Why Four Roses Is Our Distillery of the Year
A bourbon legacy forges a unique path in the face of wild growth
It was Tuesday, December 7th when bourbon fans started lining up for a special 20-year single barrel release from Four Roses.
The problem? No one was supposed to know about it. “Somebody on social media found out about it a day early and we already have people camping out,” noted a Four Roses rep at the Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, distillery.
Unfortunately for those early-rising whiskey enthusiasts, they were turned away. The 20-year release was supposed to debut the following day, along with the public opening of the distillery’s brand new visitor center.
But that unintended early leak just shows the passion of Four Roses fans, who undoubtedly returned the following morning to pick up a bottle — they’d be sold out in a few hours — and also take in that new visitor center, a pleasantly light-filled and immersive 14,000square-foot building with white oak floors that beautifully showcases the brand’s 133-year history.
While the brand is over a century old, the new building marks an incredible two-decade renaissance for what we know as Four Roses today. The whiskey, extremely popular in the United States in the early 20th century, was actually sidelined into an exclusive release for Europe and Asia for decades. It only returned stateside in early 2002 — note the not-coincidental, nearly 20-year time frame there — as a subsidiary of Kirin Brewing Company.
“The visitor center is the next step in the ongoing investment of Four Roses in Kentucky,” as Four Roses CEO/President Satoko Yoshida noted during the visitor center’s ribbon cutting ceremony, which was attended by about 80 staff, media and special guests, including Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear (note: the event took place a few days before tornados ravaged parts of the state). “There’s been a 40 percent increase in visitors here over the past five years. And we’ve also doubled distillation capacity to meet demand and built new warehouses.”
As for why the Governor was there? As Beshear noted in his remarks, bourbon is an $8.6 billion industry that provides the state with 20,000 jobs. Add in another nine billion in tourism revenue, and it’s easy to see why a historical distillery undergoing both massive growth and an expansion would be a must-stop for a local government head. “Bourbon has revolutionized the tourism industry in the state,” he noted.
After those remarks — and a few drinks at the visitor center’s 1883 Bar — we took a tour of the distillery with Master Distiller Brent Elliott, who provided more context about the surge in popularity with Four Roses.
“When I started here in 2005, there was no marketing department, no one in sales and just one HR person,” he remembers. “And I didn’t really even know what Four Roses was until just before my interview! I tried it the day before; I lived in Tennessee, and you could only get it in Kentucky at the time. This was all before the bourbon boom.”
While Four Roses has certainly expanded its footprint, distribution and distilling capacity at an exponential rate over the past two decades, the bourbon’s core makeup remains unchanged. Each release is still the result of two mashbills and five yeast strains put together in different combinations.
Last year, we were wowed by Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch, and even more so by this year’s 20-year single barrel (which brings in some leathery and tobacco notes). But while each release is unique, there is an underlying philosophy at work. As Elliott told us in 2020: “Each year our goal is to create something smooth and mellow; that’s the philosophy and benchmark of all Four Roses. We can showcase versatility utilizing different batches and recipes.”
For me, Four Roses has been a staple in my drinking for years; their core release is versatile, mellow and complex all at once. It’s great for sipping, in cocktails and, most importantly, it’s really affordable and easy to find; if you were forced to pick one bourbon for the rest of your life, you couldn’t do better.
And the Small Batch and limited-edition releases? While a little more expensive, they highlight and emphasize different flavor profiles (while also upping the ABV); these are the whiskeys you’ll want to savor.
Those ten bourbon recipes are also at the core of the exceedingly popular single barrel program. “We have VIP guests come in to hand select barrels from all 10 recipes, and that now happens twice a day,” Elliott notes. “And when we do special releases for the visitor center, like this week? It’s like Christmas morning here. Everything’ll be gone in two hours.”
While Elliott notes the distillery would love to experiment even more than they already do — perhaps with more yeast strains, mashbills or even a dedicated rye release (there’s a lot of rye in any Four Roses release) — demand has made it difficult. “We’re growing so fast,” he says. “Thanks to the recent expansions, this is the first time in ten years we do have some capacity, but now we don’t necessarily have warehouse space.”
One place Four Roses has been able to take a surprisingly quick foothold? Collaborations with the beer industry – both New Belgium (Oakspire) and Brooklyn Brewery (Black Ops) have utilized Four Roses barrels for special releases this year. “We’ve actually done numerous collaborations with breweries, but only those two have been branded,” as Ryan Ashley, COO & Director, Distillery Operations, tells us. “Although collaborations aren’t our main focus, it does allow us some relatively fast turn around of variations in beer versus experimentation and tweaks to bourbon that can take years to yield an outcome. With beer and bourbon we’re able to be creative in a smaller space with quicker gratifying results. And much like our five different yeast strains, breweries often utilize multiple yeast strains to provide authenticity and complexity in their offerings.”
So while you can continue to see new ideas from Four Roses in the near future — that 20-year may make another appearance — it’ll take time. “If we want to do something new it’ll happen in the next couple of years. Now is the time to start talking about it,” says Elliott, before a rather honest assessment. “But at the moment, we’re kind of busy.”
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