It sometimes feels like I’ll be producing limited edition reviews in an unlimited edition.
We’ve had a bit of fun with the “limited edition” tag here at Malt, as it is one which is abused by the whiskey industry. This moniker has an especially comical effect when enthusiasm for the edition is exceeded by the supply (or demand is curtailed by the price), making these rather less limited than their creators would have hoped.
Four Roses hasn’t suffered such indignities, however, as its Limited Editions have become brisk sellers and instant collectibles, changing hands in the secondary market for the type of prices you’d expect of a sought-after whiskey from a distillery with a devoted fan club. I’m not the guy who gets the call about these when the allocations arrive, nor am I the guy who pays a markup to a flipper, no matter how desirable the bottle. Thus, I have had to rely on a network of generous friends in order to try these. Fortunately, a recent sample swap dropped not one but two of these Limited Editions in my lap, which I will review for you today.
I’m happy to use this opportunity to further enhance the Malt library of Four Roses reviews, which has grown to incorporate much of the range that will be of interest to our readers. Jason considered the Single Barrel expression; John followed up with a review pitting the Single Barrel against the Single Barrel Limited Edition 2012. We’ve had store pick single barrel reviews from Jason and myself, and a head-to-head comparison of two of the different recipe codes.
I also took a look at the Small Batch and Small Batch Select expressions, with the latter being positioned as an upgrade of the former. Continuing the trend of paying more for (hopefully) better, I’ll be taking a look at two of the last few years’ entrants in the Limited Edition Small Batch range.
Four Roses enthusiasts were treated to a double bill of Limited Edition Small Batches in 2017. In addition to the standard 2017 Limited Edition Small Batch, the distillery released a separate bottling to commemorate Al Young’s 50th year with the company.
Al Young passed last year, having cemented his status as an all-time bourbon legend during his long tenure at Four Roses. After serving as Distillery Manager since 1990, Al was appointed Senior Brand Ambassador in 2007. He spent his time traveling widely and sharing his passion for Four Roses bourbon, finding time on the side to write a history of the business, “Four Roses: The Return of a Whiskey Legend,” released in 2010. The following year, he was inducted into the Kentucky Distillers’ Association Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame.
There’s a charming interview with the late, great man about this Limited Edition that I’d recommend you read. His humility and abiding love for Four Roses are evident in his responses, and one quickly gets a sense of why he was so revered in bourbon circles. On a practical note, Al was involved in the selection of the components of this blend. The bottle design is a throwback to 1967, Mr. Young’s first year at the distillery.
On researching this review, I noticed that Four Roses has now assigned numbers to each of its 10 recipe codes. The level of cryptographic sophistication demanded of a humble bourbon drinker is now increasing! Jokes aside, Four Roses is rare among the larger distilleries in that they are even willing to entertain a discussion about mash bill and yeast strains, much less present their whiskeys with specific reference thereto. While this is most useful with regards to the single barrel expressions, it provides an interesting bit of chiaroscuro in the case of the batched bourbons.
This Limited Edition is a blend of recipes 1 (OBSV), 2 (OBSK), 5 (OBSF), and 6 (OESV). For the extra-geeky, this is comprised of 50% 13-year-old OESV, 25% 15-year-old OBSK, 20% 12-year-old OBSF, and 5% of a superannuated 23-year-old OBSV, giving this a weighted average age of 13.8 years (that’s not how it works, legally or practically, but I’m a sucker for statistical analysis).
Four Roses Al Young 50th Anniversary Limited Edition – Review
Color: Medium-light orange with rose glints.
On the nose: Initially, my nose is overwhelmed by a luscious wave of oaky vanilla. Once acclimated, however, I start to detect more varied scents. Chocolate fudge, nutmeg, cardamom pods, freshly sanded cedar wood, and a bitterly citric note of lime peel. After some time in the glass, a dried floral note of potpourri meets the sticky sweet scent of maple syrup. I’m getting a faint spicy-sweetness of Carolina barbecue sauce; there’s also an acetone-like piquancy that rounds this off.
In the mouth: A cheery entrance, with a tart and juicy burst of ripe cherries. This pivots to a mineral note, with the fruit turning a bit sour as this progresses toward midpalate. This is at its most cohesive when it sits atop the tongue with a rounded texture comprised of balanced woody, fruity, and stony flavors in equal proportion. With a green, stalky note, this begins to move on toward the back of the mouth. The whiskey lingers for a minute or more, with additional stone notes and a drying sensation that starts at the back of the tongue and slowly creeps towards the top and front of the mouth.
This has forceful flavors, though some of them are so sharp as to turn bitter, astringent, or sour at points. This occurs both on the nose and in the mouth and, while the sensations are not so severe as to be unpleasant, they leave the whiskey feeling a little unbalanced. Still, there’s more to like than to dislike here. Considering the price, I’m scoring this a notch above average.
Among the samples he passed to me, Matt was also kind enough to include the 2019 Limited Edition. This is a blend of four whiskeys, two from the same recipe: 21-year-old OBSV, 15-year-old OESK, 15-year-old OESV, and 11-year-old OESV. That’s recipes 1, 7, and 6 on the new system. Proportions were not disclosed, so I’ll have to give the Excel spreadsheet a rest. Four Roses noted that this is the first time a 21-year-old whiskey has been included in the blend, though we don’t know how much.
Coming in at 112.6 proof (56.3% ABV), this is once again non-chill filtered. 13,440 bottles were released at a price of $140.
Four Roses 2019 Limited Edition – Review
Color: Similarly rose-inflected medium-light orange, perhaps a half shade darker than the prior dram.
On the nose: Far more light and airy, this has confectionary scents swirling around in a delicate dance. There’s a pronounced corny note here, as well as a sappy aroma of pine trees, and some cigarette ash. More cherries, this time less ripe and more soft-spoken. Cherry hard candies, perhaps? Chocolate fudge (again), cornbread muffins, and dried oregano are the final salient aromas here.
I added a few drops of water to see if it wouldn’t soften this one up. The fruit flavors bloom a bit more, but otherwise the notes are consistent and proportional to the impression I got from the undiluted whiskey.
In the mouth: Tart and astringent on the entry, this is very sharp and focused as it moves into the midpalate. There, it falls nearly mute, with only a drying mineral note around the top of the mouth to indicate its presence. This continues in dumb fashion through the radiantly hot finish; this is all texture and no flavor, essentially.
After adding water, I was able to tease just a bit more nuance out of this one. Most of the improvement comes in the middle of the mouth, where some grainy rye-like flavors emerge, along with a reprise of the nose’s pine sap note. At the back of the mouth this shows a wisp of weakly woody flavor, but overall this remains severely restrained.
I liked this less than the 50th Anniversary. It had all of the former’s flaws and fewer of the offsetting high points. At a price more in line with, say, Booker’s, I would have probably given this as an average mark. As we’ve discussed before, though, putting a >$100 price tag on a bourbon elevates expectations to a level that demands perfection, or something close. This falls well short of that mark and, as a consequence, I am docking a point.
I am now going to write something which I know will inflame a portion of the readership, causing some of them to disregard all my opinions henceforth: I don’t love Four Roses bourbon. I didn’t come to this conclusion lightly; I have tried a lot of Four Roses, both formally for review here on Malt and in extracurricular circumstances, at bars and in the homes of friends. I have had some good ones and some OK ones; never, it should be said, has one been poor. However, I’ve never had one that really grabbed me, as I have with whiskey from the other big distilleries such as Beam, Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, and Wild Turkey.
Looking back over my notes, I’d finger the exceedingly high rye content in the mash bills as the likely culprit. While I don’t mind some sharper, more stern flavors in a bourbon whiskey, I tend to find them best incorporated as counterweights to very plump and generous notes. These make an occasional appearance in the Four Roses bourbons I have tried, but they mostly remain quite lean and firm. This effect is exacerbated at barrel proof, and I’m more frequently adding my own water to these than I normally would.
This doesn’t mean I don’t respect the professionals (past and present) of Four Roses; I do, sincerely. Being a geek supreme, I also love the transparency of the company’s presentation and the temptation to collect the whole set of recipe codes. I am not swearing off Four Roses whiskey, nor am I going to approach future bottles with prejudice.
However, I feel confident that I have developed an understanding of the house style which means that, in general, it doesn’t suit my personal tastes. This should be taken as a useful point of calibration for all readers of my reviews. If you disagree: great. Less Four Roses for me means more left for you. You’re welcome, and I won’t forget to put roses on your grave.
Lead image from Four Roses, additional image kindly provided by Grain & Vine.