“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” – Ernest Hemingway
Four Roses has come an awful long way from its recent past as rotgut swill, swigged primarily by over-the-hill Philadelphian boxing trainers. For those unfamiliar with the history, allow me to briefly delve into the much maligned journey of Four Roses from America’s best-selling bourbon in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, to an unfortunate blended whiskey beloved only by the least discerning consumers in the market.
It was in the late 50’s that Seagram, former owner of Four Roses, made the switch from selling America’s favorite bourbon to selling what they termed Four Roses American Blended Whiskey. That’s not to say that they stopped producing bourbon, but instead they began shipping it all to the European and Asian markets, leaving us Four Roses-forsaken Yankees with the aforementioned wilted alternative.
Containing Canadian blended whiskey and a healthy dose of double-distilled light whiskey, the intervening decades are now considered the dark ages, as Four Roses’ most emphatic fans morphed from your everyman bourbon drinker to morose misers, the ilk made infamous by Paulie from the Rocky film franchise. Seldom seen without some of the most awful and affordable alcohol then available, Paulie’s depiction of an avid Four Roses fan cemented the brand’s fall from grace for stateside spirits savants.
Fortunately, in 2002 Four Roses was acquired by beverage giant Kirin Co., who immediately set to work with bringing their bourbon where it was born: Kentucky. Beginning with their flagship express, which I’ll be reviewing today and was then colloquially known as Four Roses Yellow Label, they shortly thereafter expanded their lineup.
Using their famed formula of two high rye mash bills (60% Corn, 35% Rye, 5% Malted Barley and 75% Corn, 20% Rye, 5% Malted Barley) plus five yeast strains for 10 proprietary recipes, Four Roses eventually went on to develop their core lineup which includes the 100 proof single barrel expression (launched in 2004) and their 90 proof Small Batch expression (in 2006).
Along the way they also debuted a sought-after barrel proof version of their single barrel offering and several limited editions which have developed a rabid fan base. They also developed an exclusive membership group, the Mellow Moments Club. Most recently, Four Roses master distiller, Brent Elliott, developed the “fourth rose” of their regular release lineup with 2019’s debut of Four Roses Small Batch Select.
From a forgotten flower to a blossoming behemoth in the contemporary bourbon boom, as I said before: Four Roses has come a long way. In surveying where they stand now, it seems apt for us to consider their standard expression.
What was once affectionately known as Four Roses Yellow Label has ditched the yellow, opting for a tan display to create uniformity in the labeling across their portfolio. Known simply as Four Roses Bourbon, today’s expression is aged a minimum of five years and contains a blend of all 10 recipes that Four Roses the brand is famous for.
Bottled at 80 proof (40% ABV) and well regarded as a bang for your buck bottom shelf bourbon ($20 MSRP) I’m anxious to see if Four Roses’ revived reputation is well earned. Previously, Taylor reviewed some of Four Roses’ top shelf offerings as well as a few of those highly sought-after single barrel variants, but – without further ado – let’s get our hands dirty by examining the root of it all! (See what I did there?)
Four Roses Bourbon – Review
Color: One part: water, two parts: honey. Swirl until consistent.
On the nose: A drop of honey over mint gum and dried strawberries greet the nose as we immediately begin what will soon be a trend: sweet, subtle, and inoffensive notes. In due time there’s the prominent aroma of freshly baked cornbread and – surprise, surprise – roses! With repeat swirls the aforementioned mint gum becomes more akin to classic rye spice, and it’s joined by the distant scent of tropical fruit and graham cracker plus the faint savoriness of bacon fat. All in all, it’s a sweet albeit muted medley that indicates youth without being off-putting because of it.
In the mouth: While the nose was restrained but rife with potential, the first sip is surprisingly thin. The initial impression on the palate – besides how lean it is – is the white sugar and dilute corn pudding notes found on the tip of the tongue. Washed-out butterscotch follows up on the midpalate before the slight mint/rye spice from the nose finds the back of the palate. The finish performs admirably for the proof and in spite of the general leanness of the flavors and mouthfeel, though it’s still short and a little lacking in presence. Yet I have to say this is… fine? It’s well-rounded for such a pared down production. It doesn’t offend, sure, but it makes a slight improvement on merely being forgettable thanks to its high rye content which grips the finish and does just enough to balance the white sugar and grain-forward flavors.
It’s clear to see why this is an expression that enthusiasts enjoy chilled in the summer months while undergoing arduous tasks like mowing the lawn or making their way through all six Rocky films (and two Creed continuations). It’s easy to drink and it’s well served by how light and balanced it is, making it an ideal “background bourbon” for when you’re distracted or have more pressing matters than what’s in your glass to concern yourself with. This is a bourbon that isn’t particularly superior in any one category, nor is it noticeably superior to any others in its price range, but it is most certainly superior to its former self. A low bar, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean that in the right setting this rose won’t rise to the occasion. With regard to its rock bottom pricing, I’m inclined to award it an extra point.