top 3 bottlings were: 2015 (1st place), 2018 (2nd place), and 2017 (3rd place). This year there has been numerous instances of Four Roses fans stating that the 2019 bottling is the best bottling post-2014 and so I figured why not do a 4-way blind taste-off between last year’s winners and the 2019 to see where it falls into the overall ranking for me.
To make it as fair as possible all 4 releases were tasted single-blind, meaning I knew I was drinking Four Roses but I didn’t know what year I was drinking. Complicating matters further, I also added a sample of the standard Four Rose’s Single barrel to see how it ranks against these high-end releases. Each year’s sample was poured into a discreetly numbered Glencairn glass and their order randomised so that I had absolutely no idea which glass contained which sample until the very end. Each glass was then tasted against the other glasses and all 5 were ranked 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 2019 release
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 Single Barrel Bourbon
The Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch is one of the most widely-anticipated and highly-ranked limited bourbon releases of the year with fans swarming and queueing for bottles. Every year Four Roses consistently deliver one of the best value-for money releases with the quality of the whiskey far exceeding the recommended retail price. This 2019 release is no exception and it’s clear to see why it caused such a massive stir across the global bourbon community. Drinking it blind alongside the best-tasting releases from as far back as 2014, the quality of the whiskies in the 2019 blend are undeniable and even go as far as to dethrone the long-standing fan-favourite and last year’s winner, the 2015 release. This was very unexpected as the 2015 has always been the stand-out winner in comparisons between the 2014 to 2018 releases. Even as I had whittled the competition down to the two best samples, the 2019 easily beat the 2015. Even in a 5-against-1 gauntlet-style taste-off it was the one sample that consistently beat all others put against it. The 2015 is a complex and deeply flavourful bourbon, but the 2019 release trumped it every time. I don’t know if it was the age of the whiskies used in the blend, the quality of the whiskies, or the specific recipes but it really is like drinking a masterpiece. Four Roses’ Master Distiller Brent Elliott honestly deserves every praise for blending this wonderful bourbon.
In this tasting the real winner was once again me. Although I had to work hard (pfft!) to determine which one of these bourbons was to take the top spot, each is fantastic in their own regard and none have ever disappointed me when I reach for a pour. Four Roses not only have some amazing whiskey stocks but they also have Master Distiller that is truly worth of the title. With how well the 2019 and 2018 releases did in this ranking I’m already looking forward to this year’s release and whether it will beat the 2019 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 my friend Karan who runs @perpetualnectar over on Instagram and traded me a sample of the 2015 Limited Edition Small Batch for this blind taste-off. I also want to thank those who helped me get my hands on a bottle of the 2019 release at retail. Without friends like that this review would not have been possible.