We are living in a golden era of bourbon. And like with any trend, there will be opportunists and charlatans looking to capitalize on the financial opportunity of the moment, but what's wonderful about the current atmosphere is the emphasis on history, authenticity, and tradition, coupled with a healthy respect for innovation. Today's bourbons sit firmly within that framework, superb examples of the quality of spirit coming out of a top-class distiller at the peak of its game.
Four Roses is one of the few bourbon companies that can claim an active lineage of 100 years or longer. Granted a license to distill whiskey for medicinal purposes during Prohibition, the company traces its lineage back to its registered trademark in 1888. This type of history can sometimes be misleading, as ownership changed hands several times over the years, and production practices have varied, to say the least. Four Roses bourbon was largely pulled from American shelves in the 1960s by then owner Seagrams, with the premium bourbons headed overseas to Asia and Europe.
Now owned by Kirin Brewery Company of Japan, Four Roses has been making quite a comeback in the US market, winning critical acclaim and popular appeal with benchmark bourbon and transparency in its production methods. One of the few major distillers that not only uses five different yeasts in two different mash bills (one standard and one high-rye), but also discloses its mash bills and yeasts with each release, they're celebrating a 125th anniversary this year with the release of a pair of exceptional bourbons. But enough history, let's drink!
Single Barrel Limited Edition 2013
This vintage single barrel offering is the OBSK recipe (high-rye mash bill of 60% corn, 35% rye, 5% malted barley, and proprietary yeast "K" known for a spicy profile) aged to 13 years. It's a huge, bold bourbon, yet doesn't sacrifice the trademark luscious Four Roses body. Starting with big rye spice, cinnamon, and oak aromas, the taste settles down to a more complex sweet and spicy profile, with dark chocolate and an intriguing nuttiness chasing each other around.
Finishing fruity with a healthy burn, it's a thoroughly uncompromising experience. A little water goes a long way, rounding out the rougher edges and emphasizing the lighter, fruitier notes of cherry and apple. (Note: our review sample came in 119.3 proof, but on the shelf you're more likely to find a range from 100.6 to 114.4, which are likely better proofs to drink neat). While not quite as well balanced as the 2012 single barrel, it's more of a statement whiskey, and still head and shoulders above most other single barrel offerings on the market. It's available now around $70 a bottle.
Small Batch Limited Edition: 125th Anniversary
Where to begin with this beauty... so it's a blend of three recipes and ages of straight bourbon: an 18-year OBSV, a 13-year OBSK, and a 13-year OESK. Translation: an old high-rye mash bill with a delicate fruity yeast, a younger high-rye mash bill with a spicier yeast, and a younger lower-rye mash bill (75% corn, 20% rye, 5% malted barley) with the same spicy yeast.
Bottled at 110 proof, it's simply a masterpiece. Vanilla and oak scents come through strong, with a hint of smoke and cherry. It offers a perfectly balanced body, managing to be creamy and rich yet dry and not syrupy. There's dried apricot, buttery maple, and a honeyed grain sweetness, culminating in a dry tobacco and sweet spice finish that lingers for minutes. Seriously, it's one of the longest lasting bourbon finishes I can remember.
This whiskey is smokier and a bit more wood-forward than past releases, but it's probably my favorite Four Roses yet, balancing aggressive spice and complex sweetness for an experience that gets better every time. In limited release at around $90, the only question is how many of us will be lucky enough to find a bottle on the shelves.
About the author: Andrew Strenio is a lover of all things potable. Since sneaking his grandmother's bourbon balls, he's moved on to touring distilleries and sipping snifters. He works by day making documentary television and films for an independent production company in Brooklyn.
Tasting samples provided for review consideration.