FOUR ROSES SMALL BATCH LIMITED EDITION
MASH BILL – 75% corn, 20% rye, and 5% barley
PROOF – 108
AGE – 20% 15-year, 40% 13-year, and 40% 12-year
DISTILLERY – Four Roses Distillery
PRICE – At this point, anything from $200 to $400 wouldn’t surprise me!
BUY AGAIN? – No, because $$$. But I will sooo savor this bottle while it lasts…
Perhaps not literally, but certainly in terms of notoriety, more than most American distilleries, Four Roses is all about blending. Their ten recipes, derived from two high-rye mash bills and five yeast strains, are combined in specific ratios to create their standard products. Their annual Small Batch Limited Editions provide delectable opportunities to experiment with new blending ratios, and especially to lean into the aspect of age. The youngest whiskey in this 2017 edition, for example, is 12 years and makes up two-fifths of the blend. A 13-year bourbon makes up another two-fifths. And a ripe old 15-year fills in the final fifth.
This blend is also unique among the annual Small Batch L.E.’s in that it only draws from the “E” recipes (60% OESK and 40% OESV) which, though generally considered “high rye” mash bills, feature less rye at 20% compared to the “B” recipes’ even spicier 35% rye quotient.
All this math is why Four Roses fans geek out about these Small Batch L.E.’s. We love to armchair sleuth our way through why this year’s release leans more into fruit flavors and that year’s release drills deeper into the oak. For flavor sleuthing, this 2017 release does not disappoint.
First, here are the notes in brief, taken about two months after uncorking, halfway into the bottle, and in both a traditional Glencairn and simple brandy glass:
COLOR – a nice deep orange-copper
NOSE – apricots in caramel, oak, fresh cream, a fine but densely layered spiciness from the rye
TASTE – creamy, oaky, really smooth caramels, the apricots now cooked into a compote, the rye spice billowing at the end
FINISH – long, tingly, warm, the caramels and fruits very slowly and gently fading away, leaving a cool heat to continue fading
OVERALL – This is very good.
I love that in the Glencairn the fruit flavors are pulled forward and I can really appreciate how they blend with the caramel. In that glass this Four Roses is ready for a party with good music and good chat. In the brandy glass, on the other hand, the oak leans in and grounds that same caramel with a steadfast patience, like sitting on the front porch in silence on a sunny summer afternoon, with all the time in the world to wait for sunset and to enjoy that last drop as the light… finally… blinks out over the horizon.
I’ll admit I paid too much for this. I talked a guy at a corner store down to a price I’m still too embarrassed to name. Tasting it next to a 2017 Four Roses barrel strength single barrel, which also features the OESK recipe and a similar proof at 110, this Small Batch L.E. is not worth hiked prices based on taste alone. With the OESK single barrel, its very nice mix of oak, caramels, cinnamons, and fruits together have a toasted, or grilled, quality about them. The Small Batch L.E. offers a baked quality to its flavors. Both are exceptionally pleasing.
Similarly, tasting the Small Batch L.E. next to another barrel strength single barrel of the OESV, though the latter was hotter at 122.6 proof, and the flavors were comparatively more raucous than sophisticated, still the differing tasting experiences didn’t justify the differing prices.
However, this Small Batch L.E., though actually less limited than any single barrel, has much more age under its belt. And whereas a single barrel is a matter of good taste in picking barrels, the Small Batch L.E. is that plus distiller Brent Elliot’s mastery of blending flavors derived from the total combination of factors—mash bill, age, warehouse location—to create something special. And that’s what you’re paying for.
So, yes, ultimately there is some buyer’s remorse at work here for me. But that doesn’t change the fact that the tasting experience itself is pure pleasure, leaving the bourbon drinker in me, if not the buyer, very happy.
This 2017 is one of three Small Batch L.E.’s I have on the shelf, the other two being the 2018 and 2019. None did I manage to find at msrp, and only one, the 2018, came close. So like my past forays into Willett single barrels, this series too has been an uncommon investment. Like those Willetts, I might enjoy this Four Roses even more in a blind tasting, without the price and FOMO forming a cocktail of perception.
That said, a blind tasting would also eliminate the pleasure of knowing I’m sipping Four Roses. I have great respect for the distillery’s particular dedication to blending, and their uncommon transparency with the make up of the blends. They understand us fans are as geeky about bourbon as they are. We love swimming in the details. Part of my experience sipping a Four Roses bourbon is knowing Brent Elliot’s particular care and sense of taste went into it, and that he follows in the footsteps of past Four Roses master distillers who helped to cultivate the brand’s dense flavor profile with such scientific artfulness.
And if you’re not a bourbon geek, Four Roses will still give you plenty to enjoy. It’s exceptional bourbon. I especially appreciate how they manage to work the spiciness of their high rye mash bills deep into the caramels, fruit, and oak. The rye spice never feels sprinkled on top, or that it’s bursting out of the glass at you, grenade-like. Rather, the rye integrates its dense particulars fully into the other flavors, giving them a crisp definition.
So, although I cannot recommend emptying your wallet for this, I can wholeheartedly recommend getting a shot in a bar. Alternatively, pick up one among the many barrel strength single barrel store-picks that show up at the more dedicated bourbon shops. Those now typically run around $80, so they too have climbed a bit out of reach. Four Roses Distillery’s most recent addition to their standard offerings, the Small Batch Select, though itself a bit pricy at $55, remains relatively within reach and is an incredible bourbon. Their low-end standard offerings, the Small Batch and Yellow Label, run an average of $30 and $20 respectively. They’re perfectly fine for cocktails, and fine (if uneventful) sipped neat.
Options. That’s the Four Roses way.