“A flower was offered to me, such a flower as May never bore…” – William Blake
After my recent review of Four Roses’ flagship offering, the colloquially known “Yellow Label” expression, I was graciously offered an opportunity to stop and smell (and taste) the subject of today’s review: Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon.
Initially launched back in 2006, Four Roses Small Batch is beloved among the cocktail crowd for being an ideal mixing whiskey. It’s a role the bourbon is well suited for in that it has a good bit of age (six to seven years, per their website), a respectable 90 proof which holds up well when diluted, and a wallet-friendly price point at $30. However, despite its stellar reputation as one of the best bourbons under $30, it has only been written about here on Malt as part of a side-by-side comparison with its sibling the Small Batch Select a few years back.
Because of this, and thanks to my pleasurable experience with their base offering, I’m happy to give Four Roses Small Batch my undivided attention today. Immediately we should make mention of the fact that this is not just “Yellow Label” at a higher proof. Instead, Four Roses Small Batch is a mingling of four of the brand’s 10 bourbon recipes (OBSK, OESK, OBSO, and OESO), which they note is an equal balance of their “E” and “B” mash bills while also being an equal balance of their “K” and “O” yeast strands. As a result this should produce a more focused flavor profile, and one that is a slight departure from typical Four Roses bourbon.
Before we go any further, let’s have a quick aside to remark on the fact that this is purportedly a blend of about 250 barrels. Whatever prohibitive ideas might be cast by the term “small batch” can quickly be dispensed with, as it’s not a legally defined term. Due to this, a “small batch” can theoretically consist of thousands of barrels. This is not to disparage either Four Roses or the industry-wide use of the term, but I do believe it’s worth noting that it’s a meaningless phrase primarily used to indicate that a whiskey is the result of a blend as opposed to a single barrel. Because Four Roses has a massive inventory to select from, mingling this expression from a large selection of barrels enables them to ensure a consistent product from batch to voluminous batch.
Now, when it comes to my personal experience with this expression, I have to say that it’s sadly limited. Because I enjoy the comparative price of Yellow Label and seldom find myself mixing cocktails at home, this is a bottle I tend to overlook despite all the high praise it receives. Additionally, with Four Roses Small Batch Select and Four Roses Single Barrel aimed more at whiskey enthusiasts (and perhaps tellingly, being double the cost) I’ve enjoyed those expressions more regularly than today’s subject as well.
So have I been turning a blind eye to the sweetest of Four Roses’ four core expressions? Let’s go over a few of the remaining details and find out. As aforementioned, this is a blend of four proprietary recipes consisting of two mash bills in undisclosed proportions: a 75% corn, 20% rye, 5% malted barley recipe and a 60% corn, 35% rye, 5% malted barley recipe. Again, the proof is 90 (45% ABV) and the cost at retail is $30. Lastly, I’d like to say that this bottle was provided to me at no cost, though that will have no effect on my review and I will be scoring it as though I paid the full retail price.
Four Roses Small Batch – Review
Color: Pale gold with a touch of orange.
On the nose: A beautiful ballroom of enticing aromas pirouetting in pairs, I’m picking up anise spice and apricot, butterscotch and potting soil, white pepper and blood orange. Once the initial wave of scents calm down there are finally some notes of black tea, peppermint, and a touch of cornbread with butter on top. All in all it’s a darker and heartier nose than Four Roses’ entry-level expression.
In the mouth: The taste of candy cane is prominent along with the butterscotch and apricot from the nose. Again echoing the nose, blood orange is found on the back palate along with the distinct taste of cinnamon bark. As I intuited from the aromas, the taste is more savory than Yellow Label and also more full of spice (namely nutmeg, black pepper, and the anise from the nose.) The texture is robust and creamy but I feel it’s a bit overwhelming in concert with the spice kick which, for me, throws the balance off a bit despite presenting some genuinely enjoyable flavors. Additionally, though the flavors are pleasant they seem to be a bit muddled with nothing really taking the lead and all of them bleeding into one another rather than melding harmoniously. Finally, the spice notes persist on the finish which dries the palate a bit (though not overwhelmingly so) and encourages repeat sips.
Overall I’m a bit let down because of the simple fact that I’ve surprisingly fallen in love with Four Roses Yellow Label, a bourbon that I formerly found too watered down and dull to merit my attention. Despite my initial excitement at trying Four Roses Small Batch, it is a distinctly different experience from its more easygoing and affordable sibling.
Though I’m fond of the flavors in Four Roses Small Batch, I find that they’re a bit disjointed leaving a bit to be desired. While the nose casts intrigue and does a fine job of displaying some of the signature notes Four Roses is known for (particularly the mint-like rye spice) I think the end result is less of a step up from their base offering and more of a step in several directions at once. The price is a winner and the quality is just fine, but this feels like a whiskey more intent on being a mixer than a stand-alone sipping bourbon. In that capacity it can be used as a fulcrum to fuse together disparate flavors, and I have little doubt this bottle will excel in that role.