Friday, October 28, 2011

Four Roses Yellow Label

stats: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 80 proof, no age statement, $20
I guess I got excited by my last blog post – I went out a few days later and tracked down a bottle of Four Roses Yellow Label. Before I get to the tasting, I’d like to talk about the aging process for a bit.

At first glance, it seems like a simple operation – new make comes off the still and goes into an oak barrel for several years, after which it comes out transformed into mature whiskey, ready to be enjoyed. Of course, it is much more complicated than that when you dig into the details.

Oak is the wood of choice for aging because it has the most beneficial effect on flavor, the correct porosity, and lends itself to the barrel making process. But, there are several species of oak to choose from, and each has unique qualities. Next, the oak staves must be seasoned. This can be done in a kiln, but the time-intensive open-air method will result in better flavor. Then there is the degree to which the wood is charred when the barrel is being made. The range of charring for wine barrels is usually lighter than whiskey barrels, and described as toasting instead. Many whiskies are aged in former wine barrels. The barrels can also be made un-toasted, in which case they are heated with steam instead of an open flame when the barrel is shaped.

Traditionally, Bourbon was shipped down the Mississippi river to its biggest market, New Orleans. Since oak trees were abundant in America, it made sense to ship the whiskey in new oak barrels, rather than glass bottles which were very expensive to make at the time. Eventually, aging in new oak defined the style, and later it became a requirement of the laws which govern the making of Bourbon.

Concurrently in Scotland, it made economic sense to re-use oak Sherry barrels for aging Scotch, since those barrels were already coming into the country in large quantities, carrying the Sherry that was being imported from Spain. As Scotch production grew, and the popularity of Sherry dwindled, it was inevitable that Scotch distillers would start using ex-bourbon barrels to age their whisky. Both barrel types are used in Scotland today, and it is common to refill the barrels two or three times before they are considered past their useful life.

The next big factor is climate. The aging process is driven by seasonal temperature swings pushing the whiskey in and out of the wood. The larger the temperature range the barrel encounters, the more quickly the whiskey ages. A certain amount of liquid will evaporate out of the barrel every year (2% is typical). If the humidity is low, mostly water evaporates out. But if the humidity level is high, more alcohol than water will come out of the barrel. So, the alcohol level can actually increase or decrease during the aging process, depending on the local climate.

And finally, the design and operation methods of the warehouse will affect the aging. Most Bourbon producers use large warehouses, up to nine floors high with the barrels three-high on each floor. Modest temperature control is achieved by opening and closing windows, and a few distillers heat their warehouses in the winter to add some control to one end of the temperature range.

Distillers who make single barrel and small batch bourbons will typically find the worthy barrels in the inner areas of the middle floors – the heart of the warehouse. The standard bourbons of their lineups will usually come from a marriage of barrels from a cross section of warehouse locations to ensure consistency. Maker’s Mark takes a different route, aiming for maximum quality in every bottle. And to that end, they go through the labor intensive process of rotating their barrels through the warehouse, ensuring consistent aging from barrel to barrel.

And then there is Four Roses. They rely on long, low, single story warehouses for consistent aging. While most producers rely on random warehouse particularities for their higher end offerings, Four Roses goes with consistent aging across the product line and uses the ten different flavor profiles at their disposal to differentiate their special bottlings (along with extra aging and higher proofs).

Now that I’ve finally tied it all together, on to the whiskey. There’s an air of familiarity on the nose. On the palate, a gentle fruitiness is quickly overtaken by warming spice notes, which grow in intensity as they transition into the finish, which lingers on and slowly fades away. There is more intensity than might be expected from an 80 proof bourbon. The spice notes are somewhat dominant, pushing other flavors into the background, but I’m okay with that as I find them quite pleasant. A very solid performer considering its proof and price point.

In comparison, the single barrel offering has more of everything, more depth, more character, more complexity. But, at twice the price, that should be expected.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Four Roses Single Barrel

stats: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 100 proof, no age statement, $40

The history of Bourbon is a tangled tale, driven by booms and busts of the industry along with associated expansions and consolidations, and interspersed with mergers and acquisitions. The Four Roses distillery is an integral part of this history.

Prior to World War II, Four Roses was the best selling bourbon in the U.S. In the early 1940’s the Seagram’s Company purchased Frankfort Distillers (who owned Four Roses) to acquire the brand. They also purchased the Old Prentice distillery, where Four Roses was produced. Around the same time, Seagram’s acquired four other distilleries and a large number of whiskey brands. Each of the five distilleries used two different grain bills, giving the company ten different whiskeys to work with. These whiskeys were vatted in different combinations and varying amounts to produce the variety of flavor profiles required for the many brands owned by Seagram’s.

For some unknown reason, in the early 1950’s, Seagram’s chose to only sell Four Roses straight bourbon outside of the U.S. In this country they sold a blended whiskey under the Four Roses brand. In the 1960’s it was downgraded to a lower quality blend with a high percentage of grain neutral spirits. Over the decades, the reputation of the once mighty brand fell to unthinkable lows.

Seagram’s still made quality whiskey, with an extensive R&D program going back to the 1930’s, they just chose not to sell it in the U.S. under the Four Roses band. Then came the 1970’s, and dark days for the bourbon industry. Sales plummeted and the industry contracted. It was no longer practical for Seagram’s to operate five distilleries, so they closed four of them and consolidated operations to the Old Prentice distillery. But the company didn’t want to kill off any of their brands. In order to do this, they fell back on their past research and utilized a huge yeast portfolio to replicate the flavors of the closed distilleries. With two mash bills and five yeast strains, they were still able to produce ten unique whiskeys to work with.

The latest chapter in the Four Roses story started in 2000 when Seagram’s merged with French conglomerate Vivendi. The media holdings of the two companies were the focus of that deal, and Seagram’s many liquor assets were broken up and sold off. Four Roses (the brand and the distillery) was purchased by Kirin, their former Japanese distributor of many years.

Kirin immediately set about returning the brand to its former glory in the U.S. The blended whiskey was quickly dispatched and the flagship Yellow Label Kentucky Straight Bourbon was reintroduced. In 2004 the Single Barrel Bourbon was released, and in 2006 the Small Batch Bourbon hit the shelves. Several unique, limited edition bottlings have been released in recent years. Over the last decade the brand has spread around the country, steadily penetrating into new markets. Kirin has maintained the quality control that Seagram’s was known for, and with ten distinct whiskeys coming out of one distillery the possibilities for innovation are endless.

Enough of the history lesson, on to the tasting! It’s a beautiful golden amber in color. The nose is rich and very complex. Floral notes mingle with spice and aromas of grain and oak, and they all play nicely together. That complexity carries through on the palate. The flavors are bold, but the whiskey manages to maintain a certain elegance. The finish is quite long, meandering into a warming spiceyness balanced by just a hint of sweet malt, and it fades off oh-so-slowly. If I was hunting for a new bourbon to try, my eyes would scan the shelves for anything with a Four Roses label.