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.