Review: Four Roses Is the Best Affordable Bourbon, But Their Small-Batch Stuff Is Even Better
The 2020 Limited Edition Small Batch release highlights the distillery's unique, 10-recipe approach to whiskey
What we’re drinking: Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch
Where it’s from: Four Roses is a Lawrenceburg, KY-based distillery that was extremely popular in the United States in the early 20th century before being sidelined as an exclusive release for Europe and Asia (distribution returned stateside in the early aughts). The distillery releases a few limited editions every year, including this September’s unveiling of the latest LE Small Batch — a non-chill-filtered and barrel-strength bourbon. It’s both an annual highlight and the most difficult bottle of Four Roses to procure.
To really understand Four Roses, you have to know how much goes into the bottle. And the magic number here is 10. “It all starts out with our 10 recipes,” explains Master Distiller Brent Elliott. By 10 he means two mashbills across five proprietary yeast strains, so that you end up with 10 total bourbon recipes, each one providing a unique flavor experience.
While the standby Four Roses Bourbon blends all 10 into an engaging and crowd-pleasing 80-proof sipper (more on that below), the LE Small Batch focuses on just four recipes, with barrels aged from 12-19 years and highlighting fruit and spice notes.
“Each year our goal is to create something smooth and mellow; that’s the philosophy and benchmark of all Four Roses, but the Small Batch we want to make both unique and different from years past,” says Elliott (apparently not caring that smooth is now a verboten word in whiskey). “We can showcase versatility utilizing different batches and recipes.”
Why we’re drinking this: Before we wrote about whiskey, we simply enjoyed it. And we drank a lot of Four Roses in dive bars around Brooklyn; it was the only bourbon that ever hit that sweet spot of affordability and quality.
We’d actually call it a gateway bourbon, though we still enjoy FR’s flagship release as much as we ever did, even as our tastes have grown more expansive (and expensive).
I shared my experience with Elliott, FR’s distiller. “I get similar feedback often,” he tells InsideHook. “People are still discovering Four Roses here — we strive to maintain our availability and value as we grow.”
So why should we upgrade to a hard-to-find (there’s even a lottery) $150 limited edition if we can score an everyday Four Roses bottle for $30 and sip it at any Brooklyn dive for as little as $7?
“We create a variety of products with a wide range of flavor characteristics,” says Elliott. “They’ll have completely different flavor profiles than our other products. And each year is different in the recipes that we use; the flavor profiles also reflect the extra age that consumers have come to expect with these releases.”
Fair enough. Let’s dive in.
How it tastes: The LE Small Batch is certainly more complex than the core Four Roses release — and at 111.4 proof, a lot stronger.
You’ll get orange peel, honey and red berries on the nose. A bit of oak gets into the palate, but it doesn’t overwhelm the pear, spice and apricot notes. Both mashbills at Four Roses utilize a robust rye percentage (20 and 35%), which is more evident on the finish, which has a kick.
By limiting and highlighting just four recipes and picking from older barrels, this new release turns what I considered an easy-going bourbon to something far more engaging and nuanced with a real backbone. Enjoy the core product on nights out — on nights in, sip this one.
Fun fact: The yeast/mashbill combos at Four Roses use a four-letter system to differentiate themselves. So this Small Batach release is a combination of OBSV, OBSK, OESV and OESK barrels — while both mashbills are represented, the three yeast strains that were not used this year are the ones that would normally impart notes of rich fruit, floral essences and herbal notes.
Where you can buy it: Like we said, there’s a lottery. Or get friendly with your local liquor store.
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