Monday, December 23, 2013

Four Roses, Small Batch vs. Small Batch 2010 Limited Edition

Small Batch: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 45%, $30
Small Batch 2010 Limited Edition: Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 55.1%, $65 

For the last 11 years, Four Roses has been rebuilding their image and slowly but surely returning the brand to its former glory. Their standard lineup of the Yellow Label, Small Batch and Single Barrel provide a core of consistent quality and value. But it’s their Limited Edition releases that have been receiving most of the accolades and continue to propel their reputation to new heights.

I recounted the history of Four Roses a few years ago when I posted about their Single Barrel offering, and followed that up with a post about the Yellow Label where I discussed how the distillery’s single story warehouses largely eliminate barrel location as a variable in the bourbon’s flavor.

But with ten unique recipes (five different yeast strains applied across two different mash bills), Master Distiller Jim Rutledge has the ability to create a massive range of flavor profiles. The potential at his disposal had been realized through their annual Limited Edition bottlings.

Each of the ten recipes is identified by a four letter code, but only two of those letters describe the makeup of the recipe. The first letter is always O, which designates the bourbon as having been made at the Four Roses Distillery (I assume these codes date back to when the distillery operated under its previous name, Old Prentice). The third letter is always S, which designates the distillate as “straight”, meaning it came off the still at 80% abv or less (all Four Roses whiskey is “straight” these days, but under Seagram’s ownership there would have been plenty of whiskey floating around which didn’t qualify for the “straight” designation, making this a more relevant bit of information).

The second letter identifies the mash bill. It will either be E (75% corn, 20% rye, 5% malted barley) or B (60% corn, 35% rye, 5% malted barley). Recipes with a higher percentage of corn will typically produce a sweeter bourbon, while those with a higher percentage of rye will usually result in a bourbon showing more of that grain’s unique spicy character.

The fourth letter identifies the yeast strain:

V – delicate fruitiness
  savory, complex, slightly fruity, exceptionally well-balanced classic bourbon

K – spicy
  full-bodied, slow-aging, with a particular spicy quality distinct from that of rye grain

O – rich fruitiness
  plump, juicy and rounded with red fruit tones, complex and long in flavor

Q – floral
  exceptionally floral with almost acacia-like tones, delicate and highly aromatic

F – herbal
  hints of mint, pink peppercorn, and floral notes, soft in the mouth, mellow yet potent

The 80 proof Yellow Label, which was reintroduced to the U.S. market in 2002, uses as many as all ten recipes and though it carries no age statement, it’s said to be in the 5 to 6 year range.

The 100 proof Single Barrel, which debuted in 2004, has always come from the same recipe; OBSV. The labels are marked with the warehouse number and barrel number. Again, there is no age statement, but they target an age of at least 8 years.

The 90 proof Small Batch, introduced in 2006, combines four recipes; OBSO, OBSK, OESO and OESK (so two different yeast stains with each of the two mash bills). Like its siblings it lacks an age statement, but it is usually at least 7 years old.

In the spring of 2007 Four Roses began expanding their distribution to areas beyond Kentucky. New York City was first, and they have gradually been spreading across the U.S. since then.

In the fall of 2007, the first Single Barrel Limited Edition release appeared as a tribute to Jim Rutledge’s 40 years in the industry. It has continued as an annual release, but over the years the timing has been shifted back to the spring to coincide with the Kentucky Derby. The whisky is bottled at barrel proof after being aged substantially longer than the 100 proof Single Barrel bottling. The size of the release has ranged from less than 1500 bottles in the first year to about 4000 bottles this year. A barrel will yield roughly 200 bottles at full strength, and with the alcohol level varying quite a bit from barrel to barrel, any given year will see bottles ranging from roughly 100 proof to 115 proof. I’ve put together a list of the recipes and ages of the Single Barrel LE releases over the years:

2007 Single Barrel Limited Edition, OESO, 13½ years

2008 Single Barrel Limited Edition, OBSK, 12 years

2009 Single Barrel Limited Edition, OESQ, 11 years

2010 Single Barrel Limited Edition, OBSV, 17 years

2011 Single Barrel Limited Edition, OBSQ, 12 years

2012 Single Barrel Limited Edition, OESK, 12 years

2013 Single Barrel Limited Edition, OBSK, 13 years

2008 saw the addition of a second annual Limited Edition release. For the first two years it was called the Marriage Collection, and then in 2010 its name was changed to Small Batch Limited Edition. Always a fall release, its arrival is timed to coincide with the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Each year two to four recipes will be married together (although the proportions of each recipe are not typically revealed) to create a barrel proof offering which is aged quite a bit further then the standard Small Batch. Since all of the barrels for a given year’s release are vatted together they do have consistent proofs, unlike the Single Barrel LE. The release size grew gradually from about 2500 bottles initially to over 4000 bottles in 2012. Then, in 2013, the number grew dramatically to over 12,000. I’m sure they wanted there to be plenty to go around as this bottling was commemorating the 125th anniversary of the brand, but it was also the first Limited Edition release to see distribution in Europe. I’ve compiled all of the recipes, ages and proofs below:

2008 Marriage Collection
   OBSV-13 years, OESK-10 years, 55.7%

2009 Marriage Collection
   OBSK-10 years, OBSK-19 years, OESO-10 years, 54.8%

2010 Small Batch Limited Edition
   OBSV-15 years, OBSK-11 years, OESK-10 years, 55.1%

2011 Small Batch Limited Edition
   OBSK-13 years, OESK-11 years, OESV-12 years, OESQ-13 years, 55.1%

2012 Small Batch Limited Edition
   OBSV-11 years, OBSV-17 years, OBSK-12 years, OESK-12 years, 55.7%

2013 Small Batch Limited Edition
   OBSV-18 years, OBSK-13 years, OESK-13 years, 51.6%

Sorry if that was an overload of technical information, but I’m sure some will find it interesting. Tonight I’ll be dusting off my Small Batch 2010 LE bottle and comparing it to the standard Small Batch Four Roses. Both bottlings see a contribution from each of the two mash bills, and they both have two components made with the K yeast (spicy), but the 2010 LE also uses the V yeast (delicate fruitiness) instead of the O yeast (rich fruitiness) used in the standard Small Batch. The higher proof and greater age of the Limited Edition will make a big difference, but it’s really hard to predict how these will taste without knowing the percentages of the various recipes used in each vatting.

Small Batch:
The color is a medium brownish-amber.
The nose is somewhat restrained with a subtle clay-like earthiness and complex spice notes.
On the palate there is just a hint of sweetness up front which quickly gives way to a dry earthiness and layered spiciness.
As it moves into the finish, red-hot cinnamon spice notes come to dominate. The flavors evolve and fade while the heat stays somewhat constant further into the finish.
It is certainly spice driven and full of character, but overall very drinkable.

Small Batch 2010 LE:
The color, which is the same as above but a few shades darker, is what one would expect given the elevated age and proof.
The nose is also subdued, but the higher alcohol level is noticeable. The aromas are a little more brooding, with clay, leather and cinnamon showing.
On the palate it is bigger and bolder right off the bat and throughout. It’s drier up front, with a hint of middle-eastern spices joining in. While the red-hot cinnamon spice notes emerge as it enters the finish here as well, they aren’t as dominant. Bright fruitiness (in spite of what one would expect from the yeasts being used) and bold oak flavors add complexity and balance. It is also very drinkable, in spite of its elevated proof.

The only other Limited Edition Four Roses I have tasted was the 2012 Single Barrel; it was phenomenal, and from the reviews that I have read, the LE releases seem to be getting better year after year. Both of the bourbons that I tasted tonight are very good, but I would give an edge to the Limited Edition. That being said and looking at the prices, I would say that the standard Small Batch is a better value. The $65 price listed above is what I paid a few years ago; the current Limited Edition releases are usually priced in the $80 to $85 range.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Ledaig 10 Year

stats: Single Malt Scotch, Islands, 46.3%, $55

It’s easy to become enamored with the single malts of the Scottish islands; many of them seem to have an almost magical allure. Islay, with its eight distilleries, commands most of the attention and recognition. As for Scotland’s six distilleries located on other islands, picking the most inconspicuous of the lot would be a tossup between Tobermory and Scapa (there’s actually a seventh, but Abhainn Dearg is so new that I’m not taking it into consideration).

But taking the obscurity a step further would be Ledaig (pronounced led-chig), the peated variant of Tobermory. From the first time I heard about Ledaig I became mildly obsessed with learning more about this mysterious malt. I’m grateful that my curiosity led me to see the distillery in person; my visit to the Isle of Mull was truly a highlight of the time I spent in Scotland.

I wrote about my first encounter with a bottle of Ledaig almost two years ago. That 16 year old bottling from Gordon & MacPhail, which was distilled in 1990, was far less heavily peated than I was expecting. I wrote briefly about the history of the Tobermory distillery in that post, but I have learned a great deal since then. Tasting notes for the 10 year Tobermory and 15year Tobermory can be found on the posts written during my visit to Mull. A more comprehensive overview of the distillery’s history will provide a fitting lead-up to a tasting of the current 10 year Ledaig.

The town of Tobermory was established on the northeastern coast of Mull as a fishing port in 1788 by the British Fisheries Society, in part because of its superior natural harbor. The village located on that harbor prior to 1788 was named Ledaig, which translates from Gaelic as “safe haven”.

Ten years later, in 1798, a local merchant named John Sinclair established the Ledaig distillery in the town of Tobermory. Some confusion has been caused by the fact that he was initially only given permission to build a brewery and a year later he got the okay for his planned distillery. But as far as I can tell the sight never operated as a brewery.

The Excise Act of 1823 set reasonable fees and tax rates on distillers with the goal of curbing illicit operations. That was in that year in which Ledaig was granted a license, and why we see both 1798 and 1823 on the bottles as the “established” date. The company seems to have embraced the earlier date in recent years, and only 1798 shows up on all of the newer labels.

The distillery closed in 1837 for reasons that have been lost to history. That closure would last more than 40 years, and maps from the 1860’s show that the site was being used as a saw mill. Finally, in 1878, distillation resumed there.

Seven years later, in 1885, Alfred Barnard toured the distillery, giving us a detailed record of the operation. By this time the distillery was named Tobermory, although it is unclear when the change from Ledaig took place. Barnard notes that raw barley was shipped to Mull by steamers from the mainland, and was then malted at the distillery and dried in a kiln fueled by peat from a nearby estate. He also describes the two water wheels that powered most of the distillery, as well as the boiler that produced steam to heat the mash water and drive a five horsepower engine which ran the pumps necessary to move liquids against gravity.

But the biggest surprise in Barnard’s description is that the Spirit Still was heated by steam while the Wash Still was heated by fire (he doesn’t note if the fuel was peat or coal). I believe steam heated pot stills were quite rare at the time. Glenmorangie was the first to use pot stills with internal steam coils when the distillery was rebuilt in 1888-1889, but no one else followed that lead until the late 1950’s. Scapa, which was newly built in 1885, had stills heated by steam jacketing, which was apparently quite unusual at the time. Barnard doesn’t give further detail, but I am assuming that jacketing was the method used on the Spirit Still at Tobermory.

The distillery closed again in 1930. This time it was likely the result of decreased demand after 10 years of Prohibition in the U.S. In the ensuing years the buildings were used as a power plant and then as a canteen for marines stationed at a nearby naval base during World War II.

This second closure lasted more than 40 years until the distillery re-opened under new ownership in 1972. Unfortunately the owners went bankrupt in 1975 and operations ceased again. Even though the distillery name was changed back to Ledaig during this brief period, many casks were still labeled as Tobermory but almost all of the whisky was peated to around 40 ppm.

Whisky making resumed with another new owner in 1979. This is when the distillery began to make two separate styles of whisky; peated Ledaig and unpeated Tobermory. Extra money was brought in by renting some of the buildings for cheese storage and selling off the only warehouse for development into apartments. But that wasn’t enough to keep the distillery from closing again in the early 1980’s (I’ve seen closure dates ranging from 1981 to 1985, but I came across a listing for a Ledaig distilled in 1983, so they must have made it at least that far).

Production resumed once again in 1989, but it’s not clear if that involved a change of ownership. From 1979 through 1993 the peat levels of Ledaig were very inconsistent, but overall much lower than they had been in the early 1970’s, probably around 15 ppm. I could find no information as to whether or not the traditional floor maltings were used during this period. If they had been, that practice would have ended by 1993, when the distillery was purchased by Burn Stewart.

With the latest owner came a period of stability which is still being enjoyed 20 years later. By the mid 90’s, the peat level of Ledaig had been raised to 37 ppm. Burn Stewart has owned the Deanston distillery since 1991 and used the extra warehouse space there to mature Tobermory and Ledaig casks. In 2003 the company acquired the Bunnahabhain distillery on Islay, giving them access to more underutilized warehouse capacity. In 2007 a micro-warehouse was built in the Tobermory distillery complex, allowing an aging experiment to be carried out. A batch of Ledaig was distilled and 1/3 of it was stored at each of the three distilleries. Samples from each site will be analyzed as they approach 10 years of age to determine the different influences of each site. During my tour, I was told that most of the Tobermory/Ledaig production is now aged at Bunnahabhain. This makes a great deal of sense; if it can’t be warehoused on Mull, it should at least age in a coastal location.

In 2010, Burn Stewart made the move of eliminating chill filtering and caramel coloring across the board for all of their single malts. The abv was raised to 46.3% at the same time. I know this provided a huge improvement for Bunnahabhain, and I suspect that it did for Tobermory and Ledaig as well.

Also of interesting note is that when Bunnahabhain was acquired, the Black Bottle brand of blended scotch came with it. Formerly composed of all seven single malts from Islay, it now has Tobermory and Ledaig in the mix as well.

Burn Stewart was purchased in 2002 by CL Financial of Trinidad who had a major liquidity crisis in 2009. Fortunately, Burn Stewart was sold on to a South African beverage company named Distell earlier this year, ensuring future stability.

Ledaig 10 year:
It is pale straw in color, with a fresh nose of hearty peat smoke mixed with fields of hay and a gentle floral aspect.
The mouthfeel is oily, and it attacks with bold peat up front. An intense campfire comes to life on the mid-palate and then it slowly backs down allowing other flavors emerge. Grassy, floral, nutty and vanilla notes come together providing good complexity before it fades gracefully though the finish.
It’s well composed throughout and has just the right combination of youthful exuberance and aged refinement. The flavor profile lies somewhere between those of Laphroaig and Ardbeg (or perhaps closer to a vatting of the two).

I’m revisiting the 16 year Gordon & MacPhail Ledaig as well as the 10 year Tobermory for comparison sake. I wouldn’t say that the 16 year is bad, but it’s just not peaty enough and/or too floral (and in that perfumed way that I really have an aversion to). It is simply not in the same league as 10 year Ledaig. The 10 year Tobermory is very well made and does have a nice minty spice aspect and maltiness which balance the floral notes. For my personal preferences I view it is a good starting point, from which something really special happens when you add the peat level of Ledaig or the full sherry cask maturation of 15 year Tobermory. Perhaps some day the distillery will treat us to a Ledaig bottling that has been matured exclusively in sherry casks.