“A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country” was the maxim governing my early whisk(e)y education. While I gave undue consideration to even the most pedestrian of single malt Scotch whiskies, I mostly neglected the increasingly compelling output of our domestic distillers, including (and perhaps especially) Bourbon.
For much of my young drinking life, Bourbon was something I bought by the pint (loneliness) or handle (party time). It’s no coincidence that my first Bourbon review for MALT was the humble Evan Williams Black Label, with an emphasis on tolerable quality at an economical price. As I became aware that the better merchants in my area were devoting more of their time, attention, and shelf space to Bourbons of all types, my resistance waned and I began to see what all the fuss was about. My personal journey has led me here: to a single barrel store pick of Four Roses, a brand that had historically been stigmatized with the type of low-rent connotations I had attached to Bourbon more broadly.
For the purposes of completism, a short primer on Four Roses will now commence, with the understanding that you may skip past it if this is old hat to you. Ahem:
Four Roses’ origins are clouded in the type of murky pseudo-mythology which characterizes much of whiskey’s not-so-recent history. The name comes from a cloying anecdote about the purported founder and his Southern belle; I can’t bear to reproduce it but you can read it here if you’d like to induce a diabetic coma in yourself.
As far as hard facts go: Seagram owned the brand from 1943-2002, during which time the company ceased producing Straight Bourbon Whiskey under the Four Roses name in the U.S. Instead, they utilized the marque for a blended whiskey sold at a price point that indicated it was intended for use by indigent alcoholics to hasten their own demise. Europe and Asia continued to enjoy Four Roses Straight Bourbon Whiskey, which became the category leader in those markets. Following the collapse of Segram, Four Roses became a hot potato, passed from Diageo to current owners Kirin.
Kirin discontinued the bottom-shelf blend and instead revived Four Roses Straight Bourbon Whiskey in the early part of this century, under the stewardship of Master Blender Jim Rutledge and his protégé/successor, Brent Elliott. Four Roses’ entry-level “Yellow Label” Bourbon will now set you back $22 at my local. By accounts it is an easy sipper or a cocktail staple, oft tarred with that dreaded descriptor “smooth.” Those looking for an upgrade can choose between the Small Batch ($30) or Single Barrel ($40) expressions.
Among the whiskey cognoscenti (as noted by Adam in his recent store pick review), Four Roses captures the most interest for its “recipe codes,” a tetragrammaton which indicates which of the company’s 10 recipes was used for a given barrel. Two mash bills (E for 75% corn, 20% rye and 5% malted barley; B for 60% corn, 35% rye and 5% malted barley) permutate with five yeast strains coded for their flavor profile (V for “delicate fruit,” K for “slight spice,” O for “rich fruit,” Q for “floral essence,” and F for “herbal notes”). For reference, this bottle is recipe OESQ, which the company’s handy recipe infographic informs me is “Floral, Banana, Fresh, Medium Body.”
Truth be told, I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, it introduces some quasi-transparency into the experience. The collectors among us will rejoice in assembling the whole set of recipe codes, with the opportunity to taste the differences between them. At the same time, I try not to read tasting notes (official or otherwise) before I try a dram, as we’re all susceptible to the Jedi-mind-trickery of suggestion, especially regarding something as nebulously subjective as aromas and flavors.
The last time MALT took on Four Roses was in this 2014 review from Jason. It was, also, a store pick from a Chicagoland retailer. Alexandra’s seminal piece on Bourbon’s store pick culture should be considered a prerequisite ahead of any meditation on this format; if you haven’t already read (and re-read) it, you’re now excused.
This is a selection from Fountainhead, which is the whisk(e)y bar I’d take the MALT crew to if they ever graced the Third Coast with their illustrious presence. The adjacent Fountainhead Market shop is roughly the square footage of my first apartment after college and offers a small but well-curated selection of bottles. One gets the sense that everything on the shelf is there for a reason, and the person behind the counter always has a well-informed recommendation. Our type of place, in other words.
This is Fountainhead Barrel V (“The Roses Strike Back,” if I recall correctly), a.k.a. barrel #8-3P from warehouse MW. It was bottled December 4, 2017, aged 9 years, at a strength of 59.2%. I paid about $60 before our punitive Cook County taxes brought the price in-line with my mortgage payment.
Four Roses Fountainhead Store Pick – review
Color: Medium-dark sandstone.
On the nose: Freshly-opened, this presents a vernal nose of dew-dampened lilies, mint, and green twigs. A little time in the glass allows this to bloom with hot caramel, a creamy Christmas spice, potpourri, cedar, molasses, and varnish.
In the mouth: The palate starts very lithe, with a metallic twinge asserting itself at midpalate. This finishes with creamy vanilla-oak sweetness offset by a lingering ferric note and a resinous pine quality.
This is about halfway to the point of new oak saturation that Jason despises. It doesn’t knock ones socks off, but there’s a lot of comforting and cheery aromas and flavors here to like when it is enjoyed attentively. I can see this being a fun bottle to break out at the conclusion of a summer cookout, when the fresher aspects of the nose and the pert cleanliness of the mouthfeel are required to revive palates dulled by smoked meats and the unctuous sweet heat of BBQ sauce.
Good review Taylor. I’m fortunate that I never started with bottom shelf stuff here in Blighty. I was introduced to Single Malt when I was 18 by manager who was an enthusiast. My first bought bottle was a full blown Port Ellen. My bourbon experience wasn’t so bad. I think my first bottle was Maker’s Mark. I would drink it whilst reading William Faulkner. I have a pretty handy bourbon collection these days and I enjoy it as an alternative. Nevertheless, it’s slightly tricky. When you go on a bourbon flight you realise the limitation. The flavour profile is largely similar and there is always the oak.
I do think, however, that Four Roses have a very fine expression which and that is the regular Single Barrel. It certainly challenges any Scotch at £30-35 and is natural colour and 50% to boot. Former Master Distiller, Jim Rutledge, is a great distiller and he resurrected this brand. I have heard of the Store Pick’s but I can’t get them. There is excellent bourbon but I baulk at the idea of luxury bourbon and I believe it should be available and affordable even at the extremities. I appreciate it’s a business like everything else but that’s what I think. Thanks once again. WT
Many good points here, thanks WT. I am also slightly uncomfortable with the idea of luxury bourbon. If I’m going to pay up, I’m happier to do it in order to support a startup craft distiller making small batches of differentiated product (e.g. Quincy Street), rather than chasing trophy bottles from the Kentucky mega-distillers. Cheers again for sharing your thoughts!
Nice review. Makes me want to try Bourbon again. I’ve never really gotten into it, no matter how much I try. It’s just not that interesting enough to my palate, yet. So it’s me Bourbon, not you. But I will keep trying ;P
Juju, thanks for the compliment. Whisk(e)y has become a wider tent in recent years, as evinced by the increased diversity of reviews here on MALT. That said: tastes are unique, judgment is subjective, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I’m certainly not the final word on any of the whiskies I review. You don’t have to like Bourbon; Jason doesn’t (but sorta pretends to). I’d just encourage you to taste a variety of styles and form your own conclusions. Happy hunting!