I’ve written about Four Roses before. It is a true success story: if you work hard and produce a great and unique product, people will notice. It is one of those brands that, while not on the forefront of many in the bourbon community, does produce consistent quality product with a unique taste profile. I confess that I’m one of those, as time and time again, I’ll grab a bottle, enjoy a pour, and then remark, “Why don’t I keep that around a little more often?”.
Belle of the Ball
The Four Roses name is founded on the legend of Paul Jones Jr. In his youth, he was captivated by the beauty of a Southern belle. When he proposed to her, he instructed her that if her answer was “yes”, she should wear a corsage of roses during the grand ball. When they met at the grand ball, Jones’s belle was wearing a corsage of, not one rose, but four red roses – hence the legend was born. As his bourbon business boomed, his passion for bourbon was equal only to his passion for his Southern belle. Honest! You can’t make this stuff up!
THe rise and fall and rise of four roses
You’ll recall that today, Four Roses is owned by Kirin – the Japanese spirits juggernaut. Seven decades ago, it was completely different. The facts get a little cloudy, but we know that Paul Jones Jr. set up offices in 1884 on “Whiskey Row” in downtown Louisville. By 1888, he had trademarked the name Four Roses, though his production history went back to the 1860s. In 1922, Frankfort Distilling Company purchased the company. This was one of the few companies to continue to sell medicinal whiskey during Prohibition.
In 1943, Seagram purchased Frankfort Distilling, gaining the rights to what was then one of the most revered bourbon names in the industry – Four Roses. While Four Roses was the top selling bourbon during the 1930s – 1950s in America, Seagram decided to move the brand overseas to the rapidly expanding markets in Europe and Asia.
By the 1960s, the Four Roses brand in the United States was a shadow of its former glory – left with a blended bourbon and grain-neutral spirit combination. It wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that master distiller Jim Rutledge started working to return Four Roses to its former glory.
In 2002, Kirin Brewery of Japan acquired Four Roses. Shortly thereafter, Four Roses bourbons returned to shelves across America. Jim Rutledge was replaced by Brent Elliott as master distiller in 2015 and is featured several times in the movie “Neat”.
The tour begins in the newly built visitors center, bedecked with tons of Four Roses product and regalia. Following a brief video on the history of Four Roses and its operations, the tour travels down to the 1910 Spanish Mission-style distillery that looks more appropriate for a Napa Valley winery than a Lawrenceburg, KY distillery. After stepping inside, with the sights, sounds, and smells, you’ll know you’re definitely in a distillery.
Signs along the walkways let you know what’s happening – from cooker, to mashtubs, to the copper column still. A set of stairs lead to a scenic overlook of the 23 fermenters/mashtubs Four Roses utilizes to make their product. Note: this makes a great spot for a well-posed selfie or couples’ shot. The oldest tanks are made from Red Cyprus (now on the endangered list), with newer ones made from Douglas Fir or stainless steel.
Following distillation, the distillate is piped outside into storage tanks. There, they are trucked an hour away to the warehouses at Cox’s Creek where they are barreled and allowed to quietly age in one-story warehouses before being bottled. You may start your tour at either the Lawrenceburg distillery or the Cox’s Creek warehouse location. Either way – hang onto your tour ticket, as it’s good for several months to visit the other site.
All too quickly our tour ended, and we headed back to the Visitor’s Center for our tastings. Here’s where things can get a little complicated. Many distilleries retain a limited number of mashbills (e.g. such as Buffalo Trace has 3 main mashbills – a low-rye, higher-rye, and wheated) and utilize various warehouses and locations to slightly alter the taste of the finished product.
Four Roses takes this concept to a new level. The finished products can be a blend of two mash bills: Mashbill “E” = 75% corn, 20% rye, and 5% malted barley, and Mashbill “B” = 60% corn, 35% rye, and 5% malted barley.
The mash bills are also married to different 5 different yeast strains:
K – spicy, full bodied
Q – slightly fruity, spicy, medium bodied
O – floral (rose petal), spicy, medium bodied
F – herbal
V – delicate fruit, spicy and creamy
The tasting room displays a placard that indicates “2+5=10” denoting that with the 2 mashbills, and 5 yeast strains, 10 distinct bourbons are created and used in various fashions for the finished product.
Four Roses shared 4 unique bourbons with us – the standard Four Roses “Yellow” Label (now a tan label), Small Batch, Single Barrel, and the newest addition – Small Batch Select.
Four Roses “Yellow” [Tan] Label
Carries no age statement but is thought to be around 5+ years old. It is bottled at a low 80 proof. It is a blend of all 10 recipes, with batch sizes ranging from 200-400 barrels. The average age is around 5 ½ years, though barrels typically range from 4-12 years. Eye: Light in color – like an herbal tea. Nose: There is fruit and floral – like peach or apple blossoms. Palate: This is soft and pleasant, with more fruits and floral. It’s very well balanced with none overpowering the other. Finish: Like biting into a honeycrisp apple – crisp with fruit characteristics. It doesn’t stick around long but is soft and followed by a little spice. Overall: This is a really nicely made everyday bourbon. Comfortable neat or in a cocktail, it’s like slipping into a pair of well-worn slippers after a long day. I like this but wish it had just a smidge more proof to hold up to an ice ball.
Four Roses Small Batch
Carries no age statement but is thought to be around 6-7 years and is made from batches of around 250 barrels. It is bottled at 90 proof and is a blend of 4 select bourbons: OBSK, OESK, OBSO, and OESO. The first letter – O – denotes the Four Roses production facility. The second letter denotes the mashbill – E or B. The third letter is always S and denotes “straight whiskey”. The fourth letter denotes the yeast strain – for small batch this is K and O yeast strains. Eye: medium copper. Nose: wood and oak with some light floral notes, stone fruits, and caramel. Palate: Oak, spice, more fruit and a rich creamy mouthfeel. Finish: Smooth and mellow with caramel, fruit, and a dry oaky spice. Overall: This is exceptionally smooth with a balanced profile. This is one that I need to keep around a little more often!
Four Roses Single Barrel
Carries no age statement but is thought to be around 6-7 years and is made from batches of around 250 barrels. It is bottled at 100 proof and is from a single recipe – OBSV – the higher rye mashbill with the fruity, spicy and creamy yeast profile. Eye: amber. Nose: delicate flowers along with rich vanilla – floral and light. Palate: Plenty of rye spice followed by honey sweetness and some peach oak, and caramel notes. This will coat your entire tongue., spice, more fruit and a rich creamy mouthfeel. Finish: Smooth and mellow with caramel, fruit, and a dry oaky spice. Overall: This is one of my favorite FR expressions.
Four Roses Small Batch Select
Carries no age statement, but is a blend of 6-7 year-old barrels. It is bottled at 104 proof. The mashbill varies, including the 75% corn/ 20% rye /5% barley and the 60% corn/35% rye/5% barley bills. Price is around $60 and is currently limited to KY, NY, CA, TX and GA, with rollout slated to the rest of the US in the future. Eye: Medium-reddish copper. Nose: Different and yet similar to the other FR products. There are floral notes, but more fruity – like peach or apple blossoms. Palate: Loads of baking spices, including clove and nutmeg, yet also traditional flavors of vanilla and caramel. It has a lovely rich and creamy sensation. Finish: Medium-long with spice, oak, subtle fruits and even a bit of mint. This is very well done and hats off to Master Distiller Brent Elliott on an exceptional blend of sensations that, while is in the Four Roses “vein”, is also uniquely distinct.
Four Roses is a brand I enjoy having on hand. Our tour guide was great and the facility was top notch (be sure to check out the bow tie collection!). It’s not always in the cabinet, but I certainly enjoy it when it is. It carries a fine character and is very well balanced. The fruity, floral notes are a unique one that sets Four Roses apart from many of the competitors.