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.

No comments: