With so much bourbon pouring into the market these days it can be tough for a producer to differentiate itself, but that’s never been a problem for Four Roses. The Lawrenceberg, KY-based distillery has always done things a little differently, producing 10 distinct whiskies from a mix of two different mash bills and five different proprietary yeast strains and then blending them together to create its whiskies.
While not exactly the most conventional approach to crafting bourbon, it is an effective one, producing the round, easy-drinking bourbons for which Four Roses is known. It also leaves lots of room for experimentation, so when Master Distiller Brent Elliott—now five years into his role—releases the distillery’s annual Limited Edition Small Batch offering, bourbon lovers take note.
“Each year the goal is not only to make something smooth and mellow—which is kind of the philosophy or benchmark for all Four Roses products—but also to make something unique, or different from year’s past,” Elliott says. “And in doing that we are showcasing our versatility and our ability to create different flavors by utilizing these different recipes and different combinations.”
This year’s limited edition blend includes four component whiskies aged 12 to 19 years old, with each batch hand selected by Elliott and his team for its specific characteristics. Each batch was one that either embodies its particular recipe very well, or was simply aging in an exceptional way, he says. “If you find a 15 or 19 or 20 year old barrel that is still vibrant, still has some of the original character from the grains and the yeast strain, and it’s not being overly influenced by the oak…that’s a batch that could potentially be used in the limited edition,” he says.
Blending is an art that aims to produce something that is more than the sum of its individual parts, and blending from whiskies that are getting up in age can prove particularly challenging (due to the heavy influence of all that time spent in oak barrels). The idea, generally speaking, is to preserve the desirable characteristics from each component whiskey while balancing them against one another in a way that blunts any undesirable or overly pronounced flavors. In other words, you might add a component whiskey to a blend because it elevates the flavors coming from another part of the blend, even if that component liquid on its own is not the kind of balanced whiskey you would release as a standalone product.
The challenge with this batch, Elliott says, was that all four batches were good enough on their own for consideration as a distinct release. “One thing that really stood out is that every one of the batches going into this formula, each batch was really robust, complex, and elegant enough that any one of these could have stood alone as a single barrel [release],” he says. “So it was a little challenging to bring all these together. Each one of these batches had characteristics I didn’t want to mute out.”
So what characteristics did he manage to keep? Plenty of conventional bourbon aromas of new oak, vanilla, and spice, but also citrus peel and cut red apples that provide a lighter nose than one might expect on a blend of bourbons this old. Likewise, the primary flavors are remarkably fresh, with juicy fruit notes of red berries and pear punching through the heat of the cask strength 55.7% ABV. It’s a big oaky bowl of fresh berries, plum, and apricot drizzled with vanilla and honey, with a lingering finish of light wood, spice, and fruit.
It’s all of these things and yet still characteristically Four Roses, which is to say soft and round on the palate, without any rough edges to speak of. It’s mellow, to borrow Elliott’s descriptor of the distillery’s signature style, which in a word sums up what makes these limited edition small batch releases from Four Roses so much fun. The distillers, warehouse managers, and blenders get to exhibit what they’re capable of flavor-wise outside of Four Roses’ flagship range, but you still end up with an easy-drinking bourbon that doesn’t require any specific mood or context to enjoy. All you need is an appreciation for very well-integrated whiskey, one that celebrates wood and grain and spice and all those underlying yeast notes without drumming you over the head with any one aspect.
The 14,040 hand-numbered bottles of the 2020 Limited Edition Small Batch will roll out to select store shelves starting at the end of September with a suggested retail price of $150. A limited quantity will be made available through the distillery store via a public lottery (you can register here).