Editor’s Note: Alan Mitnick is our guest blogger today with his Four Roses Single Barrel review. As with our other Help Wanted applicants we ask that you share your thoughts on his post in the comments as well as online where you can find Alan at @AlanMitnick.
Author’s Note: This review was written first by hand using my pen whose barrel is made from old oak taken from a refitting of the USS Constitution—“Old Ironsides.” Bourbon barrels, perhaps surprisingly to some, is not the only good use of this mighty wood. I thought this pairing to be appropriate.
In choosing a bourbon to review, I started with my own collection and learned that Pops had reviewed them all; in fact, I think I bought each based on his reviews! Consequently, I hopped in my snow-capped Fusion and five minutes later stood before a newly-expanded selection at a local store. What once was three shelves of mostly big-label names, Maker’s and Beam and Buffalo Trace now includes Elmer T. Lee and I.W. Harper and other brands not so common in northern NJ. Still, Pops’ reviews have been far-reaching, and I was thwarted until I stared at the middle of what is now five shelves and saw the lovely shaped bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon…according to my search, it has not been yet reviewed for Bourbon and Banter, so here we go!
I next realized that I had never tried a Four Roses product although I have long been familiar with the company name. Had something been shying me away from their products? I reflected for a few days and conducted some online research and found the answer: during most of my lifetime, I had never encountered their bourbon. The Four Roses name in my head had been connected with my teenage experiences in the late 70’s and early 80’s drinking the blended whiskeys sold by their then-owner Seagram, a whiskey + neutral grain spirit concoction described by legendary Master Distiller Jim Rutledge as “rotgut.” This is what my parents kept in the bar, coupled usually with ginger ale or 7-Up. I drank it because it was there, because I was not supposed to and because I had not yet tasted anything better. I curse you from my long-passed teenage years, Seagram, for you almost put me off ever trying anything ever again with the Four Roses name.
However, my historical research taught me about how the company was founded in Kentucky in the late 1800’s, how it was the top-selling bourbon and much-loved throughout the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s and that when Seagram (ptuui! We shall speak of their name no longer!) purchased them, they moved all distribution to Europe and Asia, where it became and remains a top bourbon selection. I also learned that if I get the chance to meet Master Distiller Emeritus Rutledge, I will hug him and buy him a drink, for his enduring efforts to bring the real juice back to the US market took him decades, until they were acquired by Kirin. The bottles now facing me at the liquor store were “not my father’s Four Roses.”
A few days later, opening a bottle of their Single Barrel product, I was treated to an afternoon which now supplants many late-adolescent evenings of quickly downing the rotgut pretender to the throne.
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Four Roses Single Barrel Review
Bourbon Name: Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon
Age: While not listed on my bottle, Four Roses’ website states that each barrel selected is between 9 to 11 years.
How I Drank It: I opted for variety—first I went with a Glencairn glass for the nosing and the flavors that one acquires that way, and then I used a standard cocktail glass. Also, I sampled each neat, then with a splash of water and finally on the rocks. This is my SOP, which translates both into a broad range of critical analysis as well as more-quickly depleted bottles…yes, I suffer for the art…
My Nose Noticed: On first opening the bottle, I took that habitual first olfactory hit and was rewarded with a fruity, floral and sugary burst, something quite lacking in my 1970’s unscrewing (!) of bottlecaps. The cork gave off that wonderful collage of scents for the ten minutes I waited before taking my first sip. Yes, I did sniff the cork that long…it was that good. From each glass, I encountered a more paradoxical experience, which I will explain in the Palate category. Here, I will note that with the Glencairn my nose picked up heavy butterscotch and brown sugar qualities while in the open-mouthed cocktail glass what dominated was a fruity, vanilla fragrance.
First Sip: With the Glencairn, the heavy rye content comes through quickly and followed almost as soon by vanilla and then cherry lingering as the slight burn develops. Here is that paradox mentioned above—the palate runs opposite of the nosing; the butterscotch and brown sugar I had caught immediately in aroma were the last to arrive here. The same held true for tasting from the standard cocktail glass—the rye rides in on a sugar cookie dusted with cinnamon, and only toward the end of the finish did I reconnect with the vanilla fruitiness I had first smelled. Mind you, there is not a complaint of any kind in there—I enjoyed every moment with this bourbon, yet I find the seeming contrasts of the nose and the mouth interesting and worth mentioning. With a splash of water, the high-end treble of rye remains tastefully so, but the fruited body of the bourbon was too undermined for my liking. With ice, naturally, a lesser version of this developed as the ice melted, but it sure does taste mighty fine cold! Freezer stones or a steel ball could be the way to go here.
The Finish: The corn, perhaps because of that higher-than-typical rye content, only stepped up on the finish, which is of medium length, with a burn lingering at the tongue’s tip and at the top of the throat. At the very end, I was tasting, with either glass, that sweet cherry and a soft oakiness.
Balance, Body and Feel: No matter which glass, the interplay of brown sugar and fruit and rye delights—for such a high rye juice, the smoothness surprised me in a most—wonderful way (I have always leaned toward soft and smooth wheated bourbons), but the attendant, thinner mouth feel did not. I was not disappointed by it, but it does not coat the tongue as much as the sweetness in the scent and taste would lead one to expect.
As A Cocktail: Hell, I do like my cocktails, and I will weather the disdain of friends and often use high-quality bourbons where lesser ones often are chosen by others for mixed drinks. My philosophy is that quality layered upon quality builds a sum greater than its parts, and that compromise anywhere along the way builds, well….compromise. I did not settle on my career (I’m an English Professor), I did not settle on my woman (she’s hot and smart) and I damn well will not settle on one of my life’s finer pleasures. I do not choose bottom-shelf bourbons…ever. A cocktail is not the time for settling; no, it is a time for celebrating, and here I took this king of a bourbon and crafted a drink worthy of it, my go-to: a maple/bourbon smash. I have always used wheaters with this drink or Elijah Craig 12 and believed this the way to go, but the simple syrup and maple augment the sweetness lost by the melting ice, and the rye marries perfectly with the maple and orange juice.
Share With: I would share this with guests or at a restaurant table with friends and associates. I picked up this bottle for $40, and in the bourbon world, I consider a drink with this royal pedigree and deliciousness to be a bargain and a bottle that friends deserve to try. It is more than worth the price of admission.
Bottle, Bar, or Bust: My decree: there is and always shall be a bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel in my home, though never one full nor there for long. Its “crown” shall pass from generation to generation, and the awards that it has won since its return to the USA and its easy ability to remove the taste of its old imposter to the title from my memory earn it back its throne. It has even changed my travel plans; in April, a friend and I will travel to Kentucky to tour the Trail. The FR’s mission-style distillery now tops our list of must-see places. A fun little trip has taken on the feeling of almost a pilgrimage, to go and have an audience with the King. A bit over the top? Sure. Why not? Bourbon drinking should be a time well spent, special and a “royal good time”!