My last post took an in-depth look at the history of Four Roses and explained how their product line has evolved to its current offerings. I felt that was a necessary prelude to the details of my distillery tour, which I’ll get into here.
The hotel I had chosen for my two nights in Kentucky was on the outskirts of Frankfort, but conveniently located right next to one of Interstate 64’s exits. From there it took me about 30 minutes to get down to the Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg. Five rather large warehouses are located directly across the street from the distillery but those currently belong to Wild Turkey, having been sold off in the days of Seagram’s ownership. All of the Four Roses warehouses are about 45 minutes to the west, in Cox’s Creek, which is just north of Bardstown. Tours are also available at the warehouse complex, and if you pay for a tour at either location, your ticket is good for a free tour at the other location for 60 days. Like George Dickel, single story warehouses are employed by Four Roses. They are the only two major American distilleries to follow this practice.
The main distillery building, which is very close to the road, is quite striking as you approach. The large, yellow structure was built between 1910 and 1912. Its Spanish Mission design, which is rare in Kentucky but was popular nationally at the turn of the century, was chosen by Leo Oberwarth, a Frankfort-based architect.
Additions were made to the building during a period of expanded production in the 1940’s. These include a five-story tower to accommodate a bigger column still and a two-story brick structure on the back left of the building which houses additional fermentation tanks. These elements fit in with the original architecture, but the newer, more industrial looking grain storage and milling building to the left is somewhat distracting visually.
Newer buildings on the property have a more modern look, but were designed to blend in with the design of the still house. These include administrative offices and the 5000 square-foot visitor’s center that opened in the fall of 2012.
The tour started in a room in the back of the visitor’s center where the guide gave a brief talk and a short video went over the production process and the 10 recipes used by Four Roses.
Like my visit to Dickel, I was the only one on the tour here, which is the benefit of going to distilleries in the off-season. From there we walked outside and saw a tanker truck outside of the stillhouse that was being filled with new-make spirit, to be transported over to Cox’s Creek for filling and warehousing. My tour guide mentioned that two tankers (each hauling 6500 gallons) make that trip each day.
From there we walked around to the other side of the main distillery building and went into the Grain Quality Laboratory. This tiny, stand-alone building consists of a single room and isn’t much bigger than a shed. It’s here that samples from the incoming grain shipments are inspected. This quality control process includes organoleptic testing (that’s a fancy word for the use of the sense organs) to determine if each load of grain will be accepted or rejected. I asked how often shipments are rejected and the guide told me it was pretty infrequently, maybe two or three per year. Even the rejected loads of grain are still good enough to be used as cattle feed, so they don’t go to waste.
From there we entered the main distillery building and went up to the fermentation room, which is on the left end of the structure. The day before had been unseasonably mild while I as was at Maker’s Mark, but the temperature had dropped back down to something more realistic for February, so it was nice to get back inside. The original fermentation room has nine traditional Cypress tanks surrounding a stainless steel beer well (this is just an intermediate tank where the liquid is held after fermentation, while it waits to go to the still.) In the background, you can see through a few openings to the newer part of the building where additional fermenters are housed. There are 14 more; the few that I could see were stainless steel. Fermentation times are 84 hours and the beer produced is at 8% ABV.
My tour guide showed me an example of how they use string to patch up small leaks in the fermenters. She also mentioned that Cypress, which was the most appropriate local wood for making fermenters, was now a threatened species and that any new wooden fermenters would be made from Douglas fir.
At some point we talked about the expansion project that was recently initiated at Four Roses. This huge, $55 million augmentation will include adding a second set of stills, another cooker and many more fermenters, as well as three more warehouses (there are currently 20) and a new bottling plant at Cox’s Creek. The estimated completion for all of this work, which was announced in June of 2015, is some time in 2019.
Current production, which will double when the expansion is complete, is a little under 300 barrels per day (I believe they’re operating 5 days a week). Remember, Maker’s Mark just expanded to get to 650 barrels per day while Dickel produces less than 100 barrels per day (600 barrels per week, running seven days a week).
Next we made our way down to the main distilling area and entered the control room. This singular, windowed room is built against the front wall of the distillery, positioned just in front of the mash cooker. Some of the equipment was going through a cleaning process, so the guy working in there had time to chat for a bit. I got the impression that this was an unusual treat to have on a tour.
The automation system was added in 1999, but didn’t really change the distilling process at all. The purpose is to improve consistency and decrease labor costs. What used to require several people walking around the distillery, reading gauges and adjusting valves can now be done remotely by one person in the control room via computer monitors and keyboards. The production employee I spoke to did mention that once in a while a piece of equipment would malfunction (something along the lines of a valve getting stuck), which would set off alarms in the control room and send him running out to rectify the problem manually.
He also talked about the summer shutdown, explaining to me that the higher temperature of the river water (which is used for many cooling processes) during that time of the year would make operations too slow and inefficient. He cited one example of a cooling process that would usually take three hours, which took five hours in the days leading up to the shutdown. At some point my tour guide noted that the distillery withdraws 1 million gallons of water from the Salt River each day, but that 750,000 gallons of that was returned directly to the river with no need to be treated in any way (most of that would be cooling water that just goes back at a higher temperature).
Opposite to the control room, on the other side of the mash cooker, was the yeast room. This brick walled room houses the tubs where small amounts of yeast culture are added to sterile portions of mash so the yeast can propagate into sufficient quantities to be pitched into the much larger fermentation tanks.
Aside from these first three rooms (control room, yeast room and fermentation room), most of the distilling equipment at Four Roses is housed in the large, open space of the main building. The ceiling is two to three stories high, with open stairways and a suspended walkway connecting small areas of elevated flooring. Everything is on display here, including all of the plumbing, electrical conduit and mechanical odds and ends that seem more hidden at other distilleries. The space feels much less compartmentalized compared to other tours that I’ve been on and it’s my understanding that Four Roses is one of the few American distillery tours where the doubler is in plain view. The only thing you can’t really see is the upper half of the column still, which goes up into the tower.
I was hoping to gain a better technical understanding of the typical bourbon distillation process and learn how it differs from malt whisky production in Scotland during these tours. I did manage to pick up some good information along the way, but probably should have tried to make arrangements to speak with a master distiller somewhere along the way.
I did learn that it’s important to cook the different grains at different temperatures. The corn needs a high temperature cook to break apart the kernels and fully dissolve its starches. At Four Roses the corn is cooked under pressure allowing a temperature higher than the normal boiling point of water, which speeds up the process. Other bourbon distillers cook their corn under pressure, but not all of them; Maker’s Mark being a notable exception.
Next the rye (or wheat if it’s a wheated recipe) is added to the mash. This grain is cooked at a lower temperature than the corn. As with the corn cook, breaking apart and dissolving starches is the purpose here. Finally, the malted barley is added to the mash at an even lower temperature. The malting process is expensive but very important. This is where enzymes are developed (which will be very important in the mashing process) and insoluble starch is converted into soluble starch.
I’m drawing information from some of my old home brewing books rather than the distillery tour at this point, but the goal of mashing is the same if you are making beer or whiskey. Once the malted barley is added to the mash, it needs to be held at a temperature somewhere between 145 and 158 degrees F. This temperature range will activate the enzymes in the barley that were developed during malting. These enzymes do two things; they convert the dissolved starches in the mash (from all three grains) into fermentable sugars and unfermentable dextrins (which add a fuller bodied character, at least in beer). Once the conversion is complete, it is important to raise the temperature to 170 degrees F to deactivate the enzymes.
This is why the grains have to be cooked in stages; the temperatures required for the corn would damage the rye (or wheat) and the temperature required for both would destroy the enzymes in the malted barley before it had a chance to convert the starches into fermentable sugars. Most bourbons have between 5% and 10% malted barley in their recipe because that is how much is necessary to provide the quantity of enzymes needed for the entire mash. If you see a bourbon with less malt, chances are it had enzymes added that were synthesized in a lab.
And all of this explains why the cookers can look like pretty complicated mechanisms; they are often pressure vessels (with a means to control that pressure) and they need to have internal coils of pipe for both steam (to add heat) and water (for cooling), as well as a mechanism to stir the mixture which will keep temperatures consistent throughout.
Beyond the cooker, we wandered around the distilling area, viewing the column still, the doubler (which looks a lot like a traditional Scottish copper pot still, at least the top part of it), both of their condensers and both of their tailboxes. The tailbox for the doubler was marked with a sign and looked very traditional. The column still’s tailbox wasn’t labeled and looked somewhat atypical. It’s eye-catching, but I have a feeling that a lot of people taking the tour don’t even realize what they are looking at when they see it.
Just beyond the doubler there was a section of a column still set up for display. This showed the internals which are normally hidden from sight. I already had a pretty good idea of how a column still worked, with perforated plates controlling the upward flow of steam and the downward flow of fermented liquid, but it was great to actually see the system of baffles that are used on the plates to make this all happen.
My tour guide mentioned that the column still brings the distillate up to 132 proof and the doubler takes it up to 140 proof. It is then diluted down to 120 proof before barrel entry. These numbers were 120/130/110 at Maker’s Mark and 115/130/112 at Dickel. Wandering around the open space of the distilling area, I also noticed a vessel marked as the “No 1 Heads and Tails Tank”. I was pretty excited to see confirmation that the doubler is used not only to increase the proof after the column still, but also to separate out the undesirable portions of the distillate. This is something that you can’t really do with a column still due to its continuous, rather than batch, type of operation.
Finally, we made our way back to the visitor’s center and tasted through four different expressions; Yellow Label, Small Batch, Single Barrel and a Barrel Strength Single Barrel bottling. This was a Private Selection bottling available for sale in the distillery gift shop which was picked by the Master Distiller, a position taken over by Brent Elliott when Jim Rutledge retired in September of 2015. As long as I’ve been a fan of Four Roses, I think this was the first time that I’d tasted their three regular expressions side by side.
Oh, and they let you keep the Four Roses glass after the tasting too!
As for the Private Selection bottlings, there are usually at least two available at the distillery gift shop and at least two other ones available at the warehouse / bottling location gift shop. These selections have all been made by the Master Distiller, and many of the bottles are signed by him. This gives a pretty good selection of special bottlings to choose from if you are visiting both locations.
Every Single Barrel bottle, be it the standard offering at 50% ABV or one of the barrel strength Private Selections or Limited Editions, has its warehouse number and barrel number (which indicates its location in that warehouse) printed on the label.
I didn’t make any tasting notes at the distillery because I was too focused on my tour guide’s explanation of those warehouse and barrel numbers. I’ll probably need to visit the warehousing facility at some point to fully understand the system, but I’ll explain it as well as I can.
There are 20 warehouses, each with a letter designation. The second letter will be either N or S (north, south) or E or W (east, west), depending on the positioning of the particular warehouse. Each one is a square building with a one acre footprint. Each warehouse has two entrances, which are on the same wall and each about ¼ of the way in from their respective ends. These entrances each open to an aisle that runs the length of the building and has racks on both sides. The racks on one side of an aisle run to the end wall and the racks on the other side run to the center of the building. The second letter designation basically tells you which side of the warehouse the barrel came from.
The barrel number starts with a number that ranges from 1 to 180. This is the rack number; these run down one side of the aisle and back up the other side. If you open one door of a warehouse, rack #1 will be on your left and rack # 90 will be on your right. At the far end of that aisle #45 and #46 will be across from each other. The other door / aisle of the warehouse will have racks #91 through #180.
A hyphen separates the first number from another number and letter. The second number is the row; with the barrels stacked six high, 1 is closest to the floor and 6 is on top. The last letter tells you how far back in the rack the barrel is. A is closest to the aisle and the further down the alphabet you go (it goes out either 20 or 22 barrels) the closer the barrels get to the end wall or the center of the building, depending on which side of the aisle the rack is on.
I’ve included a satellite image of the warehouses from Google maps, but there’s unfortunately no way to tell which warehouse letter belongs to which building. You can see that six of the warehouses are clearly set up with east and west entrances and one with north and south entrances. The other 13 warehouse are laid out on a 45 degree angle to the first seven, so it’s hard to know if those are designated as N-S or E-W. A visit to this site will definitely happen on my next visit to Kentucky.
Another interesting fact which I came across is that some Private Selection bottles end up being sold without their side label that shows the recipe and age, and in this situation you can email Four Roses and they will provide the missing information if you give them the barrel number from the front label. In my case, I just forgot to take a picture of the side label of the one I tasted at the distillery. My email inquiring about barrel 81-1H from warehouse GW at 50.3% ABV was quickly answered, letting me know that it was OBSF (35% rye, Herbal Essence yeast) aged to 11 years and 7 months.
The bottle that I purchased at the distillery for $72, which I’m tasting now, is OBSO (35% rye, Rich Fruitiness yeast) at 51.8% and aged to 8 years and 9 months. It’s from warehouse QN, barrel 73-1E.
The nose has good depth without being too aggressive. An earthy, clay / Play-Doh character is the most obvious note. Gentle oak, subtle vanilla and hints of spice and fruit round out the aromas.
This one is relatively assertive on the palate right out of the gate. It shows a hint of sweetness up front, when it’s fruit character is most obvious. After a few sips, the red berry fruit seems to hold on for longer before giving way to the bold spiciness.
Complex, warming spice notes evolve through the lengthy finish, whish becomes increasingly dry as any other elements fade.
The Four Roses Private Selection that I tasted for my last post (OBSQ at 60.5%, from JE 42-2V) is more bellicose by comparison (as it rightly should be with a significantly higher ABV). It also seems that the Q yeast (floral) has less ability to add balance to the B (high rye) mash bill than the O yeast (rich fruitiness) does. Nonetheless, these are both delicious bourbons.