After visiting George Dickel and Maker’s Mark on my first day of touring American distilleries, day two brought me to my main objectives. First up was Four Roses, to be followed in the afternoon by Buffalo Trace. With Woodford Reserve and Wild Turkey in close proximity, I probably could have worked in a third tour that day, but I figured it would be more enjoyable if I didn’t try to squeeze too much into one day. That meant I was able to sleep in a little bit and start with the 10:00 tour at Four Roses rather than their first-of-the-day 9:00 tour. I’ve written about the history of Four Roses before but the topic really deserves a more in-depth look before I get into the nuts and bolts of my visit, which will come in my next post.
Four Roses was the best-selling brand of American whiskey in the US from shortly after Prohibition until some time after World War II, possibly all the way into the late 1950’s. The whiskey used for the brand in the US was transitioned from premium straight bourbon to a low quality blend in the 1950’s, ruining its reputation domestically over the ensuing decades. In the meantime, Four Roses straight bourbon continued to be produced at the same high level of quality it had long maintained, but now only for export. It was marketed primarily in Europe and Japan, where it was the best-selling bourbon for many years. Finally, in 2002, a change of ownership allowed Four Roses straight bourbon to return to the American market. The brand has been growing and rebuilding its reputation in the US over the last 14 years with great success.
Today, the Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY produces 10 distinct bourbon recipes which are used in various combinations to create their different bottlings. That wasn’t always the case though, and the history of the brand and how it got to where it is today is quite fascinating.
The official (from the distillery owners) origin story of the Four Roses name involves a marriage proposal, a dance and a corsage of four roses. That story came about well after the brand was established and has been debunked but unfortunately persists. I was a little disappointed to hear it repeated by my tour guide.
The early history of the brand is not entirely clear, though it likely began in Georgia shortly after the end of the Civil War. In 1867 Rufus M. Rose established a distillery 12 miles north of Atlanta. The most plausible story is that he named the brand after himself, his brother / business partner, and their two sons; four men with the last name Rose. Around the same time, Paul Jones Jr. and several of his relatives established a whiskey business in Atlanta, possibly including a distillery, but more likely focused on sales. There is evidence that Jones also had a business relationship with Rose, primarily selling the products made by the RM Rose distillery.
With the Temperance movement growing strong in Georgia, Paul Jones Jr. and his nephew moved their business to Tennessee in 1883. They grew their operation there, acting as brokers for more distillers and likely still selling whiskey from Rufus M. Rose’s distillery. They moved their business to Louisville, KY by 1886 to get closer to the large concentration of distilleries there. In 1889 the Paul Jones Company bought the existing J.G. Mattingly distillery in Louisville to ensure a supply of whiskey for the many brands they produced. Paul Jones Jr. passed away in 1905, but other family members continued to run the business.
When Georgia passed statewide Prohibition in 1907, the RM Rose Distillery was moved from Vining, Georgia to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Rufus stayed in Atlanta to tend to his real estate business and his son Randolph took over the distilling business. In 1910 Tennessee passed statewide Prohibition and by 1913 Randolph Rose had sold off all of the company assets.
The current owners of Four Roses do not acknowledge the Rose family’s involvement in the brand. Their version of the history focuses on Paul Jones trademarking the brand in 1888 (a date which appears on some of the current bottles), but they do note his claim of sales and production going back to the 1860’s.
An alternate version of the history has the Four Roses brand registered as a trademark in Atlanta in 1906, sold on to another company in 1913 and later being sold to the Paul Jones Company. Either way, the Four Roses brand was certainly part of the Paul Jones Company by the start of Prohibition.
In 1922 the Paul Jones Company purchased (and assumed the name of) the Frankfort Distilling Company, which was formed in 1902 when several rectifying companies merged. In 1920 Frankfort Distilling had received one of only six licenses to sell medicinal whisky during Prohibition. Their distillery near the forks of the Elkhorn Creek, just outside of Frankfort (which later become the home of Old Grand Dad and today operates as Jim Beam’s bottling plant) was used to bottle Four Roses as medicinal whiskey, with bourbon acquired from a number of closed distilleries. After Prohibition ended in 1933, the Frankfort Distilling Company built a new distillery in Shively, a Louisville suburb, which became the Four Roses distillery.
In 1943 the Frankfort Distilling Company was bought by Seagram, the Canadian liquor giant, primarily to acquire the Four Roses brand. Several other distilleries in the US were purchased by Seagram during World War II. One of those distilleries, Old Prentice in Lawrenceburg, KY, was acquired in 1946. Whiskey was produced on that site as far back as 1818, under the Old Joe brand. The current distillery there was built between 1910 and 1912 and named Old Prentice. It was closed from 1917 through 1933, but was refurbished and went back into production after Prohibition. The main building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is designed in the Spanish Mission style, something not often seen in Kentucky. At some point after acquiring it, Seagram moved the Four Roses name from the Shively distillery to the Lawrenceburg distillery, where it remains today.
By the late 1940’s Seagram had started to produce Four Roses as a blended whiskey. Four Roses as a straight bourbon continued to be produced and sold to export markets, but it was pulled from the US market. Some sources say that happened in the early 1950’s, other say it happened in the late 1950’s; all of the Four Roses advertising I could find from 1950 onward was promoting Four Roses blended whisky. Whether Seagram’s management really thought American consumers wanted a much milder whiskey or they were just trying to kill Four Roses so it couldn’t compete against their Crown Royal brand is a debatable point. The quality of the Four Roses blend was downgraded twice, about two decades after it was originally introduced. It started off in 1948 as 40% straight whiskey and 60% grain neutral spirits. That ratio changed to 35% / 65% in 1965 and then to 25% / 75% in 1970.
Back in the 1940’s the Seagram philosophy was to “mingle” whiskies from the many distilleries that they owned to create different flavor profiles for the various bourbon brands in their portfolio. This was done with two different grain recipes from each of their five Kentucky distilleries; Calvert in Louisville, Cummins – Collins in Athertonville, Henry McKenna in Fairfield, Old Hunter Lewis in Cynthiana and Old Prentice / Four Roses in Lawrenceburg. The distillery in Lawrenceburg never produced anything but high quality straight whiskey. The grain neutral spirits used in the Four Roses blends came from Seagram owned distilleries in Maryland and Indiana.
When the industry contracted dramatically in the 1970’s, Seagram was forced to consolidate and close distilleries. They didn’t want to give up the variety of bourbons they had for creating different flavor profiles though, so each time they had to close one of the distilleries mentioned above, they fell back on their tremendous Research and Development department and came up with a new yeast strain which would recreate the flavor profile of the closed distillery when it used to make whiskey at the Lawrenceburg, KY distillery. By 1983 their other four Kentucky distilleries had closed and five unique yeast strains were being used across two different mash bills to create 10 different bourbon recipes at the Four Roses distillery.
The roots of the Seagram Company date back to 1857, with the establishment of a distillery in Waterloo, Ontario. Joseph E. Seagram became a partner in the business in 1869 and was its owner by 1883. A separate Canadian whiskey company, Distillers Company Limited, was established by Samuel Bronfman in 1924 with a distillery in LaSalle, Quebec. Both companies capitalized on American Prohibition and grew substantially in the 1920’s. In 1928 Seagram was acquired by Distillers Company, but the merged businesses would operate under the Seagram name.
Seagram was well positioned to set up business in the US after Prohibition and expended that business during World War II. Control of the company passed to Bronfman’s son in 1971 and to his grandson in 1994. Edgar Bronfman Jr. sold off the company’s most profitable assets (a 24.3% stake in DuPont) and began purchasing film and electronic media businesses. Long story short, junior was an idiot and ran the company into the ground in five short years. Seagram was bought out by Vivendi, primarily for its media assets. Vivendi sold off the beverage assets the next year. Most of the spirit brands went to Diageo, but the Four Roses brand and distillery (as well as another distillery which was confusingly located in Lawrenceburg, Indiana) went to Pernod Ricard. Early in 2002 the Four Roses brand and distillery were sold to Kirin, who had been the Japanese importer of Four Roses Bourbon for many years.
Jim Rutledge, who had worked for Seagram since 1966 and had been the master distiller at Four Roses since 1995, now had the opportunity to convince the new owners to bring Four Roses straight bourbon back to the US. The Four Roses blend was quickly pulled from the market and Four Roses Yellow Label bourbon was reintroduced to Kentucky in 2002. The Single Barrel bottling followed in 2004 and the Small Batch in 2006. Distribution outside of Kentucky started in the spring of 2007 and Four Roses is now available in all 50 states.
Using a variety of yeasts and mash bills in one distillery is not completely unique, but no one does it to the extent that Four Roses does. Jim Beam has two bourbon mash bills (15% rye and 30% rye), with a different yeast used for each one, but that is still just two recipes. The high rye recipe is used for Old Grand Dad and Basil Hayden’s, the low rye recipe is used for all of their other bourbons. Buffalo Trace has three bourbon mash bills (one is wheat based and the other two are roughly 9% rye and 15% rye). The same yeast is used for all three recipes. These are used for dozens of different brands, and the main factors that differentiate them (aside from age) are the types of warehouses employed and the locations of the aging barrels within them. Sheet metal sided vs. brick walled warehouses and 1st floor vs. 9th floor placement will provide wildly differing aging conditions. Four Roses is unique among the major bourbon distillers in that they have eliminated this variable with single story warehouses that are all of the same construction. They instead rely on their 10 recipes to create their various expressions.
Each recipe has a 4 letter code, although only two of the letters are significant. The first letter is always “O” and is probably a reference to the distillery’s former name, Old Prentice. The third letter is always “S”, signifying straight whiskey, which is all that the company deals with these days. The second letter is the mash bill; “B” is 60% corn, 35% rye and 5% malted barley, “E” is 75% corn, 20% rye and 5% malted barley. The last letter indicates 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
These combine to give the following 10 recipes:
OBSV – delicate fruity (pear, apricot), spicy, creamy
OBSK – rich in spiciness, full body
OBSQ – floral (rose petal), spicy, medium body
OBSO – slightly fruity spicy, medium body
OBSF – mint, fruity, spicy, full body
OESV – delicate fruity, fresh, creamy
OESK – spicy, full body
OESQ – floral (rose petal, acacia), banana, refreshing, medium body
OESO – fruity (red berries), medium body
OESF – mint, fruity, full body
Those recipes are used in the following combinations for the standard bottlings. None of them carry an age statements, but target ages were mentioned during the tour and have been noted.
Yellow Label – all 10 recipes, 6 to 6.5 years, 80 proof
Small Batch – OBSO + OBSK + OESO + OESK, 7 to 7.5 years, 90 proof
Single Barrel – OBSV, 9 to 9.6 years, 100 proof.
Then there are the limited annual release bottlings.
The Single Barrel Limited Edition was introduced in the fall of 2007, but eventually shifted to a spring release to coincide with the Kentucky Derby. Each year a different single recipe is used, it is bottled at barrel proof and the ages typically have been between 12 and 17 years.
The Small Batch Limited Edition was introduced in the fall of 2008 (it was called the Marriage Collection for the first two years). Each year it is a combination of three to four different recipes, usually with different ages that have fallen between 10 and 19 years, and it is bottled at barrel proof.
Lastly we have the Private Selection Single Barrel bottlings.
This is a program where someone can taste through a selection of barrels, pick the one they like best and buy all of the bottles yielded by that barrel. These could be any one of the 10 recipes and are usually in the 9 to 11 year range. They are bottled at barrel proof, which seems to typically fall between 52% and 62% alcohol by volume after aging in the relatively consistent single-story warehouses.
Private Selection bottlings are sometimes purchased by individuals, but more often they go to large restaurant groups or liquor store chains. They are also available at the distillery shop after being selected by the master distiller. The Private Selection bottling that I’m tasting today is one that I’ve had sitting on my shelf for a few years. It was chosen by M.S. Walker, a regional distributor of Four Roses, so it would have been available in a variety of liquor stores, bars and restaurants.
The recipe is OBSQ (35% rye recipe and floral yeast profile). It has an age statement of 10 years and 3 months, is at 60.5% abv, and if I’m reading the code printed on the bottom of the bottle correctly it was bottled in February of 2014.
The nose is surprisingly restrained considering the elevated proof. It seems to hit all of the classical bourbon notes though, with aromas of sweet corn, vanilla, caramel and balancing oak. There’s a hint of floral character, but I had to hunt around for a bit to pick up on it.
What was held back on the nose had no problem jumping right out on the palate; this is a big one! There’s some nice flavor development, but it’s definitely in a pitched battle with the alcohol. A few sips are needed to acclimatize the palate; after that an interesting progression of flavors is revealed. It starts off with grain-forward, dry notes of fresh baked goods. Then it quickly transitions to a sweeter, berry-like floral character on the mid palate.
Soon after, it gets progressively drier as it moves through the spice-laden finish. There’s an element of rye spice throughout the back end, but the early finish shows mint and teaberry while fiery notes of cinnamon red hots become more dominant later in the finish.
This one is bold enough to make you squint a little but has the complexity to make you stop and contemplate.