Tag Archives: Four Roses

Four Roses Yellow Label; Time To Breathe

Do you wanna hear something sick? 
We are but victims of desire
Pearl Jam, “Gonna See My Friend”

About two week ago, Google took Reader offline. I’d made peace with their decision; it was a service I’d used every day, but it was clear their decision was irrevocable. Coming from the technology world, this wasn’t entirely surprising. At some point, you have to cut your business to what matters.

When D-day came, the remaining handful of whisky blogs I was following vanished from my daily survey of new content. Suddenly, where there was noise, where there was inadequacy and insufficiency, there was just silence.

Of course, that was only a few days ago. I’ve been enjoying some silence on the blog front for a while now. I’ve apparently missed new heights (depths?) of venality on Facebook with various whiskey “Exchanges”. Prices are apparently high for moderate to moderately good whiskey, with a premium on older stuff. I’ve got no doubt that rare & old whiskey will start to be forged soon – obviously the technology exists to knock out a pretty convincing one. With the prices available, if you think you could get away, why wouldn’t you (ethics aside)?

Let the rats eat themselves, I say. Maybe I’m a sap but I’m avoiding the secondary market. Then again, I’m avoiding the primary market as well, as the values are just off kilter. There’s good whiskey to be found, but one needs to be more selective – the $100+ tier is a minefield of questionable whiskey these days.

The last bottle I bought was a humble bottle of Four Roses Yellow Label. I’ve discussed Jack, Jim, and Evan; I figured it was time to revisit this value-priced stalwart. Unfortunately, in Los Angeles (on the west side, at least), Four Roses has suddenly gotten a little bit scarce. Maybe it’s the local landscape catering to an “enlightened” post-Parker consumer, maybe it’s spiked demand; I don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s depressing that it’s suddenly so hard to find.

While many of my friends have picked up the torch over the last few months of odd tastings and unusual whiskeys, I’ve been content to take it easy. I checked off a lot of “must have” whiskeys this spring and realized they can be as questionable and variable as  anything else in any price tier. That, coupled with an acknowledgement that I’m pretty happy with the average Four Roses Single Barrel OBSV/OBSK, hasn’t really spurred a desire to spend a lot of money on new, questionable bottles.

Well, that and the on-again, off-again heat in Los Angeles.

Four Roses seemed to be the right one to match my casual mood of late. All too often, things get wrapped up in unfortunate idealism and blindly accepted normative statements. Between blog-overload, questionable whiskey overload, the heat, and a focus of interest elsewhere, finding and noting some sort of “challenging” whisky and casting its place in the larger world was the least interesting exercise I could imagine.

Four Roses Yellow Label is an undisclosed blend of their five yeast strains split across two mashbills. In theory, it’s the accessible pop hit of the Four Roses discography. In practice, well…

The nose is nice and gently earthy, with some wet clay and a light spice. There’s some black pepper and a dab of cinnamon; caramel and easygoing wood. There’s plenty of corn evident, but a little subtly astringent black cherry in the back.

The palate leads with “E” mashbill sweetness – corn upfront with caramel and cherry. There’s wood, cinnamon, and the more distinctive heat of white pepper.

The finish is generally tannic – black tea and wood, cherry, a softer oak influence, and some faint tobacco.

It’s actually a pretty clean representation of everything Four Roses has to offer, in a somewhat condensed format. The “E” bill sweetness is balanced by the “B” bill spice. I actually enjoyed it quite a lot, especially considering this is a 40% ABV entry-level whiskey. It’s a touch thin in the ideal world; at 45% or even 50% it could be fantastic. In my opinion it’s easily the best 40% ABV standard offering on shelves.

At a glance:

Four Roses Yellow Label, 40% ABV
Nice gentle earthy, wet clay influence with some light spicing – a hint of black pepper, a faint dab of cinnamon. Some caramel, easygoing wood influence, plenty of corn sweetness balanced by a bit of slightly astringent black cherry.
Palate: Corn sweetness upfront with some caramel and a touch of cherry. A little bit of wood, some cinnamon and a little dab of white pepper.
Finish: Leads with some tannins; a touch of black tea and some wood; a touch of cherry, a little oak, a faint hint of tobacco;
Comment: My only complaint is that it’s a touch thin at 40%. At 45% or 50% this would be fantastic. It’s easily the best 40% ABV standard offering on shelves today though.
Rating: B


Please take the opportunity afforded by the Google Reader shutdown to take a breath, unfollow the blogs that only provide noise (including mine), and make sure you’re getting enough real-people-time. I met with a bunch of whiskey friends and bloggers over the last month, and that was far more interesting than reading message boards, facebook groups, and getting in twitter arguments about mundane points of booze.

Obviously this is a “stop liking things I don’t like” sort of non-directive; I am just drawn to say it because the odd undercurrent I noticed in a bunch of discussions was how many lives this hobby and interest has negatively affected. It’s OK to step back; it’s OK to stop jumping just because a merchant or a brand ambassador or a blogger says something is the best whiskey ever.

Overhyped & Underrated

This weekend I finally had the opportunity to taste the single most hyped American whiskey of 2012 – the Jefferson’s Ocean Aged bourbon. This whiskey was immediately notorious among whiskey fans for its backstory, which was either a clever idea or the dumbest ploy to date to separate people from their money. The story, in brief, was that a few barrels of bourbon were placed on a research ship and were aged at sea. If you believe the story, the elements encouraged greater wood interaction and gave it a profile of an older whiskey.

Oddly, this all sounds like a familiar version of the usual refrain from microdistilleries (which Jefferson’s/McLain & Kyne are not, they’re an independent bottler) which is some variant of “we have found a way to cheat time by altering some variable regarding the aging process”. Such claims should be regarded with the same suspicion you should have when you hear about cold fusion or perpetual motion. That’s not to say that larger climate differences don’t play a role – bourbons are pushing into greatness in the 8-12 year range and are dangerously woody in the 15-17 year old range, while Scotch whisky is really great at 15-18 and tends to get oakier in its 20s. However, Kentucky and Scotland have definite differences in climate.

If that was all there was to Jefferson’s, it would have just been ignored. This bourbon, however, was limited. Like 250 bottles limited, which is a pretty shockingly small run for a bourbon batch – closer to a single cask scotch release, honestly. And the price tag? It hovered around $200 - if you could find it. Most people couldn’t. The hype naturally blew up on Twitter, and reached fever pitch when K&L had a spirits auction for it. I personally set my over/under line at $750, thinking it’d just barely crest that number given the level of the hype and how crazy people were getting (not to mention the “whisky bubble” factor this year).

I was wrong – dead wrong. It broke the $1000 mark. K&L did a good thing and donated $900 to charity (so don’t crucify them, they just held the auction – your fellow spirits aficionados are the knuckleheads who bid it up that high). Jefferson’s Ocean officially crossed into “bizarre curiosity” territory for me, but with that kind of value on it I didn’t have much thought of ever trying it. Until, as I said, this weekend rolled around.

The actual Jefferson’s bottle we had – photo by Bino Gopal.

So what does aging at sea do? As best I could tell, not a lot. There were light rye notes initially, but then I got a very standard modern bourbon profile with sour, somewhat vegetal aromas on the nose and some lightly woody undertones. There were light hints of raw sugar as well.

The palate was light and a little thin, with faint wood notes, again the slightly vegetal sourness, a bit of corn sweetness, some turbinado sugar, brown sugar, and a touch of cinnamon. The finish opened up a bit and had some light black cherries, more turbinado sugar, a more straightforward cherry note (verging momentarily on Luden’s cough drops), and had an even later faint hint of peanuts.

Jefferson’s Ocean Aged was, to put it simply, very unremarkable.

For me, that’s a very unsurprising result to this ultra-hyped whisky. To be totally frank, it tastes like a very anonymous younger bourbon. I’ll give some benefit of the doubt to the micro-climate-aging and say the Evan Williams Single Barrel was what jumped to mind on when I had this. Good but by no means great – and absolutely NOT worth a thousand dollars.

So, on one hand there’s that, which blew the whiskey world up. On the other hand, we’re in the fall which is traditionally Pappy-and-Buffalo-Trace time. Already my traffic is spiking with searches about Pappy availability. If you hit this post wondering if Pappy or Stagg or Weller or any of the others are available near you, I don’t know. Make friends with your local liquor merchant, they’ll know better and it’s a relationship worth having if you are tracking hyped and limited releases.

But seemingly under the radar and ignored by the mass audience is the absolute best bourbon of 2012 – the Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition for 2012. I’m going to make this hard for me to find any future bottles, but it’s worth spreading the gospel: this is hands-down the best bourbon of 2012.

Start your spending.

This version of Four Roses is a mixture of four whiskies – the 17 year old OBSV that I loved so much earlier this year, an 11 year old OBSV, a 12 year old OBSK (also a great, spicy recipe) and a 12 year old OESK (a higher-corn mashbill). It’s about $75 though some people will no doubt gouge a bit on it. Unlike the boat bourbon, this is worth it.

The nose on the Four Roses has nice spices up front – fresh black pepper, a little cinnamon, some nutmeg in the background. There’s some clay earthiness but it’s balanced by some prominent wood. Caramel, a little fudge, and some molasses add a nice sticky depth. Mint and cedar give some top notes and there’s some corn at the center of it.

The palate has a wonderfully thick, almost syrupy mouthfeel, leading with wood and then building. A sweet, lightly vegetal (in an entirely pleasing way) corn body with accents of cherry and hints of oranges. It’s momentarily a touch salty, balanced with caramel sweetness and a little hint of apples hiding in the back.

The finish leads with wood, unsurprising with the 17 year old bourbon in the mix, black cherries and cinnamon, and it lasts and lasts. It’s a rich, strong finish with a vegetal hint to it that really works well when held as a counterpoint to the sweetness and wood. A little waxy apple emerges as it dries.

The Four Roses Small Batch 2012 LE is everything you’d want in a premium-priced bourbon: ridiculously complex yet totally accessible, full bodied and not overproofed, sweet but not cloying.

And in spite of all of this, everyone’s going to be freaking out about Pappy as usual this year. It’s a shame, because they’re missing out on one of the best.

At a glance:

Jefferson’s Ocean Aged Bourbon 41.15% ABV
Nose: Light rye notes initially, but then a very standard modern bourbon profile with sour, somewhat vegetal aromas and some lightly woody undertones. Light hints of raw sugar as well.
Palate: Light and a little thin, with faint wood notes, again the slightly vegetal sourness, a bit of corn sweetness, some turbinado sugar, brown sugar, and a touch of cinnamon later in the palate.
Finish: Opens up a bit with a light dose of black cherries, more turbinado sugar, a more straightforward cherry note (verging on Luden’s cough drops). Later faint hint of peanuts.
Comment: Very unremarkable.
Rating: C+

Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition – 2012 55.7% ABV
Nose:  Nice spices up front – fresh black pepper, a little cinnamon, some background nutmeg. A little mix of clay earthiness, but there’s some prominent wood. Caramel, a little fudge, some molasses. A little mint and a cedar aroma too. Corn at the heart.
Palate:  Thick and syrupy mouthfeel, a little wood leads and then continues to build. Sweet, lightly vegetal (in an entirely pleasing way) corn body with a little cherry accents, some hints of oranges; slightly salty for a moment; caramel sweetness and a little hint of apples hiding.
Finish:  Leads with wood, black cherries and cinnamon, lasts and lasts. Very rich and strong finish; a hint of vegetal character that really works well when held as a counterpoint to the sweetness and wood quality. A little hint of waxy apple as it dries faintly.
Comment:  Ridiculously complex but totally accessible, full bodied and not overproofed, sweet but not cloying, probably the best bourbon all year.
Rating: A-

Four Roses OBSV Part Two: Extra-Aged Bourbon

Earlier this week, I wrote about the standard off the shelf 50 proof Four Roses Single Barrel (OBSV). I said it was a great value for the price and one of the best bourbons in its class. It’s time to take this opportunity to see what happens to that recipe when you age it up a bit.

Four Roses’ big push is on their ten recipes, highlighting the role of mashbill and yeast which do definitely play a big role in determining the flavor of a bourbon. However, most whisky aficionados know, the time in oak changes the spirit dramatically. The vegetal notes of new spirit fade away in favor of the tannins and spicy body that wood imparts; the turbinado sugar flavors mixes with the wood influence and becomes more like maple syrup, toffee and caramel. Too little time in the wood and you might as well be riding shotgun with Popcorn Sutton. Too much time and you’d be better off brewing a tea with pencil shavings. Bad wood will take you in the direction of popsicle sticks and napkins. There’s a lot of room to go wrong.

Due to the climate in the midwestern US, which was far too extreme for me (hot summers and cold winters drove me from southern Illinois to southern California), bourbon is ready for prime time in anywhere from four to eight years. Twelve years can be pushing it but some bourbons wear the age well. For the most part, the old-age crown is worn most readily by the Pappy Van Winkle bourbons, effortlessly holding up to 15 and 20 years of age. Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig also manages 12 and 18 20 years (but at $150 I don’t expect to have a judgement on the 20 soon). What then of the other distilleries? There’s a lot that can go wrong in over a decade.

I was excited when I heard about the Four Roses Gift Shop exclusive, a 17 year old OBSV recipe. While I’m a big fan of OBSK, OBSV is a reliable favorite. Getting the chance to try an extra-aged version was a rare treat. Unfortunately, one problem: my wife wasn’t about to sign off on me jetting to Kentucky to pick up a bottle of bourbon.

Fortunately, a good friend offered to pick up a bottle for me and ship it back. I took him up on his offer, sending him a couple bottles of Southern Californian microbrew in exchange. Soon, the whiskey was in my hands. I could hardly wait to see what would happen with this one. Would it show too much oak? Would it be the greatest thing ever? Perhaps worst of all, might it be a very middle of the road and safe barrel pick?

The nose on this one is great – warm and woody, with dark fruits prominent up front. Plums and black cherries compete against very creamy vanilla; deep wood notes provide a bed for everything. Rye spiciness is evident and even slightly aggressive, but not to the extent that it’s disagreeable or too harsh.

The palate starts dry with plenty of wood. Cinnamon, black cherries and vanilla take over, moving the palate away from dry astringency. Toffee and maple syrup pick up, and then rye comes storming in again, providing a nice kick and a slightly floral quality. With a little more time the wood comes into focus but it’s not so dry, and it’s nicely balanced by light orange zest.

The finish, much like on the standard OBSV, is drier than the palate. Black pepper and oak lead; cinnamon and black cherries come side by side behind it. Finally, rye spice and a hint of nutmeg are the last flavors standing.

I was really surprised by the 17 year old version of this whisky. I certainly expected an uptick in dryness, black pepper, cinnamon, and wood, but the creaminess on the 17 is much more pronounced to me than it is on the younger standard version. There’s a strong wood influence to be sure, but it’s not in the least bit tired. It’s full of life and flavor, but with a weight and deliberation that you’d hope for in a bourbon of this age.

Quality-wise, I have to say that this particular barrel (78-30, Warehouse QS), honestly stands shoulder to shoulder with other highly regarded bourbons like those found in the Buffalo Trace Anniversary Collection; Pappy Van Winkle, or the Parker’s Heritage collection. Honestly, I think if Four Roses could find the right push for this one, they could release these in limited quantities to a broader market and have a serious contender for the Van Winkles of the world, which are becoming a chore to find anymore.

Four Roses Single Barrel (Private Selection – Four Roses Gift Shop) OBSV 17y 53.3%  ABV
Warm and woody, with dark fruits – plums, black cherries – jostling for attention against creamy vanilla aroma while deep wood notes provide a bed. Rye spiciness is evident and slightly aggressive but not disagreeably so.
Palate:  Dry on the palate initially with plenty of wood; giving way to cinnamon and black cherries with a light bit of vanilla, slight toffee and faint maple syrup. Rye picks up right behind this, giving a nice kick and slightly floral note. Light orange balances the wood which starts to come to the forefront again.
Finish:  Finishes dry with black pepper and oak, a little cinnamon and black cherries; rye spiciness and a hint of nutmeg.
Comment:  Interestingly, I think the creaminess is better developed in the 17y version of OBSV than the 10y. The barrel notes give a strong influence to this and it’s quite powerful, but not at all tired. Full of life and flavor, but moving deliberately according to its age. If Four Roses released this wide they might have a contender to the Pappy throne.
Rating: A-

Fourth Of July: Four Roses Single Barrel

A while back in my extensive discussion of Woodford Reserve, I mentioned that I thought a similarly priced bottle which was a far better value in terms of quality and taste was the Four Roses Single Barrel bottling. I’ve come back to it time and time again and find it’s one of my all time favorites.

If you’re not familiar with Four Roses, it’s an interesting operation. Their Four Roses (“Yellow Label”) bourbon is a mix of their ten recipes that they produce. Yes, ten recipes. Four Roses essentially makes ten separate bourbons which vary by mashbill and by yeast strain.

Mashbill is not a surprising way to vary character – it can have a huge effect. Their two mashbills are “B” and “E”. E is a 75% corn, 20% rye mashbill; B is a 60% corn, 35% mashbill. There are also five yeast strains used with both of the mashbills – these combinations produce the ten bourbons.

If you’ve never managed to have a tasting where yeast was the variable, I highly recommend it. Retailers like Binnys and The Party Source both have all ten recipes available, and it exposes huge differences in the bourbons. I had my first education on the role of yeast strains on mashbills with High West’s David Perkins during a marathon tasting. We had four extremely different whiskeys at one point – the only difference between them was the yeast used. No one in the room guessed that as the variable.

The recipe used by Four Roses in the standard widely-available single barrel bottling is the OBSV recipe. This means the “B” mashbill (35% rye) and the V yeast, which Four Roses describes as having a “delicate fruit, spicy and creamy” character. This combination happens to be one of my very favorite – everything is in exquisite balance.

This is a great bourbon for the fourth of July. I think it does everything with a touch of class. It’s phenomenal when drunk neat; it takes ice and mixers well (if you’re a mixer guy). I’ve used it for phenomenal mint juleps and this afternoon it’s going to be a part of my bourbon and vanilla ice cream milkshake. The spice adds so much character but it doesn’t live exclusively in the domain of aggressively spicy and hot whiskeys. It’s accessible and refined – a perfect model American.

The nose has nice, well-developed notes of rye which have deep nuance. It’s almost reminiscent of a super-fresh deli rye bread (a favorite!). There’s wood which gives depth and almost has a light cedar quality to it. There’s some floral hints as well as some light black pepper on the nose. Black cherries, a faint touch of maple syrup and a hint of orange round out the nose with some nice top notes.

The palate is great and continues where the nose left off: It’s nice and sweet initially but the darker fruit tartness moves in. Rye spice and creamy vanilla are in balance; light cinnamon and white pepper add a gentle but not overwhelming heat. It’s a perfectly balanced set of textures and flavors.

The finish is a little interesting but works nicely in my opinion. It starts dry with wood, but then cherry and vanilla pick up. Cinnamon heat is present, but then it dries and goes bitter but in a more vegetal direction than wood – endive and romaine hearts are present. After a while some corn sweetness comes out and you can almost imagine the character of the new make underneath all of this.

This Four Roses is one of the best bottles sitting on your liquor store’s shelf that doesn’t require you to have the determination of a bounty hunter or a close relationship with your spirits buyer to find. It’s got a much more complex set of flavors and aromas that it draws from when compared to most bourbons out there. It’s really enjoyable, a permanent fixture in my bar and in my opinion, a can’t-fail classic. If you’re looking for a great bourbon to celebrate the Fourth – look no further.

At a glance:

Four Roses Single Barrel – 50% ABV
Nose:  Nice, well developed notes of rye which have a great, deep nuance. Almost reminiscent of super-fresh deli rye bread. Nice wood with it, giving depth. Almost a light cedar quality to it. Lightly floral; a hint of black pepper. Black cherries, a faint touch of maple syrup and a hint of orange.
Palate:  Nice and sweet initially with a bit of darker fruit tartness. Creamy vanilla, nice gentle rye spiciness, light cinnamon and again a very faint touch of white pepper. Wood adds some depth again to the palate but it’s not bitter. A little gentle heat but it’s very even-tempered.
Finish:  Slightly dry at first and opening on wood, picking up the cherry notes and a bit of the vanilla. Cinnamon adds a bit of heat for a moment as it dries and goes a touch bitter with a light hint of endive or romaine heart. Settles more on the vegetal notes and a bit of corn sweetness comes out.
Comment:  Four Roses has a better than average track record for me. This standard OBSV recipe single barrel bottling is just a time-honored classic in my opinion. I love it, it’s got sweetness and creaminess but it’s nicely balanced with some spice and heat with tartness as well. It doesn’t get cloying and while the finish is a bit dry, it works very well in my opinion. For the price it’s one of the most consistently solid bourbons you can find regularly.
Rating: B+

Gift Packs: Bargains Galore

A while back, I wrote about how useful a good glass can be for appreciating everything a whiskey has to offer. The right shape of glass will help focus some of the aromas that would otherwise blow past your earlobes and set on your forehead in a traditional old fashioned glass. My favorite, as I’d mentioned, was the Glencairn glass.

In the last few weeks of shopping, I’ve seen holiday gift sets starting to appear on shelves, and there’s been a number of them with Glencairn glasses. Better yet, the price is right. If you’ve been curious about these glasses but don’t want to pony up $10-12 for a single glass, then the holidays are your absolute best time to pick one up at a low cost.

One gift pack I saw is an Old Pulteney 12 Gift Pack (I saw the actual article at the Wine House recently). This pairs two Glencairn glasses with an Old Pulteney logo, as well as a bottle of the 12 year old Old Pulteney. It’s a great bargain: about $35 gets you the two glasses and a bottle of Old Pulteney. If you’ve never had Old Pulteney, it’s a great, low-risk way to try it – even if you don’t like the bottle, you will have two great glasses.

Another was a Glenfiddich gift set. It looks like the major stores will be selling an Americanized version with two old fashioned glasses. However, I have stumbled across a different version: a bottle of Glenfiddich 12, a Glenfiddich logo Glencairn, and a small “tasting diary”. The tasting diary looked like a pretty decent quality, small, moleskine-type notebook (but very very thin). At less than $25, you’re basically paying $12 for the whiskey – a great deal.

You might also find that some stores put out old stock they may have gotten at a low cost from distributors, or have had warehoused over the last year. I saw an Old Forester Prohibition Repeal set this week as well. This set couples an Old Forester logo Glencairn (their press release from the time calls it a “snifter” – fine) and a 375mL bottle of Old Forester in a prohibition-era style bottle. It also includes an Old Forester logo pen and a scroll of the 21st Amendment. “Suitable for framing”, no doubt. I can always use a pen. This gift set was released in 2008 and I found it on shelves at the end of 2011. Keep an eye out.

If you think the Glencairn is impossibly dorky and just for people who are too precious about the whole thing, you could be right. There are some decent quality old fashioned glasses to be had out there; and sometimes you want a cocktail (say… an old fashioned). My favorite example of these were the Four Roses Single Barrel gift set. A bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel (recipe unknown, at least on my bottle) and two old fashioned glasses of pretty good quality. Four Roses is a great bourbon. If they ever start putting recipes on the label, keep your eyes peeled for the OBSK recipe – it’s great. Most of the major bourbon producers seem to be going the route of old fashioned glasses, so it’s an easy pickup.

Beyond that, there are some great bargains to be had. I’ve seen Glenmorangies cropping up recently with samples of their finishing experiments (Astar, Lasanta, Quinta Ruban, Nectar D’or) bottled alongside a Glenmorangie Original. The usual Macallan 12 with samples of Macallan 18 tucked inside are also showing up. Given the entry fee of $140/bottle for the 18, it’s a great way to try it if you haven’t.

I’ve also seen Johnnie Walker Black packaged with a small flask as well as Jim Beam white label with a flask. If you don’t have one, this could be a good place to pick one up along with a good, accessible bottle for guests who may not share more esoteric tastes (or might simply want to mix with something).

Hopefully you can find something that kills two birds with one stone this season – and don’t forget to pick up a gift for a friend. It can be an unexpected gift that might kick off a passion – especially if they have someone to help show them the ropes.